September 1995 witnessed the enforced disappearance and murder of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the champion of Punjab’s “disappeared.” His wife and human rights defender, Paramjit Kaur Khalra, pursued his legal case and the Punjab mass cremations case, which exposed officially sanctioned impunity. The following is an excerpt from the book Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, by Mallika Kaur.
Rumours rustled the wheat fields. [Jaswant’s former colleague] Piara Singh’s family had heard about the Durgiana Mandir cremation ground and thought he may have been taken there. “Jaswant Singh, with his usual composure, made his way out there,” says Paramjit. “He asked the attendant if one Piara Singh’s body had been brought.”
“‘Oh, Sardarji, every day they are bringing eight or ten bodies!’”
“He asked how he would know if Piara Singh was there or whether the body was disposed of down a river or into a ditch?”
“‘Oh, there is a register to check that.’”
Paramjit [Jaswan’s wife] lifts her right hand, fingers clenching an invisible pencil.
“They would have left little trace of their massive crimes, were it not for the entries the municipal workers had to make in crematoria registers, documenting the purchase of the firewood for the pyres. These entries often noted name, village, familial background, even ostensible cause of death. The police were quite open about the details. And then, with all that information, at the end, the depraved label: Laawaris.”
“Unidentified” pyres burnt aplenty; the first registers Jaswant viewed listed over 300 cremations from just the Durgiana Mandir cremation ground in 1992. “Jaswant Singh proceeded with great care. With him was Jaspal Singh Dhillon, the chairman of the Akali Dal, Human Rights Wing. They engaged the crematoria attendants in banter, getting them the usual chaa-paani, and as they were busy eating, the team photocopied all the records of those supposedly missing.” The rumouring wind carried Khalra and Dhillon to other crematoria in their district, where they obtained similar records. By January, they had readied a list of illegal cremations from three crematoria and knew they must publicise it soon.
Now, Jaswant and his colleagues filed a writ in the Punjab & Haryana High Court. Lightning-quick dismissal followed: the Court alleged the writ was “vague” and the petitioners lacked locus standi.
Meanwhile, the director general of police, KPS Gill, stormed into Amritsar to hold an urgent press conference.
“Jaswant Singh had thrown down a challenge.” Paramjit’s eyes flash. “KPS came to Amritsar to try to rubbish the claims, saying, ‘These supposedly dead boys are in foreign countries, smuggled out to earn dollars, while the poor police get charged with supposed disappearances.’”
Through their subsequent investigations, Khalra and Dhillon had estimated 25,000 bodies had been disposed of in crematoria across Punjab.
Attention to the Khalras intensified. Their home phone rang at odd hours. Many times, if Paramjit picked up, it clicked after a few quick obscenities; to Jaswant, detailed threats were conveyed.
[. . .]
As Jaswant’s name grew in human rights circles, and concern for his life also grew, he was invited abroad to provide evidence of the killings in Punjab and to seek refuge. His documentation exposed the ecosystem of impunity and contextualised the many individual asylum claims that had accelerated the Sikh diaspora population to the West since 1984.
[. . .]
[Political] Asylum was offered by Western governments, but Jaswant refused it. Protection for his family was promised, which Jaswant considered and declined. Relocation was deliberated, but rejected. Instead, Jaswant Singh came back to Kabir Park, Amritsar, in the summer of 1995, and began sleeping on the divaan by the front door.
He explained the decision to sleep outside to Paramjit only once. “If they come to get me,” he told her, “I don’t want them to have pretext to come into the bedroom, to you or the children.”
“There were many reasons for them to come for him,” explains [Inderjit Singh] Jaijee. [Including,] the two thousand policemen killed by the police themselves, for not cooperating in terror.”
[. . .]
Jaswant himself “disappeared” from his home – they came in broad daylight, abducting him from the front of his house[.] Paramjit focuses on his life’s work and hers. But she allows herself one personal reflection: “I remember the days I knew poetry by heart...then, life took over.”
[. . .]
Through foggy bifocals, Gurbhej Singh starts telling me about Jaswant, his friend since the early 1970s. Paramjit had mentioned Gurbhej several times. “He would never forget a court date. Through the years, he would just call the day before and say, ‘Okay, I am going, who else is?’”
Gurbhej brushes aside any such praise. “He was my friend. He was brilliant.”
As he fondly remembers the days he met Khalra organising with other young leftists, I cannot help ask him of the now embittered relationship between Punjab’s “leftists” and “Sikhs.”
“Oh, yes, you mean how today “communist,” “leftist” are seen as bad words in Sikh circles, and “religion,” and “Sikh,” seen as an epithet in Punjabi leftist circles? False people with these labels have given these labels false connotations. There is a common agenda: antioppression. Any further philosophy, I never did think about it. Jaswant had it figured out. He thought, he planned, and off we went. Who cares about labels? Not the worker bees.”
With a smile he then asks, “My yaar had gone missing, my friend whom I adored and trusted with my life. How was there even a question whether I would support his case in whatever way possible?”
Paramjit knows this was hardly a given, especially in those days.
[. . .]
“There would be days I would head to Chandigarh in morning, take a train to Delhi, and if I was able to catch a bus, come back home to Amritsar at night. My seventeen-year-old nephew, Ranaa, was my male travel companion. His own education was sacrificed. There is no question about his sacrifice. My kids somehow continued their schooling and were growing up. They understood slowly that Mummy was doing something. That was a difficult time....It passed.”
Part of the difficulty were the men in uniform who kept appearing, asking Paramjit to change her testimony. Then there were the aspersions against Paramjit’s testimony, including the filing of a 1998 police case against her, by the earlier whistleblowing police officer Kuldip Singh, who charged that Paramjit and other Khalra supporters had coerced his statement against the accused [police officers]. Later, Kuldip Singh would testify before the Court about how the accused police officers had made him register this false case after detaining him, visiting his in-laws, offering inducements (including weapons), and threatening him and his wife. The Court would dismiss the case against Paramjit.
In February 2005, Kuldip Singh’s statement was recorded before the CBI Court, Patiala. In March, the Court dismissed Paramjit’s appeal, first filed in January 2000, to summon KPS Gill, implicated directly by Kuldip Singh. In November 2005, a decade after Jaswant’s disappearance, the Court convicted six of the seven junior officers accused, two with life sentences, four with seven-year sentences.
“The web of backstories of all the witnesses shows how even getting this far was remarkable,” explains Rajvinder Bains.
[. . .]
In 2007, the High Court in Chandigarh upheld the sentences of five of the six accused in the Khalra case, increasing all punishments to life terms. The Supreme Court upheld the sentences in 2011.
“If, like the Khalra case, maybe ten to fifteen human rights cases had been fought, this era’s real news would have come out and spread.” Before congratulating herself further, Paramjit stops. “All women I talked to, everyone wanted cases heard. But who was listening? Also, yes, in areas like Amritsar, many people just internalised their men’s deaths as martyrdoms but, where they are more educated, in Hoshiarpur, in Chandigarh, people pursued legal cases too. What did they get for that? Years of insecurity, uncertainty, and then? Likely, acquittals.”
In April 2012, the mass cremations case was declared complete. Compensation was ordered in 1,513 cases: 1,245 of the 2,097 identified by the National Human Rights Commission plus 143 of the remaining identified by its subcommission in 2007, and another 125 by a subsequent and final sub-commission in 2008. There were no criminal convictions for the thousands to whom Jaswant Khalra had married his own fate. They remained murdererless murders.
[. . .]
“Though people know, they have so many everyday problems,” says Paramjit. “The lack of administration. The corruption. Political mafias for drugs. And a police force that has become accustomed to the taste of human blood. Every month or two, again, some big encounter is mentioned in the news and connected somehow to ‘the Sikh movement.’ Meanwhile I meet women survivors of the violence, like old mothers of boys who were killed, doing menial work to earn daily rotis. But, it is the land of Guru-Shaheeds. A miracle could still happen. Till then, we keep living our lives the best we can.”
“This is perhaps all to be expected. What else happens to a population after such conflict? This was no neat closure. In many ways, it was just the beginning.”
Excerpted with permission from Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, Mallika Kaur, Palgrave Macmillan.
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