(Delhi) - The Indian government must take concrete steps to hold accountable members of its security forces who killed, “disappeared,” and tortured thousands of Sikhs during its counterinsurgency campaign in the Punjab, Human Rights Watch and Ensaaf said in a new report released today.
In order to end the institutional defects that foster impunity in Punjab and elsewhere in the country, the government should take new legal and practical steps, including the establishment of a commission of inquiry, a special prosecutor’s office, and an extensive reparations program.
The 123-page report, "Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India," examines the challenges faced by victims and their relatives in pursuing legal avenues for accountability for the human rights abuses perpetrated during the government’s counterinsurgency campaign. The report describes the impunity enjoyed by officials responsible for violations and the near total failure of India’s judicial and state institutions, from the National Human Rights Commission to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to provide justice for victims’ families.
Beginning in the 1980s, Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks upon Hindu minorities in the state, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places. In its counterinsurgency operations in Punjab from 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces committed serious human rights abuses against tens of thousands of Sikhs. None of the key architects of this counterinsurgency strategy who bear substantial responsibility for these atrocities have been brought to justice.
“Impunity in India has been rampant in Punjab, where security forces committed large-scale human rights violations without any accountability,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No one disputes that the militants were guilty of numerous human rights abuses, but the government should have acted within the law instead of sanctioning the killing, ‘disappearance,’ and torture of individuals accused of supporting the militants.”
A key case discussed in detail in the report is the Punjab “mass cremations case,” in which the security services are implicated in thousands of killings and secret cremations throughout Punjab to hide the evidence of wrongdoing. The case is currently before the National Human Rights Commission, a body specially empowered by the Supreme Court to address this case. However, the commission has narrowed its efforts to merely establishing the identity of the individuals who were secretly cremated in three crematoria in just one district of Punjab. It has rejected cases from other districts and has ignored the intentional violations of human rights perpetrated by India’s security forces. For more than a decade, the commission has failed to independently investigate a single case and explicitly refuses to identify any responsible officials.
“The National Human Rights Commission has inexplicably failed in its duties to investigate and establish exactly what happened in Punjab,” said Adams. “We still hold out hope that it will change course and bring justice to victims and their families.”
The report discusses the case of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a leading human rights defender in Punjab who was abducted and then murdered in October 1995 by government officials after being held in illegal detention for almost two months. Despite credible eyewitness testimony that police chief KPS Gill was directly involved in interrogating Khalra in illegal detention just days prior to Khalra’s murder, the Central Bureau of Investigation has thus far refused to investigate or prosecute Gill. In September 2006, Khalra’s widow, Paramjit Kaur, filed a petition in the Punjab & Haryana High Court calling on the CBI to take action against Gill. More than a year later, she is still waiting for a hearing on the merits.
“Delivering justice in Punjab could set precedents throughout India for the redress of mass state crimes and superior responsibility,” said Jaskaran Kaur, co-director of Ensaaf. “Indians and the rest of the world are watching to see if the current Indian government can muster the political will to do the right thing. It if fails, then the only conclusion that can be reached is that the state’s institutions cannot or will not take on the security establishment. This has grave implications for Indian democracy.”
Victims and their families seeking justice face severe challenges, including prolonged trials, biased prosecutors, an unresponsive judiciary, police intimidation and harassment of witnesses, and the failure to charge senior government officials despite evidence of their role in the abuses.
Tarlochan Singh described the hurdles he has faced in his now 18-year struggle before Indian courts for justice for the killing of his son, Kulwinder Singh:
"I used to receive threatening phone calls. The caller would say that they had killed thousands of boys and thrown them into canals, and they would also do that to Kulwinder Singh’s wife, kid, or me and my wife...
"The trial has been proceeding ... with very little evidence being recorded at each hearing, and with two to three months between hearings. During this time, key witnesses have died."
After Mohinder Singh’s son Jugraj Singh was killed in an alleged faked armed encounter between security forces and separatists in January 1995, he pursued numerous avenues of justice. He brought his case before the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the CBI Special Court, but no police officer was charged. A CBI investigation found that Jugraj Singh had been killed and cremated by the police. However, 11 years and a few inquiry reports later, the CBI court ended Mohinder Singh’s pursuit for accountability by dismissing his case in 2006. Mohinder Singh describes his interactions with the CBI:
“On one occasion when [the officer] from the CBI came to my house, he told me that I wasn’t going to get anything out of this. Not justice and not even compensation. He further said that: ‘I see you running around pursuing your case. But you shouldn’t get into a confrontation with the police. You have to live here and they can pick you up at any time.’ He was indirectly threatening me.”
Human Rights Watch and Ensaaf expressed concern that the Indian government continues to cite the counterinsurgency operations in Punjab as a model for preserving national integrity.
“The government’s illegal and inhuman policies in the name of security have allowed a culture of impunity to prevail that has brutalized its police and security forces,” said Kaur.
The report suggests a comprehensive framework to address the institutionalized impunity that has prevented accountability in Punjab. The detailed recommendations include establishing a commission of inquiry, a special prosecutor’s office, and an extensive reparations program.
“The Indian government needs to send a clear message to its security services, courts, prosecutors, and civil servants that it neither tolerates nor condones gross human rights violations under any circumstances,” said Adams. “This requires a comprehensive and credible process of accountability that delivers truth, justice, and reparations to its victims, who demand nothing more than their rights guaranteed by India’s constitution and international law.”