Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 11:58 GMT

India: Information on Punjab after the Insurgency

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 2 August 2002
Citation / Document Symbol IND02001.ASM
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, India: Information on Punjab after the Insurgency, 2 August 2002, IND02001.ASM, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3f520cdeb.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Query:

Are there current reports of human rights abuses in India's Punjab state specifically related to the Sikh insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s? Is the Sikh insurgency active? Are Sikhs still being held under the lapsed Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA)?

Response:

SUMMARY

Sikhs make up 63 percent of the Indian state of Punjab's population of 20 million, with Hindus accounting for 35 percent and Christians and Muslims making up the remainder. A full 80 percent of the 18 million Sikhs in India live in Punjab (PHRD 2000).

While the Sikh insurgency that wracked India's northwestern Punjab state in the 1980s and early 1990s has long faded, fallout from the conflict has continued, as human rights activists and relatives of victims who are seeking justice for past abuses have been harassed, detained, and falsely accused of crimes.

Police also continue to use some of the heavy-handed tactics that helped them to suppress the insurgency, such as torturing suspects to extract confessions or information. Unlike during the conflict, however, torture victims now tend to be people whose lack of education and resources and low social standing make them vulnerable– often women or poor, illiterate, or low caste villagers– rather than suspected militants or sympathizers.

Despite the severity of these abuses, the overall human rights situation in the state appears to have improved after a period in which Punjab was a byword for gross human rights violations. As the insurgency raged between 1984 and 1994, Sikh militants fighting for an independent state of Khalistan killed thousands of civilians, while Indian forces were implicated in the disappearances and extrajudicial killings of thousands of young men, according to Amnesty International (AI 1 Aug 1999).

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS AND RELATIVES OF VICTIMS HARASSED

Current rights violations, including police efforts to thwart the work of activists, reflect both a culture of impunity that was forged in part during the insurgency, when officers were rewarded for killing suspected Sikh militants, and efforts by officers to avoid prosecution for past abuses (PHRD 2000).

Several members of a private Punjab human rights group who are preparing a report on alleged mass cremations of militants who disappeared during the conflict have been detained or otherwise harassed "within the past year," said a professor at Notre Dame, in a July 2002 interview with the Resource Information Center. The professor, who is an expert on religious militancy, said that the group, the Coordination Committee on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP), is gathering information on the alleged cremation by security forces in Punjab's Amritsar district in the 1980s and early 1990s of more than 2,000 suspected militants or sympathizers (Professor 22 Jul 2002).

The reported harassment of CCDP members is consistent with earlier cases of police intimidation of human rights activists. "Rather than 'disappearances' or extrajudicial executions, the Punjab police have used threats, violence, and harassment, through the filing of false cases" to deter activists, Amnesty International said in a 2000 report (AI 26 Apr 2000).

In one of the most serious cases of abuse, police held Jaspal Singh Dhillon, one of the first activists to uncover evidence of mass cremations, for ten months after arresting him and three other Sikh rights campaigners in 1998. Singh, chair of the nongovernmental Human Rights and Democracy Forum, and the other arrested activists were falsely charged with conspiring to help prisoners escape from a jail in Chandigarh, the Punjab capital (AI 26 Apr 2000; Kaur Spr 2002).

Punjab police have also arrested an eyewitness to the 1995 disappearance of a human rights activist three times on what observers say appear to be bogus charges. Amnesty International said that charges in connection with a deadly bank robbery that police brought against the man, Rajiv Singh Randhawa, after his latest arrest in 2000 were "merely a means of harassing and intimidating him" because he reportedly could implicate officers in the disappearance of activist Jaswant Singh Khalra (AI 7 Sep 2000).

More recently, police have tended to falsely charge activists without necessarily arresting them (AI 26 Apr 2000). Even just filing false charges, a practice commonly used in India to harass innocent people or settle scores, can subject the victim to costly and time consuming legal battles.

As with Rajiv Singh Randhawa's case, there appears to be little merit to more recent charges, brought in 2001, against Kirpal Singh Randhawa, deputy chairman of the Punjab Human Rights Organization, and Narain Singh, head of the activist Akal Federation, press reports from Punjab suggest (TRIBUNE 9 Mar 2001; 23 May 2001).

In addition to targeting activists and eyewitnesses, Punjab police recently have also harassed family members who are seeking justice for relatives who disappeared or were killed in police custody in past years. The family members "routinely received threats of 'dire consequences' and sometimes get implicated in false criminal cases," a leading Punjab human rights lawyer said in an e-mail message (Punjab lawyer 31 Jul 2002).

One of Punjab's best-known petitioners for justice, Paramjit Kaur Khalra, the widow of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the activist who disappeared in 1995, told reporters in 2001 that police were harassing her and her family and seemed to be tapping her phone (TRIBUNE 9 Mar 2001).

Before he reportedly was abducted by police, Jaswant Singh Khalra had petitioned India's Supreme Court to investigate the alleged mass cremations in Amritsar district. He was the chairman of the human rights wing of Akali Dal, a Sikh political party (Kaur Spr 2002).

TORTURE WIDESPREAD, BUT VICTIMS NOW TEND TO BE ORDINARY CIVILIANS

With the Sikh insurgency over, Punjab police have not been accused recently of the worst of the human rights violations that were common a decade ago. "The pattern of disappearances prevalent in the early 1990s appears to have ended," according to the U.S. State Department's report on India's human rights record in 2001 (U.S. DOS 4 Mar 2002).

The human rights situation regarding Sikh militancy has been "quite quiet recently," with the notable exception of the harassment of activists, according to a South Asia specialist at the State Department's Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs (U.S. DOS 23 Jul 2002).

Observers also say that police no longer are targeting people simply for holding pro-Khalistan views. "I don't think Khalistan is an issue at this time" for the police, a Sikh community leader in New York City who has contacts in Punjab said in a telephone interview (NYC Sikh leader 30 Jul 2002).

Similarly, the Punjab human rights lawyer said that he was not aware of any recent arrests or incidents of harassment of Sikhs because of their political views (Punjab lawyer 31 Jul 2002).

And there is little evidence that police are harassing the families of suspected militants either in reprisal or to get information, an American political science professor who closely follows developments in Punjab said in a telephone interview (Political science professor 26 Jul 2002).

Some analysts also point to the recent return to India of several exiled Sikh separatists as evidence that even "ultras," as they are known in Punjab, feel that they will be treated humanely by police and the courts. Two separatist leaders returned to India in 2001: ideologue Jagjit Singh Chauhan and alleged militant Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, said to be the head of the banned Khalistan Commando Force and a senior member of the so-called Panthic Committee that spearheaded the insurgency. While Chauhan has not been arrested, Zaffarwal has been charged with several offenses, although he was acquitted in 2002 on two counts of murder (BBC 12 Apr 2001; BBC 27 Jun 2001; DH 22 Apr 2001; TRIBUNE 9 Apr 2002).

Several lesser-known separatists have also surrendered to police after returning to India from exile abroad. They include Gurdev Singh, described in the Punjab press as a member of the militant Khalistan National Army, who turned himself in to police in April 2002 (Walia 6 Apr 2002; TRIBUNE 15 Mar 2001).

While Punjab police may no longer be placing a priority on cracking down on militants or harassing pro-Khalistani Sikhs, officers reportedly routinely torture detainees. Unlike during the insurgency, however, police today use these ham-fisted tactics against ordinary people rather than suspected militants or pro-independence supporters, according to an Amnesty International India specialist (India specialist 24 Jul 2002).

"The pattern of torture has changed," the specialist said by telephone from London (India specialist 24 Jul 2002). "It is not used against pro-Khalistan people but against common people," particularly women and lower-caste villagers (India specialist 24 Jul 2002).

Similarly, a 2000 report by the Danish branch of the nongovernmental Physicians for Human Rights concludes that in Punjab, "torture today does not seem to have a political foundation but is based on ordinary corruption, abuse of power, and greed on the part of the police" (PHRD 2000, 46). The report, based on interviews in Punjab with government officials, doctors, human rights lawyers, and torture victims, cites evidence that police sometimes torture detainees to extract money from their families. It also quotes a doctor who examines torture victims as saying that poor and uneducated people are now most at risk of abuse. The doctor "thought that the extent of human rights violations had increased although the strategy had changed. He no longer saw the Sikh problem as the primary reason for the continued use of torture, but rather general corruption within the ranks of the police, the medical profession and government officials" (PHRD 2000, 5).

The report also says that doctors often downplay the gravity of injuries resulting from torture or ignore the possibility that a patient was tortured, or that they refuse to examine torture victims at all. Honest medical reports could lead to dismissal, diminished earnings or career prospects, or personal threats from police against the doctors or their families, the report says (PHRD 2000, 7-8).

Although it is hard to determine how frequently police torture people in Punjab, a human rights lawyer told the PHR delegation that he gets one new case of torture each day on average (PHRD 2000, 5).

SIKH INSURGENCY APPEARS TO BE OVER

The continued use of torture and other rights abuses by Punjab police come at a time when experts say that Sikh militancy in the state is a spent force.

The political science professor noted that police recently have arrested several Sikhs whom they accuse of carrying out or planning bombings in Punjab or New Delhi. The professor added, however, that the militants seem to be based in Pakistan rather than Punjab (Political science professor 26 Jul 2002).

The Notre Dame professor said that the insurgency as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s is over, or at least dormant, but that a "tacit level of support" still exists for the use of force to achieve independence (Professor 22 Jul 2002).

Evidence of this support is largely anecdotal. Recorded speeches as well as posters and calendars with pictures of slain Sikh militants were sold in the town of Anandpur during a major religious festival in March 2002, the BBC reported, suggesting that at least some Sikhs in Punjab see the dead militants as martyrs. At the same time, the fact that local authorities allowed these goods to be sold despite an official ban suggests that they are not too concerned with the threat of renewed violence (BBC 31 Mar 2002).

The U.S. State Department does not include any Sikh groups on its list of foreign terrorist organizations (U.S. DOS 27 Mar 2002), but a similar list produced by the United Kingdom's Home Secretary includes two Sikh groups, Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation (UK n.d.).

Despite these trends, some Indian officials warn of the threat of renewed Sikh militancy. An April 2002 report by a standing committee of the Indian parliament claimed that Sikh militant groups such as Sikh International and the Khalistan Zinzabad Organization were being re-armed in Pakistan by that country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (DH 17 Apr 2002).

SOME SIKHS MAY STILL BE DETAINED UNDER TADA; CRITICS WARY OF NEW SECURITY LAW

It is hard to determine how many Sikhs are among the many hundreds of people who are still detained under a tough security law that lapsed in 1995, the political science professor said (Political science professor 26 Jul 2002). The law, the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), originally was drafted to help suppress the insurgency in Punjab, although ultimately more people were arrested under TADA in Gujarat state than in Punjab, the professor said (Political science professor 26 Jul 2002).

While the exact number of Sikh TADA detainees is not clear, several Punjab lawyers are known to be handling TADA cases, according to a Harvard Law School student who spent the summer of 2001 in Punjab researching how courts are handling cases of past disappearances (31 Jul 2001).

Overall, Indian officials currently are holding roughly 1,000 suspects under TADA or on related charges, human rights groups say. Under TADA, suspects are guilty until proven innocent, confessions obtained by torture may be used as evidence, and prosecution witnesses can testify without revealing their identities to defense lawyers (U.S. DOS 23 Jul 2002; Kaur Spr 2002).

Meanwhile, opposition politicians and rights activists warn that authorities could use a new anti-terrorism law in the same arbitrary way that officials once wielded TADA to detain thousands of religious and ethnic minorities and political opponents. The new Prevention of Terrorism Act, approved by India's parliament in March 2002, allows police to tap private telephones and to hold suspects for up to 90 days without charge. It also permits death sentences for terrorist acts that claim lives and it allows for long jail terms for providing aid to alleged terrorists or terrorist groups (BBC 26 Mar 2002).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References:

Amnesty International (AI). A VITAL OPPORTUNITY TO END IMPUNITY IN PUNJAB (1 Aug 1999, ASA 20/024/1999), http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/ASA200241999?OpenDocument&of=COUNTRIES\INDIA [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

Amnesty International (AI). "Arrest of Witness Points to Continuing Police Harassment" (7 Sep 2000, ASA 20/049/2000), http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/ASA200492000?OpenDocument&of=COUNTRIES\INDIA [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

Amnesty International (AI). PERSECUTED FOR CHALLENGING INJUSTICE: HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS IN INDIA (26 Apr 2000, ASA 20/014/2000), http://web.amnesty.org/802568F7005C4453/0/23FDC94462F6F69A802568BA0057EE5A?Open&Highlight=2,Punjab [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). "Banned Sikh Objects Reappear in Punjab" (31 Mar 2002), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/south_asia/1904217.stm [Accessed 27 Jul 2002]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). "POTO's Controversial Measures" (26 Mar 2002), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/south_asia/1895016.stm [Accessed 27 Jul 2002]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). "Sikh Separatist Returns Home Defiant" (27 Jun 2001), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/south_asia/1410278.stm [Accessed 27 Jul 2002]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). "Top Sikh Separatist Held" (12 Apr 2001), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/south_asia/1273497.stm [Accessed 27 Jul 2002]

DECCAN HERALD [Bangalore] (DH). "Khalistanis May Strike Under ISI Pressure" (17 Apr 2002) - World News Connection, http://wnc.fedworld.gov [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

DECCAN HERALD [Bangalore] (DH). "Top Ultra Says He Was an ISI Puppet" (22 Apr 2001) - World News Connection (WNC), http://wnc.fedworld.gov [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

India specialist, Amnesty International. Telephone interview (London: 24 Jul 2002).

Kaur, Jaskaran. "A Judicial Blackout: Judicial Impunity for Disappearances in Punjab, India," HARVARD HUMAN RIGHTS JOURNAL (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Law School, Spr 2002, Vol 15), p. 269-300.

New York City Sikh community leader (NYC Sikh leader). Telephone interview (New York: 30 Jul 2002).

Physicians for Human Rights, Denmark (PHRD). IN THE SHADOW OF THE POLICE: REPORT ON A FACT-FINDING MISSION TO PUNJAB, 24 SEPTEMBER-6 OCTOBER 2000 (Risskov, Denmark: 2000), 47 p.

Political science professor. Telephone interview (26 Jul 2002).

Professor, Notre Dame. Telephone interview (South Bend, IN: 22 Jul 2002).

Punjab human rights lawyer (Punjab lawyer). E-mail message to the RIC (Chandigarh, India: 31 Jul 2002).

Student, Harvard Law School. Telephone interview (New York: 31 Jul 2002).

TRIBUNE (Chandigarh, India). "Zaffarwal Acquitted in Two Murder Cases" (9 Apr 2002), http://www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020409/punjab1.htm [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

TRIBUNE (Chandigarh, India). "PHRO Deputy Chief Threatened by SSP" (23 May 2001), http://www.tribuneindia.com/2001/20010523/punjab1.htm#14 [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

TRIBUNE (Chandigarh, India). "BKI Activist Surrenders" (15 Mar 2001), http://www.tribuneindia.com/2001/20010315/punjab1.htm#12 [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

TRIBUNE (Chandigarh, India). "Rights Bodies Threaten to Launch Stir" (9 Mar 2001), http://www.tribuneindia.com/2001/20010309/punjab1.htm [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

U.K. Foreign Office (UK). "Terrorism Act and Proscription" (no date) http://www.fco.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1007029394275 [Accessed 29 Jul 2002]

U.S. Department of State, Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs (U.S. DOS). Telephone interview with South Asia specialist (Washington, DC: 23 Jul 2002).

U.S. Department of State, Office of Counterterrorism (U.S. DOS). "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" (27 Mar 2002), http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/2002/9014.htm [Accessed 29 Jul 2002]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2001, "India" (4 Mar 2002), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/sa/8230.htm [Accessed 29 Jul 2002]

Walia, Varinder. TRIBUNE (Chandigarh, India). "Baffling Surrender by Punjab Ultra" (6 Apr 2002), http://www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020406/main6.htm [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

Attachments:

DECCAN HERALD [Bangalore] (DH). "Khalistanis May Strike Under ISI Pressure" (17 Apr 2002) - World News Connection, http://wnc.fedworld.gov [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

DECCAN HERALD [Bangalore] (DH). "Top Ultra Says He Was an ISI Puppet" (22 Apr 2001) - World News Connection (WNC), http://wnc.fedworld.gov [Accessed 28 Jul 2002]

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