The families of thousands of civilians “disappeared” during the Indian government’s violent suppression of a campaign for a Sikh homeland more than a decade ago are still waiting for perpetrators of the crimes to be brought to justice, human rights monitors have warned.
In a new report entitled Protecting the Killers, Human Rights Watch says the Indian government needs to “hold accountable members of its security forces who killed and tortured thousands of Sikhs” during counter-insurgency operations in Punjab that ended only in 1995.
By then the unrest, sparked by a call for Khalistan, or a Sikh nation, had lasted more than 10 years. Democracy was suspended as the Indian army occupied the state.
The security forces eventually crushed the Khalistani movement by adopting a “bullet-for-bullet” policy of extra-judicial killings in which more than 40,000 people died. The embers of resentment have not completely burned out: a bomb blast on Sunday in Punjab, which killed seven, was blamed on Sikh separatist groups.One of the key cases highlighted by Human Rights Watch is that of the mass cremation of 2,097 bodies in Amritsar, the Sikh holy city. The country’s human rights commission, civil rights groups say, has for more than a decade failed to investigate a single case of the “mass crematorium” and explicitly refuses to identify any responsible officials.
The scale of the deaths was uncovered by a local civil rights lawyer, Jaswant Singh Kalra, who was later murdered. Five policeman were convicted of abducting and killing Mr Kalra.
His widow, Paramjeet, is still campaigning for the “missing thousands”. “It took a decade for these men to be found guilty,” she said. “What about the thousands of others?”
Rajinder Bains, a civil rights lawyer in Amritsar, estimated that 25,000 people were “still missing”.
“There were 35 police and officials charged but none were prosecuted,” he said. “The charges were set aside by the supreme court on technical grounds. The state has the money and the power to protect its own.”
Human Rights Watch says India is fostering a “culture of impunity” around its counter-insurgency operations, giving a free hand to its security services to act without supervision.
However, senior Indian officials dismissed the report, describing it as “propaganda worthy of Goebbels”. KPS Gill, a former director of police in Punjab during the counter-insurgency, said the New York-based organisation was “ill informed and biased”, asking: “Do these people think about the innocents killed by terrorists?”
Mr Gill, who Human Rights Watch claim has led “the attack against the pursuit of justice”, said the bodies in the crematorium in Amritsar were those of “beggars, vagrants, possibly some Bangladeshi migrants. In India, unclaimed and unidentified bodies found by the police must, by law, be cremated.”