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.”
The petition said that the number of cremations peaked between 1991–1993 “at the height of a brutal counter insurgency operation ‘Operation Rakshak.’” By 1995, “the militant movement had been crushed and … numbers of unidentified cremations reduced considerably proving that these cremations are linked with disappearances.” For instance, according to the petition, records showed that 1,105 people were cremated as unclaimed and unidentified in Jalandhar district between 1984 and 1995—the cremations witnessed a 90 percent reduction in 1995. It mentioned that dates of cremations correspond with other data, such as dates of abductions, in several cases.
The petition mentioned that 64 people were cremated with labels of “unclaimed” and “unidentified” in Pathankot in 1989–1993; 65 in Dasuya in 1989–1993; 55 in Nangal in 1985 and 1995; 29 in Anandpur Sahib in 1991–1995; 15 in Sultanpur Lodhi in 1987–1992; 87 in Muktsar Sahib in 1989–1994; 93 in Jagraon in 1985–1995; 240 in Sangrur in 1985–1995; 114 in Kapurthala in January 1988–September 1992; 139 in Zira subdistrict in 1990–1993; 196 in Mansa in 1986–1996; and 83 were cremated under the jurisdiction of the Gurdaspur Municipal Corporation in 1991–1994.
The data provided insights about not just the scale of the cremations but also how they were carried out. For instance, the petitioners wrote that 469 cremations of unidentified and unclaimed bodies took place under the jurisdiction of the municipal corporation of Batala, a small tehsil in Gurdaspur district, between 1989 and 1994. They said these cases “were completely unknown” earlier. “Some of the RTI records show multiple claims for firewood … for cremations of 2, 3, 4 or more bodies together. A number of bodies have been cremated in a single pyre,” the petition mentioned.
The petition listed some examples to demonstrate why the labels of unclaimed and unidentified were inaccurate. Referring to the data collated from Batala, the petitioners wrote, “In some entries of the expenses register, the name of the victim is actually given but the RTI has wrongly recorded these as being unclaimed and unidentified.” The petition also gave the example from Gurdaspur City. The records from the city “show serial and entry wise names, father names and addresses of some victims yet, the bodies were still not handed over to the next of kin,” the petition said. “No religious rites could ever take place as the police conducted all cremations themselves.”
The labels of unidentified and unclaimed were only given due to “a deliberate policy to conceal the unlawful practice performed by the Punjab police,” the petitioners wrote. “The identities of these missing persons are well known to the accused and are being deliberately withheld from the families for the past two decades.”
It is pertinent to note that not all districts shared data with the petitioners. For instance, the petitioners wrote that in the town of Phagwara, authorities said that records from 1988 to 1992 had been destroyed as they were “very old.” The authorities, however, did disclose that nine unclaimed and unidentified bodies were cremated on 24 September 1993.
At least one municipal corporation had deliberately concealed its cremation records, according to the petitioners. They wrote that the Municipal Corporation of Ropar did not respond to their RTI requesting information on the total unclaimed and unidentified bodies cremated between 1986 and 1995. The petitioners mentioned that they had filed another application to the corporation but did not get a response. However, in February 2019, a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation convicted three policemen for killing two men in a stage-managed encounter in Ropar in 1993 in a case titled CBI vs Jaspal Singh and others. The police had cremated the men by labelling them “unidentified.” According to the petitioners, the Ropar cremation ground record had been submitted in the case and this demonstrated that the information was available.
The police and security forces appeared to flout procedures regarding cremations and post-mortems of unidentified and unclaimed bodies that are stated in the Punjab Police Rules of 1934 and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the petitioners claimed. The petitioners said that their findings showed “a brazen, wide scale, systematic use of a completely illegal, unconstitutional and arbitrary procedure that denied the kin, and loved ones the right to perform the last religious [rites] or to even see the dead body.”
A number of FIRs from 1986 and 1995, accessed through RTIs, showed the “modus operandi of those conducting the staged killings,” the petitioners wrote. They mentioned that most of the FIRs were registered against unidentified persons who were killed in police muqabalas—encounters. In many cases, the police stated the name of the person killed, their father’s name, address and personal details in the FIRs and other documents “and yet disposed of the body as unidentified/unknown/unclaimed.” The petitioners wrote, “The FIRs themselves are powerfully incriminating evidence of murder, illegality and cover up by the perpetrators carrying out these killings.”
The PDAP’s petition stated that these FIRs had “‘copy paste stories’ of the victims who were abducted and disappeared and murdered in fake encounters.” Even a cursory glance of the FIRs showed that the police presented a “tried and tested fabricated story, without any application of mind.” The petitioners added that cases that the CBI had previously prosecuted demonstrated “how similarly worded FIRs have been judicially proven to be false and resulted in convictions of those carrying out these encounters and extra-judicial killings.”
The petitioners wrote that in essence, “the police officers and the security forces engaged in an encounter with the victims. Police officers are not killed or injured, and neither are their vehicles damaged in any way.” According to the petitioners, the cases show that the police prepared false documents including, inquest reports, arrest memos, disclosure memos and personal search memos. They wrote that they had around 1,200 FIRs of alleged encounters that claimed that detainees had either been killed in “cross-firing” or “escaped.”
In some cases, the petitioners wrote, the FIRs have stated in “strikingly similar terms” that the police party was patrolling when they saw some unknown people, who, upon seeing the police began firing on them for 25 minutes to two hours. “After the firing stops the police ‘finds’ the dead bodies of unknown people along [with] exaggerated accounts of huge recoveries of weapons and ammunition,” the petitioners mentioned. “The police officers never raided the house of the killed militants or [conducted] raids or combing operations after the incident.”
The petitioners wrote that in another scenario described in the FIRs, a detainee would be arrested with arms and give a confession in custody. According to the petitioners, the FIRs mentioned that the police would then take the detainee to recover weapons from a hidden cache and on reaching, an unidentified person would start firing upon the police party. The police would take position and return fire for 25 minutes to two hours. The petitioners wrote that the FIRs mentioned that after the firing, the police would find the detainee—who was handcuffed and in police custody with armed escorts—“inexplicably dead in a pool of blood along with the heavy velocity weapons, ammunition and explosives in some cases.” The petitioners added, “The police party is never injured (even the handcuffing officers) even though the detainee is in their custody and is shot dead.”
The petitioners wrote that the overwhelming majority of the affected people are “the villagers who are poor and illiterate.” The petitioners also described the trauma that the victims’ families faced. They said many of the families still do not know if their kin are dead or alive. “Parents had lost their young sons, daughters … their children were abducted, tortured and killed in front of them,” the petitioners wrote. “Parents went into the state of shock and were unsound for years and also were in a fear of getting remaining family killed by the accused after seeing such incidents. The accused Punjab Police officers commonly threatened families of the victims.” According to the petition, the security forces participated in this for “reward and out-of-turn promotions.”
The petition said that one of the hurdles that the PDAP encountered during the documentation process was that families of the victims were scared of Punjab Police and security forces, even though years had passed since the disappearances. The petitioners wrote that several high-profile disappearances of those who pursued human-rights cases—including the advocates Sukhwinder Bhatti and Kulwant Singh, and the journalist Ram Singh Billing—increased this fear.
“The forcible abduction of family members was a common method applied in majority of the cases to coerce the family to hand over the person they suspected,” the petition said. “With no other option, the family under the pressure and fear of the Punjab Police would hand over the person to the police in the hope that the police will release him after questioning. These people were never seen again.” Rajvinder Singh Bains, one of the lawyers for the petitioners, said that “crimes such as enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings when carried out in such large numbers are legally defined as ‘crimes against humanity.’”
The state has not even acknowledged many of these crimes, which have gravely affected the victims’ families, according to the petition. Many municipal corporations have denied death certificates to family members because they do not have proof of deaths, the petitioners mentioned. This has led to issues in accessing pension, inheritance and government subsidies. According to the petitioners, an investigation into their findings—which span several districts of Punjab—“would reveal the identities of thousands of these unidentified persons and thereby bring some closure and hope of justice to these grieving families.”
Two women, whose family members disappeared, told me that they have lived without such closure. Kulwinder Kaur Tuggalwal, an elderly woman who hails from Pathankot, told me that security forces picked up her husband, Paramjeet Singh Pamma alias Baba Nand, in front of her eyes. Kulwinder said she married Paramjeet in 1985. “He was a Punjab police official before that. But being a baptised Sikh and despite being faithful to his duty, he was always looked upon with suspicion and targeted in his own department and thus left his job,” she said. Kulwinder said the police often raided their house. “Both of us were returning from Pathankot to Tugalwal”—in Gurdaspur—in a train on 7 April 1991,” Kulwinder told me. “First, the police and CRPF came for checking and went away. Then, the moment the train stopped at Gurdaspur railway station, my husband was arrested by the CRPF and Punjab Police, at 6 am or so. They had gheraoed the station. I was pregnant with my daughter, who was born two and a half months after the incident. I witnessed everything, but my husband gestured me to stay quiet.”
Kulwinder said two days later, her husband was dead. “He was killed on 9 April 1991, after torture, but was shown to be killed in an encounter in the newspapers,” she told me. “Heavy police force was deployed to guard the civil hospitals but our relatives managed to sneak a peek and identify that the body was indeed of Paramjeet.” But, according to Kulwinder, “Neither were we informed officially by the police of the encounter nor were we handed over the body.” A database by Ensaaf, a non-profit organisation that works on the issue of police impunity with a special focus on Punjab, categorised Paramjeet as a combatant. It said that he joined militancy after the 1984 Blue Star operation and facing persecution.
Harpreet Kaur, a 30-year-old woman, told me her father was killed just 17 days after her birth. Harpreet said her father Ranjit Singh, a man in his early twenties, was killed in an encounter on 21 April 1991 at the Kala Afghana village. “I was told that the police used to frequent our place,” Harpreet said. “A friend of my father shared the newspapers bearing the news of my father’s encounter. My mother was at my maternal grandparents’ place at the Wadala Granthian village at that time. The police told her to collect the ashes but never gave the body to us.” Ensaaf categorised Ranjit as a combatant too and said that he joined militancy after facing persecution. While sobbing, Harpreet said, “There is so much I want to know about his life and death.” She told me the family did not receive his death certificate. “I applied for his death certificate and despite a lapse of three years and multiple dates, I am yet to get it,” she said.
The petitioners asked the high court to issue directions to set up a special-investigation team from outside Punjab or any independent agency under the central government to investigate the cases. They also asked for setting up a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court or high court judge to conduct an enquiry, and direct the CBI to investigate the cases. Based on the result of these investigations, it asked to appropriately punish guilty officials. Further, the petitioners asked for the court to direct the state and central government to rehabilitate and compensate the victims’ families with “amounts reflecting the seriousness and gravity” of the crimes. The petitioners also asked for directions to the state to issue death certificates for the deceased and preserve all relevant records.
The petition mentioned that Punjab Police officials and security forces have previously been convicted for “killing and cremating innocent persons.” Cases of disappearances in which cops have been convicted include CBI vs Raghubir Singh and others, CBI vs Jaspal Singh and others and CBI vs Narinder Singh Malhi and others.
In an April 2013 report on human rights in India, Christof Heynes—the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions at the time—specifically mentioned the obstacles to hold public servants, including members of security forces, accountable. “The situation is aggravated by the fact that security officers who committed human rights violations are frequently promoted rather than brought to justice,” his report said. “The Special Rapporteur has heard of the case of Mr. Sumedh Singh Saini, accused of human rights violations committed in Punjab in the 1990s, who was promoted in March 2012 to Director General of Police in Punjab.”
Heynes took note of the lack of justice for victims of disappearances in Punjab. “Delay in judicial proceedings constitutes one of India’s most serious challenges and has clear implications for accountability,” he wrote. “Lengthy and ineffective proceedings exist in Punjab where large-scale enforced disappearances and mass cremations occurred between the mid 1980s and 1990s. The lack of political will to address these disappearances is evident in a context where steps to ensure accountability have been reportedly inconclusive.”
In April 2017, the PDAP had convened an Independent People’s Tribunal in Amritsar where AK Ganguly, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, was a panellist. The PDAP’s petition noted that he had also expressed shock and dismay at the fact that a wider enquiry has not been ordered into the disappearances in Punjab. During the IPT, several family members of the victims had narrated their stories.
Jaswinder told me that his mother, Sukhwant, had filed a case about his father and grandfather’s death. He said that the case is currently pending in a CBI special court. “All these years, officials from Sirhali police station kept giving us offers and even pressurised us for a compromise,” Jaswinder said.
Verka, their lawyer, said that it was “unfortunate” and “disgusting” that the case has been unresolved for almost thirty years. “Delay in justice resulted in natural deaths of all the accused except one Surinderpal Singh, who was then SHO Sarhali,” he said. “The trial is at fag end but it appears that it would be fag end of justice even if the accused be convicted.” Verka said that the next hearing in the case is on 28 July. We were unable to source the contact details of Surinderpal. We approached, Dhruman H Nimbale, the senior superintendent of police of Tarn Taran, for a comment, but he said that the case is sub judice.
Sukhwant, who is now in her eighties, told me, “I have fought this fight with all my heart. I just want to see justice done before I die.”
This story first appeared on caravanmagazine.in