Skip to main content

The story of history's losers is usually buried under layers of dirt, shovelled courtesy of the winners. At the bottom of these layers are individuals who opposed those in power. Lying next to them are people aligned with or sympathetic to the losers.

Since the middle of the 20th century, social archaeologists have identified many losers by another name: "human rights" victims, eliminated by governments or their armed opponents. The nomenclature of human rights has had a salutary impact. It has posthumously turned forgotten or even scorned "losers" into individuals with flesh and bone and thoughts worthy of remembrance.

Perversely, rights-abusing governments sometimes benefit from the accretion of victims. In the rush to protect today's (and tomorrow's) victims, yesterday's are often de-prioritised, forgotten, even cast aside.

This is now the plight of India's Sikhs. In the early Eighties, armed separatist groups demanded an independent state of Khalistan. To destroy the movement, security forces were given a free hand, leading to the worst kinds of abuse. India, grappling with new battles in Kashmir and the Northeast and coping with religious conflict leading to the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 and the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, has largely forgotten the crimes in Punjab. Each of these problems has piled a new layer of dirt on the long-standing and still simmering problem of the Sikhs.

The Punjab violence peaked in June 1984 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian Army and paramilitary forces into the most sacred of Sikh sites, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Huddled with hundreds of Sikh militants were thousands of civilians, many of them pilgrims who thought they were safe in a place considered an unthinkable target. A brutal battle left nearly a hundred Indian security personnel dead. Independent estimates suggest that thousands, mostly civilians, perished. Some were reportedly found with their hands bound and bullets in their heads. The attack on the Golden Temple soon cost Indira Gandhi her life. On October 31, 1984, she was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Blaming all Sikhs instead of the individuals who pulled the triggers, members of Gandhi's Congress party organised pogroms against Sikhs in Delhi. In a rebuke to the party's spiritual founder, Mahatma Gandhi, thousands were killed. Children were found beheaded. Seven government-appointed commissions have investigated these attacks, but all have either coated the layers of dirt with whitewash or been met with official stonewalling and obstruction.

Victim groups, lawyers, and activists have long alleged state complicity in the violence. For three days the police failed to act as gangs carrying weapons and kerosene roamed the streets, exhorting non-Sikhs to kill Sikhs and loot and burn their properties. Reacting to the assassination, Mrs Gandhi's son, Rajiv, however, appeared to bless the ensuing pogrom, saying, "When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake."

For the next 10 years, politically active Sikhs in Punjab, and those who stood up for victims and their families, were targeted for murder, disappearance, and arrest by Indian security forces. Violence and intimidation have continued at a lower level since, but a recent visit to Amritsar made it clear just how widespread the fear and anguish continue to be. Many Sikhs there continue to talk of fear of the police and security forces and of receiving threats, often speaking in the low voices of human rights victims in too many parts of the world.

Improbable and courageous leaders have emerged, such as Mrs Paramjit Kaur Khalra, whose husband, Jaswant Singh Khalra, exposed the secret and illegal cremation of thousands of bodies in Punjab officially labelled as "unidentified or unclaimed." The killers certainly knew their identities; they were "unclaimed" because their bodies were cremated before family members ever knew they were missing. Yet, about 65 per cent of the persons illegally killed and cremated by the Punjab police have yet to be formally "identified." So widespread was the practice that Jaswant Singh Khalra uncovered it by tracking the purchases of wood (he learned that it takes 300 kilograms to burn a single body) by the security services. He found that in just three crematoria in Amritsar district one of the 13 districts in Punjab thousands of unidentified people had been illegally cremated.

What Jaswant Singh Khalra learned cost him his life. In September 1995 he was abducted in broad daylight in front of his house and later killed. His killers have been identified but have not been prosecuted. Impunity reigns over the Punjab, to the point that former Punjab police chief K.P.S. Gill has had the temerity to publicly demand that laws be passed to grant immunity of police officers or their crimes in recognition of their "service to the state."

For progress to be made, Congress will have to stop just pointing fingers at the BJP for its stoking of communal violence and deal with the skeletons in its own closet. Most of the killing and disappearances took place under Mrs Gandhi and successor Congress governments. Some of those allegedly responsible for the violence in Delhi in 1984 were elected to Parliament in May's elections. Some are now ministers.

But groups like the Association of Families of the Disappeared in Punjab, the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab, the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (publisher of the seminal Reduced to Ashes, The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab,, and ENSAAF (, which just released Twenty Years of Impunity: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India, have refused to allow the issue to be buried. It is largely due to their efforts that recently the National Human Rights Commission ordered compensation of Rs 2.5 lakhs each for the families of 109 people who were killed in the custody of Punjab Police between 1984 and 1994. This could be the beginning of a proper accounting, although the families consider this too little, too late, and the state has made no admission of responsibility.

Justice will have failed unless the officials involved in such violations are vigorously and transparently prosecuted in a clear message that India does not tolerate human rights violations or excuse it because the perpetrators claim to be patriotic enough to break the law for national security.

The best and only way for Congress to overcome its record of human rights abuses in Punjab and Delhi is to embrace the rule of law as the vehicle for accountability and reconciliation. But a genuine reconciliation requires a willingness to admit errors and rectify them. Only a conscious exercise of political will on the part of the new government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — seemingly a serious and principled politician — can bring about justice for the Sikhs. Otherwise, discussions about the carnage in Gujarat and the need to take action against BJP leaders risk being seen as a partisan ploy, divorced from a genuine commitment to the rule of law and the imperative of re-establishing the secular credentials of the state. And it is worth contemplating the possibility that success in Punjab may open new windows for peace and reconciliation in other areas of conflict still visible in the dirt, such as Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland.

Brad Adams is Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country