India’s National Human Rights Commission must fulfill its mandate to investigate forced disappearances in Punjab, Human Rights Watch said this week. Six years ago, the Indian Supreme Court directed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate 2,097 cases of illegal cremation in Punjab’s Amritsar district. The NHRC has yet to hear testimony in a single case.

Human Rights Watch commended the Committee for Coordination of Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP), a Punjab-based human rights organization, for its 634-page report documenting 672 of the “disappearance” cases currently pending before the NHRC. The first volume of the report, titled Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab, is based on six years of research and was released in the United States on Wednesday. “Ending state impunity for abuses in Punjab must become a priority,” said Smita Narula, senior researcher for South Asia at Human Rights Watch. “The National Human Rights Commission has shown great courage and leadership with its work on the 2002 massacres in Gujarat. We hope it will do the same in Punjab.”

“The CCDP report demonstrates that investigations into the abuses is possible, if the political will exists to hold the perpetrators responsible.”
During the 1980s, Punjab experienced a long insurgency marked by routine battles between insurgents and state forces. Although the insurgency appeared to pit Sikhs in particular against the Indian state, it was significantly a struggle to address issues of water rights, cultural rights, local control over agricultural production and prices, and redress for human rights abuses. A violent battle at Amritsar's famed Golden Temple ended with the deaths of important insurgents, and was followed by a long crackdown by the state, during the course of which state administrators and police officials were regularly accused of human rights violations.

Between 1984 and 1994, thousands of persons “disappeared” and were believed illegally cremated in Punjab as part of a brutal police crackdown to quash insurgency in the state. Police counter-insurgency efforts included torture, forced disappearances, and a bounty system of cash rewards for the summary execution of suspected Sikh militants. The campaign succeeded in eliminating most of the major militant groups, and by early 1993, the government claimed that normalcy had returned to the state. Police abuses continued, however, and there was no effort to account for hundreds of forced disappearances and summary killings. No one has been successfully prosecuted by the state.

In 1994, in response to reports of mass disappearances orchestrated by the police, Jaswant S. Khalra, Chairman of the Human Rights Wing of the Akali Dal, and Jaspal S. Dhillon, then General Secretary of the Wing, investigated illegal cremations conducted by the Punjab Police between 1984 and 1994 in three crematoria in Amritsar district. A few months after Khalra and Dhillon publicized their findings, Khalra filed a writ petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court to investigate these mass cremations. The High Court dismissed his petition on grounds of vagueness, and Khalra moved the Supreme Court.

While the case was pending before the Supreme Court, the police abducted Khalra from outside his house. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) ultimately charged nine police officers for his abduction, and the case against these police officers is now proceeding in the Patiala CBI Court. The Supreme Court also ordered the NHRC to investigate these mass cremations and determine relevant issues, such as compensation.

“Thousands of family members still await justice,” said Narula. “The CCDP report demonstrates that investigations into the abuses is possible, if the political will exists to hold the perpetrators responsible.