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  Pursuit of truth  
  Justice for Khalra  
   
  On November 4, 2011, when the Supreme Court upheld the life imprisonment awarded to DSP Jaspal Singh and four others for the killing of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, I remembered the late Ram Narayan Kumar, who opened my eyes to the grossest human rights violations that happened in Punjab. I had just joined "The Tribune" in 2003 and one of my colleagues Roopinder Singh wanted me to meet Kumar.

Kumar sported a trimmed beard and wore a safari suit. I was slightly put off by his western accent but he flattered me when he said that he wanted to present his book "Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab" first to "The Tribune". He was deference personified when he stood up and formally presented the book to me.

One cursory look at the book and I was impressed by the kind of labour Kumar and co-authors Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrawaal and Jaskaran Kaur had put into it. He sat down to explain to me the circumstances in which he, an Andhraite, took up the project and brought it to fruition. In the process, he gave me an insight into the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings in Punjab.

In the early nineties when I was posted with the "Hindustan Times" in New Delhi, I happened to write most of the edits on Punjab militancy, though I had no connections with the state whatsoever. From the comforts of the air-conditioned HT House, it was easy for me to defy the dictates of the militants that they should not be referred to as "terrorists". I wonder whether I would have been as brave if I were posted, like my former colleague PPS Gill in, say, Tarn Taran, a byword for terrorism.

I got the first opportunity to visit Punjab when the late Archbishop of Delhi Alan de Lastic asked me and a priest to give him a report on the attack of two Catholic churches, an hour's drive from Chandigarh. We visited the churches and were convinced that it was the handiwork of criminals who were looking for money. They broke open the tabernacle, not because it had the divine presence but because they thought it contained hard cash.

While we could dismiss the incidents as simple cases of theft, unrelated to militancy, we could sense the fear and anxiety that gripped the people of the state. Even the relatively "safe" Chandigarh appeared a ghost city, with people preferring to spend their evenings at home. During that visit, I also heard about policemen killing "suspected militants" in what was known as "fake encounters".

Kumar's book was the most authentic and authoritative work on the subject. It was chilling to read about young men suddenly disappearing without any trace. I decided to review the book myself and when it appeared as the lead review in the Sunday Spectrum of The Tribune on June 1, 2003, it evoked a very good response. I got several letters and phone calls from readers telling me that it marked a departure from The Tribune's policy.

One of them -- a senior manager -- had even told me that, incensed at The Tribune's coverage of the assault on the Golden Temple, euphemistically called Operation Bluestar, a large number of readers had stopped subscribing to the paper. I was, therefore, not surprised when I stumbled across the front-page editorial titled "Massive sabotage" that appeared on April 17, 1984, in which the paper argued: "The people of Punjab are not concerned any more with means and methods. They want to be allowed to live in peace".

It was in this milieu that the Punjab Police began killing "militants" in fake encounters. Those who have read "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen know how the Nazis accomplished their task under conditions of social collusion.

The comparison may be farfetched or even hideous but it cannot be gainsaid that the rampant human rights violations that occurred in Punjab during the days of militancy would not have been possible but for the sanctions they received from influential sections of the society.

Alas, even The Tribune, which derives its name from the Roman-era institution of "Tribune" -- an official who is a "friend of the people" and whose job is to protect the interests of the common people -- became a silent collaborator! Jaswant Singh Khalra was certainly not one among them.

Khalra's grandfather Harnam Singh was a close associate of Gurdit Singh, the founder of a group called "Ghadr" -- meaning revolt -- that aimed to overthrow the British rule in India. Students of history would recall that an assassination attempt was made on Viceroy Hardinge on December 23, 1912. The man who threw an acid bomb at the Viceroy, Har Dayal, was closely linked with Gurdit Singh.

Harnam Singh and Gurdit Singh were among the Sikh immigrants who reached the port of Vancouver in Canada in the ship "Komagata Maru". They were not allowed to land there and were sent back to Calcutta. They later got involved in what is known as the Lahore Conspiracy. Harnam Singh was acquitted in the case and was interned in his own house in Khalra village. He was allowed to marry and thus was Khalra's father Kartar Singh born in 1917.

But before long, Harnam Singh left for Shanghai from where he never returned. He sought to complete his filial duties by occasionally sending money to his family in Khalra village.

In those days, too, Punjab was a hotbed of militancy. However, "the police did not fake encounters; revolutionaries were deported. Even then the question of evidence, as the following letter from John Morley, the Secretary of State for India from 1905 to 1910, shows, was a matter of scrutiny: "Of course, I know that you will take all possible pains not to seize wrong men. Your evidence which is to reach me soon, will be scanned by me with a sharp eye".

Khalra's ancestry can be traced to the days when the first Sikh Guru constructed a shrine in Khalra village in Amritsar district. The original Sikh inhabitants of the village claim their descent from a group of Sandhu Sikhs who, in 1714, had captured the region. They were members of the peasant militia of Banda Singh Bahadur, who irreversibly destroyed the façade of the Mughal Empire, already on the decline.

Khalra's father Kartar Singh was a poor teacher but he commanded respect for his views. Former Vice-President of India Krishna Kant was among those who sought his advice. When Vinoba Bhave visited the area to obtain land for his Bhoodan movement, it was with Kartar Singh that he stayed. All this had an influence on Jaswant Singh, who considered himself a Leftist and aligned with the Nagi Reddy faction of the Communist movement.

Khalra could have chosen to become an administrative officer but politics alone fascinated him. Kartar Singh had a sensible advice for his son: "Jaswant, if you want to become a leader or want to achieve something through politics, you will have to jettison these exotic Communist groups and sneak into the Akali Dal or the Congress Party. Only then you can move forward".

Later, on another occasion, when the father cautioned him further, Jaswant Singh replied: "Does it really matter whether I die on my bed, in an accident or as a martyr of my cause?"

Jaswant Singh Khalra had chosen to become a human rights activist. He began to investigate cases of disappearance of Sikh youths. "He came across cases of suspected Sikh separatists and their sympathisers who were whisked away by unidentified officials of the Indian security agencies, appearing out of the blue, in vehicles without number plates, to be taken to undisclosed places for interrogation and to disappear for ever".

Complaints came from Rajasthan that bodies of slain persons were dumped in the canal. Addressing a Press conference on January 18, 1995, then Punjab DGP K.P.S. Gill claimed that "thousands of Sikh youth who had left for foreign countries under fake names and documents were claiming to be missing persons killed by security forces in encounters". Gill said that, in most cases, these persons were "missing with the consent of their parents and relatives and their whereabouts were known to their families".

Some of these persons, according to Gill, "were shifting from one country to the other by changing their names and addresses". Eight months after Gill made this categorical assertion, on September 6, 1995, around 9.20 a.m. "armed commandos of the Punjab Police kidnapped Jaswant Singh Khalra while he was washing his car, outside his home at 8, Kabir Park, Amritsar. Four of the abductors, who came in a blue-coloured Maruti van, were wearing Punjab Police uniforms and armed with automatic weapons. Rajiv Singh Randhawa, a local journalist and Khalra's friend, was visiting Khalra that morning and witnessed the abduction."

Khalra never returned. Of course, he knew what was in store for him when Ajit Singh Sandhu, then SSP of Ropar district and KPS Gill's sidekick, was transferred back to Tarn Taran. His painstaking documentation of persons who were secretly cremated by the police was creating problems for the police. He was asked to stop his campaign or be prepared to become "an unidentified dead body" himself.

That is what Khalra ultimately became, though the police consistently denied that he was abducted, let alone bumped off. His wife Paramjit Kaur Khalra turned out to be as dogged as her husband in fighting for justice. She moved heaven and earth in pursuit of justice. Finally, Justice Kuldip Singh of the Supreme Court treated a telegram he received at his residence as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

On the court's orders, the CBI submitted an interim report disclosing 984 illegal cremations in Tarn Taran and Amritsar districts between 1984 and 1994. It also submitted a report stating that nine officers of the Punjab police, acting on the orders of SSP Sandhu, were responsible for Khalra's abduction and disappearance. The final report by the CBI "disclosed that 2,097 illegal cremations were carried out by the security agencies in three crematoria of Amritsar district".

To cut the story short, the trial court awarded seven years imprisonment to five police men, including the DSP. Paramjit Kaur sought higher punishment for them in the High Court, which acquitted one and gave life imprisonment to four. It was against this decision that the policemen appealed to the Supreme Court which found all of them guilty and awarded life sentence to all of them.

Paramjit Kaur told Geoff Parish of SBS Television in March 2002: "In court we have to fight and there is so much of harassment. Seven years have passed and we have not gained anything as yet. This won't finish in our lifetime". It took nine more years for justice to be finally done in the case of her husband's illegal killing.

In an interview to Ram Kumar, Khalra's father Kartar Singh compared the working of the police in India before and after 1947 in the following words: "The British were here to rule us. They did that under some rules and norms. After Independence, political power has gradually become bereft of all rules and norms. In the British period, custodial killings, victimisation of family members of political or revolutionary suspects, false prosecution, etc., were unheard of.

"Now what purpose did the abduction and disappearance of Jaswant Singh serve? It was a purely malicious and unreasonable action and all the institutions of the state, by participating in the cover-up, have become personifications of the same maliciousness and unreasonableness".

As we rejoice over the triumph of justice in the case of Khalra, we also have to reconcile to the fact that justice has not been done to the thousands of those whose bodies were consigned to flames in illegal cremations. How happy Ram Kumar would have been over the victory on November 4, had he been alive and not died in Kathmandu on June 29, 2009! He was busy documenting human rights violations in the Northeast when death snatched him away.

As a concept, human rights predate even the United Nations and the Constitution and have its origin in the Scriptures. It is an inalienable right of man, the protection of which is the primary responsibility of the state. Khalra and Kumar have shown by their exemplary life that truth alone can set us free. It is because of their sacrifices that this world is now a better place to live. We need more of them. (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
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The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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