New evidence reveals 8,257 “disappearances” across Punjab from the 1980s to 1995, the group Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project and leading human rights defenders from Punjab and India announced last week. The significant news about “thousands of previously unknown, unclaimed, unidentified mass cremations” sheds new light on Punjab’s deadliest era since its Partition between India and Pakistan 70 years ago. The conflict in Indian Punjab, which peaked between 1984 and 1994, claimed anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000 lives.
Indian Punjab is the only place in the world where Sikhs are not a minority community. Sikhs — often visually identified by flowing hair, beards, and turbans — constitute the world’s fifth largest faith tradition. By 1984, Sikhs, once lionized in Indian history, found themselves both antagonized and demonized. Through failed talks, demands for greater autonomy, the Indian Army’s assault on dozens of Punjab’s religious sites, an armed militancy, and vicious counterinsurgency, views on Punjab’s conflict became communalized, racialized, and entrenched.
The new evidence has a deep context and urgent import. The last time such a discovery was publicized, heavy prices were paid, with low returns for victims’ families. This new revelation gives the government an opportunity for a do-over; it should provide a new ray of hope.
The regular police practice of secretly cremating victims of torture and killings became indisputable in 1995. What families of the “disappeared” in Punjab had known since the 1980s was proven in black and white: photocopied crematoria registers spoke of widespread police cover-ups. But justice continued to elude the victims’ families even in the small fraction of cases that were documented.
One of these cases, championed by a tenacious father who died in 2016 at the age of 101, is currently making its sluggish way through the Punjab High Court. It carries the weighty potential to become the very first to ascribe criminal liability for mass secret cremations. Meanwhile, this new documented set of 8,257 cases sordidly reiterates the frequency of extrajudicial killings and secret cremations. It thus throws another challenge, as well as opportunity, for the government to take appropriate steps in restoring rights and shaking the norm of impunity in India’s “disturbed areas.”
Regularized Violent Profiteering
Chaman Lal, a Punjabi Hindu, was born and brought up in what became Pakistan during the bloodbath of 1947, when Lal lost over 30 members of his family. In 1993 he would lose another.
“Crossing the police those days was losing all your money or losing your life. We didn’t have the money.” Lal’s eyes blazed from his bony face as he spoke.
Lal’s son, Gulshan Kumar, was 20 years old in May 1993. As he hawked vegetables door-to-door through the tight lanes of Tarn Taaran city, Gulshan witnessed a local man harassing young schoolgirls.
“Gulshan told him to stop … He was furious, he threatened that the DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] is a friend … he could have Gulshan put away forever in a terrorism case,” Lal said.
That was a believable threat in 1993. Punjab was still under the Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers Act affording extraordinary extralegal protections to men in uniform, while the Terrorist and Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act afforded little protection to the accused. An alphabet soup of laws had normalized prolonged detentions and expedient disposals.
On the night of June 22, 1993, policemen descended on Lal’s home. They beat all the men in the family. “As neighbors gathered,” remembered Lal, “the police began loudly shouting about some stolen goods.”
“Did they find something? No stolen goods of course! But they stole three of our gold rings, one watch, and Rs 475.”
Lal and his sons were taken to the police station; intervention by a group of locals eventually led to the release of all but Gulshan.
“I had seen so much brutality in there,” Lal recounted. He lifted his arms to the sky. “Young girls, Punjab’s daughters, hung naked, and humiliated in these so-called jails. Strung up, by their arms, in so much pain and shame in front of their husbands and brothers!”
Lal visited senior police officials to negotiate the Rs 200,000 demanded for Gulshan’s release: an astronomical amount for this family even now, much more then.
“There was no Sikh terrorism here. There was no Hindu terrorism. This was state terrorism …” according to Lal. “Police and politicians filling personal coffers.”
On July 22, when Lal went to the police station with food for Gulshan, a policeman told him he should go to the hospital instead. There he learned the terrible truth: his son was dead.
“The doctor who did the postmortem, she even recognized my Gulshan. He used to sell vegetables to her,” Lal remembered.
“I followed the policemen to the cremation ground… I saw them light up a pile of four bodies.”
As Lal stared at smoldering skeletons, the policemen threatened, “If you tell anyone, we are going to slap a terrorism case on you too.”
The next day, newspapers published an “encounter” story in which a Jarnail Singh and three unidentified militants were reportedly killed by the police. Lal saw Gulshan’s body in the accompanying photograph.
Lal appealed to the police that his son’s murder be recorded as a civilian killing. He was threatened with the same fate as Gulshan’s. About nine weeks later, Lal’s wife died of a heart attack. Lal became a single father with six children’s safety to consider.
Elsewhere in Punjab, other families were on their own quests for justice. In 1994, petrified visitors shuffled into the home of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a local human rights defender.
“Piara Singh’s family came to tell us that he had been captured by the police… but was later reported to have been killed in a police encounter,” remembered Khalra’s wife, Paramjit.
The same sequence replayed ominously in “encounter” stories: abducted men had sprung on hapless police parties who were forced to kill them in gun battles.
Through rumors, Piara Singh’s family had heard about Durgiana Mandir cremation ground.
“Jaswant Singh, with his usual composure, made his way there,” said Paramjit. “He asked the attendant if one Piara Singh’s body had been brought.
“‘Oh, every day they are bringing eight-ten bodies…’ [the attendant answered]
“He [Khalra] asked how he would know if Piara Singh was there rather than thrown down a river,” another well-known method of human disposals in Punjab.
The answer changed everything: “‘O, there is a register to check that.’”
Paramjit lifted her right hand, fingers clenching an invisible pencil. “A. Clerical. Mistake.”
“They would have left little trace of their massive crimes, were it not for the entries the municipal workers had to make in crematoria registers, documenting the purchase of the firewood for the pyres. These entries noted name, village, familial background, even ostensible cause of death at times … and then, with all that information, at the end: Laawaris.” Unclaimed.
Laawaris pyres burnt aplenty; the first registers Khalra saw documented over 300 cremations from just 1992 alone.
The rumoring wind carried Khalra and colleagues to other crematoria in the district.
“They engaged attendants in banter, getting them the usual chaa–paani, and as they were busy eating, the team photocopied all the records,” Paramjit recounted.
They created a list from three crematoria and knew it must be publicized soon. The wind was unpredictable.
After releasing a press note on January 16, 1995, Khalra and colleagues filed a writ in the High Court. A lightning quick dismissal followed, stating the writ was “vague” and petitioners lacked legal standing.
Meanwhile, KPS Gill, director general of police, stormed into Amritsar to hold a press conference.
“Jaswant Singh had thrown down a challenge,” said Paramjit. “KPS came to Amritsar to rubbish the claims, saying, oh, these supposedly dead boys are in foreign countries, earning dollars, while the poor police get accused!”
“Even on killing me, they can’t now conceal the truth: Khalra,” read the headlines in Punjabi papers on February 28, 1995. Khalra had disclosed the death threats he had received: “Where we have disappeared 25,000, what is 25,000 plus one?”
“This press note was his will, and farewell note,” Paramjit said, eyes gleaming.
Khalra became a growing name in human rights circles and he was invited abroad to provide evidence of the murders. He presented estimates: 25,000 illegally cremated; 6,000 from Amritsar district alone. His documentation exposed an ecosystem of impunity and contextualized the individual asylum cases that had created the Sikh diaspora population in the West since 1984.
Political asylum was offered, but Khalra refused. Protection for his family was offered; Khalra considered and declined. Relocation was deliberated, but rejected to show solidarity with the victims’ families. Khalra came back to his Amritsar home in summer 1995, and began sleeping on a make-shift bed by the front door — telling his wife this was so anyone who came for him had no need to enter his family’s bedrooms. He was eventually abducted in broad daylight from outside his home, while washing his car, on September 6, 1995.
1996 opened with Paramjit and a team of Khalra’s friends and Punjab’s human rights defenders redoubling efforts just to make the courts respond. Khalra was still not back home. The discovered cremation lists were where he had left them, but many undiscovered lists had likely been destroyed.
The small but tenacious group, backed by international attention, lugged Khalra’s case forward, and tied to it the weighty Punjab mass cremation case.
By the summer of 1996, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) named nine officers responsible for Khalra’s abduction. In the mass cremations case, in December 1996, the Supreme Court quoted the CBI’s final report confirming 2,097 illegal cremations in three crematoria in the one district of Amritsar.
Meanwhile, police leader Gill responded to the growing pressure of unidentified bodies with alternating theories: “Many actually belong to the scores of out-of-state terrorist victims”; “Many of them were Bangladeshis [trying to cross the border]”; or they were “Terrorists that we did not return to their families because of the ban we had imposed then on bhog ceremonies” (an admission of police forbidding last rites for alleged militants).
1996, it would turn out, would be the high point in the cremations investigation; the tip of the iceberg was gradually scorched away in the following decade.
In 2005, the trial court convicted six of seven accused in the Khalra case. This came a decade after Khalra’s disappearance and not before a suspicious suicide by the policemen’s immediate superior; intimidation and false charges against Paramjit; death threats and spurious legal cases against key witnesses; and denial of command responsibility.
In 2011, the five life sentences were confirmed by the Supreme Court of India.
In April 2012, the Punjab mass cremations case was declared resolved. Nominal monetary compensation was ordered in just over 1,500 cases. There were no criminal convictions for the thousands to whom Khalra had married his own fate. Despite national and international attention to Khalra’s campaign, the Supreme Court chose to extricate itself from the question of who was responsible for sentencing thousands of (mostly) men to unclaimed pyres.
On May 26, 2017, newspapers across India reported the natural death of KPS Gill, recounting his common monikers of “Supercop” and “Lion of Punjab,” even as non-mainstream sources noted his notoriety as the “Butcher of Punjab” and a tool of state oppression.
Amnesty by Another Name
Chaman Lal’s son Gulshan Kumar had appeared on Khalra’s crematoria list. Lal stepped forward to identify himself as a witness and the CBI recorded his statement in 1996. This made Gulshan’s case one of only three dozen from the Khalra list that the CBI chose to criminally investigate.
In 1999, the CBI validated Lal’s account, concluding five policemen were prima facie guilty of abduction and extra-judicial killing. The defense soon filed a petition rejecting the CBI findings and requesting dismissal of the case for lack of proper sanction: permission required before a government employee can be tried for an alleged offense committed during the discharge of official duty.
When the lower courts rejected the sanction excuse and convicted the accused officers, the defendants approached the Supreme Court of India. In 2001, the Supreme Court put a stay on the case, citing the sanction question.
It seemed clear that abduction, extortion, elimination, and secret cremation were not official police duties, and thus prosecuting these acts would not require sanction. But in an affidavit, the Central Government encouraged the courts to grant blanket amnesty for these officers for the sake of “morale,” keeping in mind anti-militancy operations in other parts of the country.
Through cycles of deaths, retirements, reappointments, the stay remained.
On April 25, 2016, a Supreme Court panel unexpectedly lifted the stay. While the Court’s decision came with no written note, much less inquiry or indication of remorse about multi-year delay, it clearly held that “occasion or opportunity” provided by uniform is not enough to warrant immunity. The Court ordered that trial should proceed in Gulshan Kumar’s case, and the 35 other cremation cases.
July 2, 2016 was set as the trial date to restart the case Chaman Lal had pursued since 1993. On June 30, 2016, Lal breathed his last.
Breaking the Rule of Exceptions
The trial resumed, with Gulshan’s brother continuing the family’s fight. One defendant was excused, due to ill health. Another was dead. Court dates came and went. Summons for plaintiff’s witnesses were returned; two were deceased, one could not be found, another had moved house over eight years ago. Defendant Officer Dilbagh Singh asked to continue trial till the end of the year, so he might attend training for his induction into the coveted Indian Police Services. The Judge refused to continue beyond October 15, 2016.
Frustrated by a trial judge adamant on proceeding, police lawyers approached the High Court. The sanction seesaw tilted. The Punjab High Court stayed the trial — now 23 years after Gulshan’s abduction — yet again. Hearings are pending, as of this writing.
The case pursued by Lal has the potential to become the first where those responsible for secret cremations could be held guilty. The Courts should now follow clear legal precedence. Instead of repeatedly entertaining the same procedural arguments by the police and state, the Courts should finally fast-track decades-old cases of impunity: just this week a 100-year-old mother died waiting for a legal judgment in a 1994 triple murder case where the prime accused S.S. Saini is a former director general of police.
Lal’s is one of the only three dozen cases from the Khalra list of thousands to ever be examined for criminal liability. The thousands of others remain murders without murderers.
The 8,257 new cases deepen this stain. But they also carry a new window of opportunity for redressing some of the past wrongs.
What Punjab’s survivors are striving for today echo demands heard throughout the world’s conflict areas. There is no magic switch to flip between conflict and peace, as illustrated by seminal transitional justice contexts such as Brazil or Guatemala or South Africa. But following acknowledgment — still a far cry for Punjab — various justice mechanisms should finally lift the shroud of impunity and enable people to live with their complex lives, on their own terms. This is not too tall an order, not for a democracy.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia. She has a JD from the UC Berkeley School of Law, where she is a Lecturer, and an MPP from Harvard Kennedy School of Government.