Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation

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The conflict from 1984 to 1995 had devastating consequences for the villages and towns of Punjab. Even today, locals are as likely as not to introduce themselves with a photo or faded press clipping that relates to a loved one lost to alleged or proven cases of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, or clandestine cremation. Civil society leaders across the state have been working for justice and the social and economic conditions that might enable a sustainable peace. Their public leadership – either as individuals or through the informal networks they have formed – is both a salve and a source of inspiration and solace for survivors.

The Armed Conflict Resolution and People’s Rights Project is housed at the University of California at Berkeley, within the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the Haas School of Business. This Project concentrates on internal armed conflict and mass social violence, together with issues of prevention, and reparatory and transformative justice. The Project seeks to understand the cultural and legal contexts that lead to such violence, the long-term consequences for its victims, and how they address its effects. Despite the intrinsic political nature of such conflict, the Project does not take a political stance, nor does it attempt to identify political solutions. The Project is currently focused on South Asia, specifically India. Over time, it plans to apply the lessons from India in other countries.

Active cooperation among community leaders and institutions, nonprofits, academics, and policymakers is crucial to conflict transitions and to developing inclusive and equitable parameters for economic, psychosocial, and policy changes. Drawing on in-house capacity at the Center and elsewhere at Berkeley, and among partnering institutions, the Project’s overarching goal is to establish a collaborative and multilateral network of scholars, academic and advocacy institutions, and local civil society partners and victims-survivors, to produce a policy framework and technical protocols or blueprints for accountability.

If a policy and protocol framework were adopted to protect people’s rights consistent with India’s legal and constitutional commitments, it would contribute to justice and stability across India, the world’s largest democracy, and perhaps serve as a model for other countries.

The first protocol is focusing on gendered and sexualized violence. Learning from local civil society leaders from various walks of life, the Project is creating a prototype for the right to remedy, focusing on psychosocial and legal restitution, economic development, and historical dialogue.

Armed Conflict Resolution and People’s Rights Project, University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership-Haas School of Business. Text by Project Co-chairs Angana Chatterji and Shashi Buluswar and Director of Programs Mallika Kaur. Images by Robert Nickelsberg, except where noted.

Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Student-led efforts at Guru Nanak Dev University Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship) offer a space for community building, and welcome young women and men of all backgrounds. In the late 1980s students organized to start the campus Gurdwara. Today it is entirely student-managed and serves meals prepared by students, without charge, to attendees.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Chaman Lal is a 97-year old public leader of Hindu Punjabi descent. Following the death of his son, Gulshan Kumar – a vegetable vendor – while in the custody of the police, who had picked him up three days before his wedding in 1993, Chaman Lal’s quest for justice to clear his son’s name became the primary focus of his life. Gulshan Kumar’s case is pending judgment at the Supreme Court of India. Recently Lal supported a sit-in by some victims of the November 1984 violence who had relocated from Delhi to Punjab, and were protesting their displacement by Punjab’s local leaders from the very lands allocated to them for “riot relief.”
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Baljit Kaur, a distinguished civil society leader of Sikh Punjabi descent, undertook fact-finding work during the conflict. Kaur’s work narrates a complex story of the protracted conflict and of the gendered and sexualized violence that took place in Punjab’s countryside, and has served as the mainstay of numerous reports.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Nonagenarian Justice Ajit Singh Bains is known as the “People’s Judge” for his principled service on a government committee investigating the arrests following Operation Blue Star. Bains, who had retired from a judgeship at the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 1984, was subsequently arrested in 1992 on charges of seditious speech. He spent five months in jail amidst widespread international condemnation and protests by local bar associations in India. His son and human rights lawyer Rajvinder Singh Bains has argued several conflict-related cases, including the case of the human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights defender, uncovered the clandestine and mass cremations that were undertaken in Punjab during the conflict. In the early 1990s, he estimated that more than 25,000 such cremations had taken place across the state. In 1995, following an international trip to create awareness around the issue, Khalra was murdered, as noted in the Summary Judgement in the Khalra Case on November 18, 2005. Paramjit Kaur Khalra, his wife and formerly a librarian, founded the Khalra Mission Organization. In 2013, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation validated 2,097 secret cremations that Mr. Khalra had discovered. The government’s inquiries were limited to three crematoria in Amritsar and bound to the timeframe of 1984-94.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak (Management) Committee Office is located in Teja Singh Samundari Hall, a key landmark in Amritsar. Here, the largest tally of civilian deaths occurred in June 1984, during the army’s operations on the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara, “Golden Temple,” Complex, where this office is situated. Its walls still bear bullet marks from the incident.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Agricultural Fields are a mainstay across Punjab, home to a number of “green revolution” initiatives. Today, within what is widely viewed as a vibrant economy, more than 34 percent of marginal farmers live below the poverty line in Punjab, accounting for 78 percent of famers who have committed suicide in the past decade, creating female-led households and placing an even greater burden on women. Over 200,000 agricultural workers and small farmers gave up farming in Punjab between 1991 and 2005. The conflict magnified existing disputes around land use and ownership, diminishing the ability of marginalized farming families to produce enough to hold onto their land and the security it offers. This, and various other socioeconomic factors, has led to a prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse throughout urban and rural Punjab. Sources reportedly claim that Punjab may be the second highest state with respect to drug abuse in India. More than 5,000 persons reportedly undergo rehabilitation each year for addiction to opium, cocaine, and other drugs.
Image Credit: Mallika Kaur
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Social and personal counter-memory can take the form of a story and circulate across the cultural landscape. In local mythos, for example, some of the marble inlays with red patches located at the center of the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara, “Golden Temple,” Complex in Amritsar are stained with the blood of those who died there in 1984.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Social and personal counter-memory can take the form of a story and circulate across the cultural landscape. In local mythos, for example, some of the marble inlays with red patches located at the center of the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara, “Golden Temple,” Complex in Amritsar are stained with the blood of those who died there in 1984.
Image Credit: Angana Chatterji
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
Sandeep Kaur, a public figure, set up a Charitable Trust in 2002 to shelter homeless children from affected families and provide for their education. She was 12-years-old in 1984. Shortly after, she sought out the company of militants training to combat the army and later spent four years in jail. She witnessed episodes of sexual violence in prison, leading to her resolve to work for the survivors of conflict, especially girls. Eighty homeless children – along with older girls and women – live in the headquarters of the trust in Sultanwind Village, which itself witnessed approximately 50 deaths during the Punjab conflict.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
Punjab: Civil Society and Conflict Transformation
The Nishan Sahib, a Sikh symbolic insignia or flag used all over Punjab, is regularly raised atop Gurdwaras, monuments, and other spaces of significance. During the conflict years, villagers erected Nishan Sahibs in memory of the dead and disappeared. In one village, the Nishan Sahib was bulldozed at one point in time; in another, the orange cloth was stolen. Once erected against odds, today, Nishan Sahibs are preserved by a multitude of villages.
Image Credit: Robert Nickelsberg
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