Totalitarian State Terror in Punjab during the 1980s

Balram Jhakhar, a colleague of P.V. Narsimharao, said that

" To preserve the unity of India, if we have to eradicate 2-kror [ 20 millions ] Sikhs, we will do so",
Dr Awatar Singh Sekhon and Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer,
`Khalistan: The Struggle To Regain Lost Sovereignty',
The Sikh Educational Trust, Box 60246, University of Alberta Postal Outlet, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2S5, Canada

This statement by a prominent Brahminist official in the Government of Bharat sums up the Brahmanist attitude towards the Sikhs, and indeed towards all `nastiks' (non-Vedists) in general. Let us recall the treatment meted out to the `nastik' Sikhs in the 1980s.


Asian Age, Mon., 31 January, 2000

State terror that executed Punjab

By Patwant Singh

As the Constitution faces the prospect of further changes, it would be of interest to recall the damage previous amendments did to the lives of hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Indians. Especially in Punjab, Kashmir and Northeast India where indiscriminate violence against people was given constitutional sanction by Parliament. Despite their efforts to obscure facts with fiction, and make heroes out of criminals in uniform, successive governments in New Delhi could not hide the most debased excesses by the state against its citizens.

Punjab bore the brunt of the Union government’s capricious amendments of several statutes and acts relating to criminal justice in the Eighties which were then incorporated in the Ninth Schedule. It was done to make them immune from challenge on the grounds of violating Articles 14 and 19 which guarantee the fundamental rights of citizens. This sleight of hand gave police officers absolute powers to conduct a vicious war of attrition against innocent men, women and children. The police methods were no less vicious than other bloodlettings in recent history. Milan Kundera, in his Book of Laughter and

Forgetting, shows how memory becomes a casualty in the cover-ups which follow vengeful acts. "The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh; the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende; the Cambodian massacre made people for- get Sinai; and so on and so forth, until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." Who, indeed, now remembers that from the end of the Eighties till 1995, Punjab saw its police forces exterminate, torture, secretly cremate, rape, imprison without trial tens of thousands of people in the name of end "militancy." Statesmanlike methods to solve political problems were abandoned in favour of amending the law to facilitate arbitrary police methods and extra-judicial killings; the amendments of the Eighties leading directly to subsequent police brutalities in Punjab. In all 30 Punjab-related acts and amendments were enacted between 1983 and 1989 providing the police with pretexts to arrest, detain without trial, torture and kill persons. The 59th Constitutional Amendment (later repealed) of March 30, 1988, authorised the suspension of the fundamental right to life and liberty! The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (Tada) is still used to detain people all over India. Another excessive piece of legislation, the Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers Act, 1983, gave officers the right in disturbed areas (which Punjab and Kashmir were duly declared) to destroy shelters from which armed attacks are likely to be made and arrest without warrant a person on suspicion that he is about to commit an offense!

Many more such devices helped to obstruct justice, not facilitate it. To understand through specific cases how these affected the fundamental rights of Punjab’s people — especially Sikhs — the source to turn to is the just released Enforced Disappearances, Arbitrary Executions and Secret Cremations: Victim Testimony and India’s Human Rights Obligations. This Interim Report, issued by the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab and written by Ram Narayan Kumar and two associates, reveals the degree to which the government, public and a fawning media make these crimes possible. And laud officially sanctioned criminality. It discloses that after the Congress Party’s victory in Punjab in February 1992, the Beant Singh government decided to silence human rights groups before dealing with militancy. In consequence Ram Singh Biling, a newspaper reporter and secretary of the Punjab Human Rights Organisation "was picked up and unceremoniously executed." Then Justice Ajit Singh Bains, chairman of PHRO and retired judge of the High Court was illegally arrested, handcuffed and humiliated in April 1992. The 70-year old heart patient, admired for his integrity and independence, was held without trial for weeks, and only released after the Bar Association of India at the urging of Fali Nariman, the Bar Association of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists protested his arrest. Jagwinder Singh human rights lawyer was picked up on September 25, 1992. "Although the chief minister and the chief secretary promised to intervene, Jagwinder Singh never returned."

Jaswant Singh Khalra, active in human rights, had in January 1995 disclosed that the Punjab police were secretly cremating thousands of dead bodies after declaring them unidentified. The police reacted menacingly, especially Ajit Singh Sandhu, Taran Taran’s senior superintendent of police, who warned Khalra that unless he "ceased his involvement in the matter, he would also become an unidentified body." Khalra refused. As general secretary of the Akali Dal’s human rights wing he had influential friends; more importantly he had backbone. On September 6, 1995 armed police commandos took him away from his house in Amritsar and despite the Supreme Court’s intervention, assurances by Punjab’s advocate general, pleas by human rights organisations in India, and outrage by their counterparts abroad, Khalra was never seen again, nor his body recovered. What led to his killing was his press release of January 16, 1995. "The cases of ‘disappeared’ persons have been a source of constant concern for all human rights groups working in Punjab...some families, who cannot bear the uncertainty any more, just want to know if their son, brother, husband or daughter is dead or alive so that they can perform the last religious rites... In Amritsar district, the maximum unclaimed bodies (were) brought to the cremation grounds near the Durgiana Mandir. From 1st June 1984 to the end of 1994 about 2,000 bodies have been cremated as unclaimed..."

The Supreme Court took notice of the Khalra abduction from a telegram sent by Gurcharan Singh Tohra and directed the CBI to investigate the Khalra abduction and also the cremation of "unidentified bodies." The CBI confirmed as fact that more than 2,000 bodies were cremated as unidentified in Taran Taran alone, and further identified about 500 bodies which the Punjab police had cremated as unidentified. The particulars of unidentified bodies cremated all over Punjab are meticulously tabulated in the Interim Report — a direct spin-off of Khalra’s path-breaking work — even giving details of the amounts of firewood and cloth used for shrouds. To read these accounts is to experience the entire gamut of emotions: outrage, sorrow, admiration for human rights activists and dismay that these crimes were provided constitutional legitimacy by our parliamentarians.

Evidence of custodial deaths was destroyed by other means too. "Punjab’s irrigation canals had (also) become the dumping ground for bodies of killed militants and their sympathisers." In March 1992, according to a newspaper report, "the government of Rajasthan had formally complained to Punjab’s chief secretary that these canals were carrying large numbers of dead bodies into the State...that many dead bodies, with hands and feet tied together, were being fished out when water in-flow in canals was stopped for repair works." The report is replete with case histories of police abductions interrogations, deaths in custody, trauma deaths, punitive punishment of whole families, and terrorising of entire villages.

"In one case, the police officer-in-charge of a post at village Bham in Batala subdivision of Gurdaspur district kidnapped two teenage girls Salvinder Kaur and Sarabjit Kaur in front of eyewitnesses in his official jeep. The officer-in-charge of the police station in HarGobindpur denied their custody. Four days later their naked distended bodies were recovered from a nearby canal. Officers of HarGobindpur police-station tried to pressurise the parents to sign a declaration that the bodies were unidentified and unclaimed, and were threatened that they would be eliminated...if they disobeyed."

In the Nineties, police could force a government medical officer to complete a post-mortem "in less than five minutes," though this was difficult if a person wasn’t dead. "On 30 October 1993, a dead body, supposedly that of Sarabjit Singh, was brought to Patti hospital by the officers of Valtoha police station in Amritsar district for post-mortem. The doctor who was to carry out the autopsy discovered that the man who had a bullet injury on his head was still breathing. Thereupon, Valtoha police officers insisted on taking him away. After some time they brought him back, now dead for good, and forced a different doctor to fill-in an autopsy report." The Supreme Court took notice of this case from a newspaper report and directed the CBI to investigate the case, which prima facie found the allegations against the police officers correct. A murder case was registered against the accused police officers and tried by the session judge, Amritsar. One sub-inspector of police was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

How did top police officials view their rampaging force during those years? Julio Ribeiro, former Bombay police commissioner who took over as Punjab’s director general of police in March 1986, claims in his book Bullet for Bullet that despite requests to Punjab human rights activists "to name one ‘innocent person’ whom the police had killed, my challenge had never got a response." In the next paragraph he says "some innocent youths had died because they took fright and ran. The para-military, mistaking them for terrorists, had fired at them," adding philosophically that: "They were the unfortunate vic- tims of a low-cost war, which is how terrorism has been aptly described". He didn’t think much of Justice Bains. "He was a bitter man, and this feature of his personality surfaced very markedly..." He himself sounded bitter at the "warped reasoning...of activists like Bains," and felt the "PHRO particularly Bains, constituted a serious obstacle to more determined police action..."

Though no wordsmith, Ribeiro manages to reveal his second-hand colonial mindset through his views on Punjab. "I came from another part of the country, with a different culture and different attitudes...this was tribal territory, with tribal customs and propensities." As for condoning extra-judicial killings his officers seemed to favour: "Who was I to pass judgment on them (his officers)? I realised that I had not contradicted them when they were making their submissions. My silence could be construed as assent though I was too much of a coward to agree with them openly." His chapters on Punjab are full of such nuggets.

K.P.S. Gill, who succeeded Ribeiro on November 19, 1991, soon made his disdain for humanitarian principles, clear. During his four years in office till December 31, 1995, the state which once revelled in the joie de vivre of its people, became a fetid place — dark and brooding like the man who seemed bent on casting it in his own image. He wanted the job badly according to Ribeiro. "Gill was angling to replace me...he had convinced the governor and the leaders in Delhi that I did not understand the Sikhs and that I was not capable of the harder line of action that was required to put down the terrorists." What Gill did bring to Punjab was not a hard line, but state terror, whose executioners were answerable only to him. He deflected the government’s and the media’s gaze from them whenever necessary. The latter was easy. He had his acolytes in the media: some were in thrall of the raw power he exercised, others by their proximity to him, still others were elated by the occasional ride in his plane.

The report shows through carefully researched case histories how police repression and violations of human rights reached their zenith under him. His aversion to human rights activists — who had highlighted his trigger-happy ways — is understandable. It continued till after his retirement. During a press conference on May 24, 1997 Gill was vitriolic towards those who permitted "human rights activists to thrive on India’s soil — those busybodies ‘who will work with any cause that serves their personal ends...’ " For added effect he asked "Parliament to vote for legal amendments needed to protect other courageous officers from the kind of humiliation that apparently drove Sandhu to suicide." The same Sandhu who couldn’t abide Khalra!

Hopefully the committee which government is setting up to suggest new amendments to the Constitution will listen to saner voices. And also note how some previous amendments created a culture of violence and venality. Fortunately, the speech of Ram Jethmalani, Union minister of law and justice delivered on January 13, 2000 in New Delhi, was reassuring. "Once the legislature takes on the power to ignore the fundamental rights chapter by putting it in the Ninth Schedule, you have made fundamental rights a rope of sand. And you have reduced the Republic to nothing. The Republic stands on the sanctity, the dignity, and the right of the individual to hold his own against the powers that be. Take away his fundamental rights and you have denigrated him to the position of a serf, or a slave, and he is no longer a citizen of free India." Patwant Singh is the author of The Sikhs

On October 10, 1947, within less than two months following the transfer of power, the Brahmin-Occupied Government of India issued an order to the Commissioners of Punjab :

Pandit Nehru's Supreme Vedic Philosophy :

"Sikhs are a Lawless People"

Pandit Nehru on Sikhs :

" The Sikhs are a lawless people and a menace to the law abiding Hindus ... The [ Government ] should take strict measures against them."
H.S.Dilgeer and A.S.Sekhon 1992
`The Sikhs' Struggle for Sovereignty: An Historical Perspective'. (Ed) A. T. Kerr. The Sikh Educational Trust, Box 60246, University of Alberta Postal Outlet, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2S5, Canada,
cf. also A.S. Sekhon, `The Khalsa Panth and Granth : Internal and External Threats', The Sword, Spring/Summer 1993, 13 : 6-8.

This is what the order issued by the Brahmin-Occupied Government to the Government of Punjab stated :

" The Sikhs are a lawless people and a menace to the law abiding Hindus of the province. The Deputy Commissioners should take special measures against them."

True to this bigoted attitude, Nehru's very own pure-blooded Brahmin daughter, Indira Gandhi, embarked on a cold-blooded Kautilyan-style extermination campaign against the Sikh people.

Nor were these views restricted to a narrow circle. The extreme left-wing (ie. Kautilyan) Hindu politician Vallabh Bhai Patel, the first Deputy Prime Minister and home minister, as quoted by Vir Savarkar stated publicly that he hated the very physique of a Sikh because of the turban and beard !

Vallabh Bhai Patel said

" I hate the very physique of a Sikh because of the turban and beard. "
Vallabhai Patel, cited by Vir Savarkar in
Dr Awatar Singh Sekhon and Dr Harjinder Singh Dilgeer,
`Khalistan: The Struggle To Regain Lost Sovereignty',
The Sikh Educational Trust, Box 60246, University of Alberta Postal Outlet, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2S5, Canada

-- Karan Singh,
Dalitstan Journal,
Volume 2, Issue 1 (Feb. 2000)

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