Submission on Enforced Disappearances in Punjab

Punjab is a state in the northwest of India and the only state in India with a majority Sikh population. Between 1984 and 1995 Punjab’s security forces allegedly killed thousands of Sikhs as part of a brutal counter-insurgency operation characterized by systematic and widespread human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial executions, and “disappearances.”

In 1995, human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra uncovered municipal records demonstrating that police officers had secretly cremated thousands of bodies in three crematoria in the district of Amritsar—then one of 13 districts in Punjab. Khalra documented over 6,000 cremations in Amritsar district. In late October 1995, Khalra was abducted, illegally detained and tortured by Punjab police.

In December 1996, the Supreme Court of India (“SCI”) appointed the National Human Rights Commission (“NHRC”) as a sui generis body pursuant to Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to oversee the Punjab Mass Cremations Case (“PMC case”). The NHRC was granted broad powers to investigate and provide redress for gross human rights violations perpetrated by Indian security forces and the Punjab Police. Notwithstanding the grant of extraordinary powers to the NHRC under the Constitution, the NHRC itself opted to limit the scope of its inquiry solely to 2,097 cremations found by the Central Bureau of Investigation (“CBI”) to have occurred in three crematoria in Amritsar District (crematoria in Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Majitha). Even the limited mandate remains unfulfilled, as the NHRC has refused to independently investigate a single instance of illegal cremation, taking at face value the submissions of the Punjab Police and the State of Punjab, not only in the identification of cremated individuals, but also in the determination of the types of violation committed.

On 17 October 2007, REDRESS, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law (CHRGJ) and ENSAAF jointly submitted 32 cases to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID). The WGEID was asked to urge the Government of India to conduct investigations into the cases submitted as well as the general allegations regarding the Punjab mass cremations case. Investigations should consider the circumstances that led to the victims’ fate, with claims supported by independent evidence. Such investigations would enable the victim families to then have recourse to redress under Indian law.

On 28 November 2011, REDRESS and ENSAAF made a joint submission in regard to India’s Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council on the PMC case, highlighting the Government of India’s failure to hold the individuals responsible for the violations to account and to provide victims with effective remedies and full reparation.

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