HC petition demands enquiry into 6,733 disappearances, illegal cremations in Punjab

23 July 2021
A woman holds a photograph of her deceased husband, Kuljit Singh Dhatt, in Hoshiarpur’s Ambala Jattan village in Punjab on 27 February 2014. Dhatt had been an elected town official when he was killed in 1989 by local police in retaliation for his objection to the torture and murder of Sikh youths at the hands of the same police.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images
A woman holds a photograph of her deceased husband, Kuljit Singh Dhatt, in Hoshiarpur’s Ambala Jattan village in Punjab on 27 February 2014. Dhatt had been an elected town official when he was killed in 1989 by local police in retaliation for his objection to the torture and murder of Sikh youths at the hands of the same police.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The events of 31 October 1992 changed the course of Jaswinder Singh’s life. He was then a twelfth-standard student in Punjab’s Amritsar district. Jaswinder told me his parents, paternal grandparents and his maternal grandfather, Sulakhan Singh, a freedom fighter in his eighties, were at home that day. At around 5 pm, he said, a police party from the Sirhali Police Station knocked on their door and informed them that the station-house officer, Surinderpal Singh, had summoned his father, Sukhdev Singh Sandhu, a vice principal at a government school. “Since my paternal grandfather, Ujagar Singh, was a retired police inspector himself, he questioned the basis of this. The policemen replied that it was for routine questioning,” Jaswinder told me. “My maternal grandfather, Sulakhan Singh, came forward and introduced himself. The police party took away both my father and maternal grandfather in front of everybody.”

Jaswinder told me the family later found out that Sulakhan and Sukhdev had been tortured and killed. “We never saw them again,” he said. Sukhwant Kaur, his mother, confirmed the chronology of the events of that day to me. Sarabjeet Singh Verka, the family’s lawyer in the case, told me that the bodies of Sulakhan and Sukhdev were not handed to the family but thrown in a canal instead. Verka said, “There are thousands of such cases in which youths were picked and eliminated and their bodies were disappeared and not handed over to the families. Even death certificates were not issued in these cases. What a mockery of justice.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Punjab saw heavy-handed counter-insurgency operations. This, by many accounts, included the disappearances of thousands of people. In 2008, a civil-society organisation called Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project undertook an exercise to document the disappearances and made a report titled, “Identifying the Unidentified.” Based on the report, the PDAP and nine individuals filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in November 2019. The petition said that Punjab saw 6,733 cases of disappearances, extrajudicial killings and cremations that were done illegally in the 1980s and 1990s. According to the petition, eight of the petitioners are also family members of the victims. “The petition represents the largest ever missing person enquiry ever litigated before any court in India,” they stated.

On 19 April 2021, the Chandigarh Police lodged a first-information report against Satnam Singh Bains, a United Kingdom-based lawyer who spearheads the PDAP. As I reported in May, the FIR against Satnam indicated a clampdown against the PDAP and the petitioners.

According to the petitioners, the data they collected demonstrated that the Punjab Police and security forces were responsible for many enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Punjab. In the petition, they explained how different data sets made them reach this conclusion. For instance, they said documents from municipalities and police records showed that the police cremated many victims illegally—in secret, by willfully giving them inaccurate labels of “lawaris” and “anpachati,” or unclaimed and unidentified, and not handing over the bodies to their families. The petitioners demanded independent investigations into these cases, a diligent prosecution of the culprits and appropriate reparations for the victims’ families.

The human-rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra was the first to document such cases—he collected evidence of over 2,000 illegal cremations in three crematoria in three police districts and disclosed his findings in a press note on 16 January 1995. Later that year, Punjab Police abducted and killed him.

More than ten years later, around five people from the PDAP’s team began a similar documentation process. The petitioners said that they travelled to over 3,500 houses in 1,600 villages across Punjab and collected data from hundreds of FIRs from 26 districts and subdistricts. They collated witness testimonies, post-mortem records and FIRs, among other records, and scanned newspapers—such as Ajit, Jagbani and The Tribune—to trace reports of encounters. The petitioners mentioned that the documents they used for their work included receipts of the firewood purchased, expense registers, applications by police officers requesting cremations, zimni or police-diary reports, and other records from 27 municipal cremation grounds.

Data that the petition mentioned about the bodies cremated with labels of “unclaimed” and “unidentified” in almost 20 districts and subdistricts was telling. They wrote they procured this data via applications under the Right to Information Act of 2005 and directly from the relevant municipal committees. The PDAP’s petition said that documents showed that “dead bodies were neither taken to hospital nor transferred to any mortuary.”

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project Punjab police
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