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.

PD: Who were involved in these enforced disappearances and how were they facilitated?
SSB: There was a huge army deployment but it was mostly done by the Punjab Police supported by the CRPF [the Central Reserve Police Force] and sometimes the BSF [the Border Security Force] on the border areas. It was done as part of various counter insurgency operations: Operation Blue Star, Operation Woodrose, Operation Rakshak I and II, Operation Night Dominance, et cetera, between 1983 and 1995. Punjab had its own version of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act called the Punjab Disturbed Areas Act, 1983—and other acts such as TADA and POTA [the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and The Prevention of Terrorism Act] gave wide powers to the security forces to act with immunity and impunity. The enforced disappearances peaked from 1991 onwards and had stopped after the disappearance of the human-rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, in 1995.

PD: What is the significance of this new evidence? Would you be approaching courts again for justice with this evidence?
SSB: The evidence and documentation give renewed hope to victims and their families. Firstly, it allows hundreds of victims to be properly identified, and paves the way for rehabilitation, and criminal prosecution of the guilty. The NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] and Supreme Court, in a limited enquiry, has previously identified 1,527 cases out of 2,067 cases in the district of Amritsar, which [the] murdered human-rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra identified. Our work now identifies and expands on the numbers of secret cremations across 14 of Punjab’s 22 districts.

PD: What was the methodology followed? Your work is a continuation of Jaswant Singh Khalra's effort. Did you modify your approach?
SSB: Essentially, yes, but we have also obtained ancillary evidence beyond cremation records. You have to remember during Khalra’s time, there was no RTI [the Right to Information Act]. Khalra’s work was groundbreaking—the modern-day equivalent of WikiLeaks. He harnessed information—mainly the firewood receipts from the local municipal committee, which paid for the firewood for these unidentified cremations—to show a pattern of mass state atrocities. We learnt that detailed records can never just disappear as too much depends on them, not just entries of unidentified cremations, but detailed logs of all other expenditures of a local body.

PD: Are there any similarities in patterns with the counter-insurgency measures undertaken in other states such as Kashmir?
SSB: There are clear parallels that where you have mass killings, it inevitably follows that the bodies have to be disposed of en masse—you have the phenomena of mass graves in Kashmir. In other areas, such as Manipur, we have seen more brazen killings and little attempts to hide the bodies, as can be seen in the Manipur litigation of 1,528 cases [of alleged extra-judicial killings pending] in the Supreme Court. All this occurred when the Punjab Disturbed Areas Act and the Punjab Armed Forces Special Powers Act, were in force, which demonstrates that when you suspend citizens’ basic constitutional rights and safeguards, such killings will happen with impunity.

PD: Did you collect the evidence from all districts of Punjab or just the worst affected areas?
SSB: Fourteen of 22 districts represent two-thirds of Punjab. Even within these areas, there is still massive under-documentation. While the killings were concentrated in the Majha region of Punjab, they took place in every single district. Even then, with the passage of time and transient population-shifts, the work is never complete. We have also recorded cases of Punjab Police personnel travelling to Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Mumbai to carry out encounter killings, which is why we are pushing for a Supreme Court-appointed Missing Persons Commission in Punjab to identify the unidentified and for the victims to be given rehabilitation. We hope that filing of the case will give victims, whom we have not yet reached, the courage to come forward.

PD: Could you tell us about the most shocking of all cases, as a way to understand the nature of violence.
SSB: There are hundreds of examples, one particularly chilling case is of a drunk SHO [station house officer] who was ordered by an SSP [senior superintendent of police] to encounter a number of people in police custody, two of whom were alleged militants and three—in the same lock up—were pick pockets, who were petty criminals. The SHO was worried that he had forgotten to ask the SSP in his drunk state exactly which of the detainees were to be shot and “encountered.” To avoid the wrath of his senior he ordered the killing of all five, including the pickpockets. The next day, it was reported that five people had been killed in an encounter. In another case, a young male by the name of Balwinder Singh was dragged off a bus while seated with his mother, as the police were looking for a militant by the same name. Three persons were “encountered” that evening, including this boy. The next day, the police party made the mother of the boy make them tea while they apologised that they had “encountered” the wrong Balwinder Singh. The mother asked if they have caught the correct Balwinder Singh, why they had killed her son. They did not reply. The officers were later promoted. The trial is pending for the last 22 years.

PD: What are the challenges you faced while looking for evidence? Was there any resistance from the authorities? What about the victim families?
SSB: We have been very transparent with the work we have done, and we have the solidarity of larger human-rights organisations in Punjab. The biggest obstacle is getting complete data and the challenge is to find as many victim families as possible.

PD: How are the after effects of this violence felt in current-day Punjab and its politics?
SSB: After 1995, the issue of governance and policing hasn’t been put under the microscope. The roots of the Punjab drugs problem, the nexus between unbridled and unchecked power of state institutions, including the police—this is why Punjab needs a Truth Commission, as a meaningful way forward to tackle the issues of police reform, respect for human rights and accountability for these terrible events.

PD: Did the BJP government coming to power in 2014 help the cause of justice? Is there any difference between the Congress and the BJP on this?
SSB: There have been two decades of all three major political parties in Punjab in power—none have addressed this issue. Unlike various compensation schemes and rehabilitation for 1984 widows and those affected by militancy violence, the disappeared in Punjab have not even been recognised as victims. Our latest effort is for the parents, brothers, sister, wives and children of the disappeared to re-appear and be recognised as victims and survivors of mass state atrocities, and their two-decade long struggle for justice to come to fruition.

This interview has been edited and condensed.