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India: Absence of compassion & justice must not be the norm

AHRC-STM-005-2014
January 6, 2014

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

India: Absence of compassion & justice must not be the norm on Punjab

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from Punjab concerning the protest by fasting held by Mr. Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa, who ended his fast after 43 days, on 29 December 2013. Khalsa had commenced his protest at the Amb Singh Gurdwara on 14 November to secure the release of all Sikh prisoners that have completed the terms of their sentences. He ended his hunger fast upon the release, on parole, of three prisoners, convicted for the Beant Singh assassination case.

Both the Sikh separatist movement and its crushing by the government has resulted in violence and human rights abuses since the 1980s. Khalsa’s stand is indicative of a large section of the Sikh community that wants persons serving prolonged sentences to be released. The convictions in many of these cases should be viewed in light of the violence and injustice the state has witnessed. It is widely understood that in many cases evidence was planted and prefabricated against the accused. Furthermore, many state officers and politicians who committed gross and disproportionate human rights abuses against the Sikhs in the 1980’s have been rewarded for their crimes and have never been brought to justice.

Khalsa began his fast demanding the release of six prisoners from his community, detained in Chandigarh, Punjab, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. Of the six, three prisoners are convicted for the assassination of former Chief Minister of Punjab, Mr. Beant Singh. The other three were convicted after being charged under a draconian legislation, once in force in Punjab, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987.

The prisoners are: (i) Mr. Gurmeet Singh, (ii) Mr. Shamsher Singh, and (iii) Lakhwinder Singh (in Burrail Jail since 1995); (iv) Mr. Lal Singh (arrested in 1992, released on parole for six weeks on December 20), (v) Waryam Singh (arrested in 1990, now in Bans Bareilly Jail); and (vi) Mr. Gurdeep Singh Khaira (in Gulbarg Jail, Karnataka, since 1990).

The Punjab insurgency, and its suppression, left a heavy trail of blood and human rights abuses, committed by both state and non-state actors. Neither the civil society groups nor the government has an exact number of civilians disappeared, tortured, and murdered during the years of insurgency in Punjab. Unverified reports suggest that the number of disappearances and extrajudicial executions, committed by militant groups as well as state agencies, amount to more than 10,000, spanning a 12 year period starting from early 1980s.

The violence was uncontrollable in Punjab, since militants abducted and executed persons they chose as targets, and planned and executed bomb attacks upon politicians and state functionaries. The state responded with disproportionate violence, with bloody and violent crackdowns, and wanton violation of law, with civilians often caught in between. Operation Blue Star, viewed by many as an affront to Sikh religion, further added fuel to violence.

State operations to counter militancy in Punjab were undertaken in an atmosphere of complete impunity. Abduction, torture, extrajudicial executions, rape, and fabrication of charges were the norm. State agencies arrested innocent civilians on fabricated charges and had false evidences against them planted. The judiciary violated norms during trials. Many trials were held in secrecy. The state police liberally violated the law with impunity; midnight search of residences were carried out that ended in widespread rape, torture, and terror.

The extent of impunity was such that following Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots, police were empowered to detain suspects for any reason, ostensibly as suspected militants. Police were accused of killing unarmed suspects in staged shootouts and burning thousands of dead bodies to cover up the murders. The National Human Rights Commission has compiled a list of persons cremated in Amritsar, Majitha, and Tarn Taran between June 1984 to December 1994. The Commission documented cases of 2,097 dead bodies that the Punjab Police “disposed off” by burning without following any forensic procedures. Families were either afraid to claim their relatives' bodies fearing further action against the rest of the family members by the state, or because they did not know when and where their relatives were murdered by the state agencies.

The trial of many accused now serving sentences took place in this backdrop of state-sponsored violence against armed militancy in Punjab. While it is a practice in India that persons serving long periods of sentences are released either on parole or their sentences commuted by the state after a reasonable period of imprisonment, most of those convicted on charges of militancy stemming out of the Punjab insurgency have been denied such leniency. On the other hand, state officers who have committed gross and disproportionate human rights abuses have never investigated or tried for the equally gruesome crimes they committed.

Politicians, including the incumbent Prime Minister, have expressed regret about the manner in which militancy in Punjab was handled and the extent of human suffering left in its wake. Yet, the remorse is so far limited to expression of personal sentiments and opinions and has not taken the shape of any state-sponsored initiative to find a meaningful closure for the open wounds that exist today within the Sikh community.

It is imperative – especially since the government has repeatedly asserted that the conflict in Punjab is over – that a process is instituted that will allow revisiting cases where allegations questioning the veracity and genuineness of the evidence relied upon to convict persons exist. It is equally important that crimes committed by state agencies be investigated, particularly those committed by officers of the Punjab Police.

This is bare minimum expected from a democratic government, one that has a constitutional mandate to account for the lives lost and reported missing after a 10-year-long insurgency and its suppression. It is equally important for the state to account for its actions so that state agencies engaged in counter insurgency activities in India in the future will not emulate the evil lessons that the state's suppression of secessionist activities in Punjab scripted.

ENDS

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