Punjab needs a Truth Commission: Satnam Singh Bains on new evidence of enforced disappearances

26 April 2019

Satnam Singh Bains is a barrister in the United Kingdom and a human-rights activist working as part of the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project. The PDAP is a civil society group that was formed in 2008 to uncover and document human-rights abuses committed by the police and security forces in Punjab, during the 1980s and 1990s. As the Khalistani movement for a separate homeland for Sikhs gained traction, these decades witnessed the rise of insurgency and violence. In response, the state carried out several counter-insurgency operations leading to massive human-rights violations. The true extent of this violence is slowly surfacing in the public domain.

A new documentary film, Punjab Disappeared, throws light on the groundbreaking work of the PDAP in investigating the enforced disappearances of thousands of Punjabis during counter-insurgency operations between 1983 and 1995. The film also looks at extra-judicial killings and mass cremations in the state during the conflict. It presents new evidence of previously unknown killings, cremations and disappearances. The 70-minute film premieres on 26 April at 5:30 pm at the Jawahar Bhawan in New Delhi.

In an interview over email, Praveen Donthi, a staff writer at The Caravan, spoke to Bains about the PDAP’s work, the significance of the new evidence discovered and the possible avenues for justice. “The evidence and documentation give renewed hope to victims and their families,”Bains said. “It allows hundreds of victims to be properly identified, and paves the way for rehabilitation, and criminal prosecution of the guilty.”

Praveen Donthi: The Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project has found new evidence on enforced disappearances in Punjab. The trailer of the documentary film Punjab Disappeared mentions previously undiscovered killings and cremations. What is the new evidence?
Satnam Singh Bains: PDAP has investigated 8,257 cases of enforced disappearances and illegal cremations. During these investigations, we uncovered verifiable evidence of mass killings and illegal cremations of thousands of people abducted or detained by the security forces during the militancy period. We undertook investigations from records in 32 municipal committees and corporations in Punjab, as well as 52 cremation grounds, which reveal that at least 6,224 corpses were cremated as “unclaimed” and/or “unidentified” in 15 of the total 22 districts in Punjab. Although many of the records from that period are incomplete, we could match these records with details of missing persons.

The PDAP also collated credible and verifiable official data including 2,300 first information reports of alleged encounters, which contained a range of corroborative evidence including the identity of victims who were cremated as unidentified. However, we believe that the cremations we investigated may represent only 30 percent of the actual number of total killings in those districts, as we do not have a complete set of data for any one district. There are seven districts for which we have not been able to access records.

Praveen Donthi is the deputy political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Punjab counterinsurgency insurgency enforced disappearances Extra judicial killings