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They Did What C.B.I. Could Not
A review of Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab by Ram Narayan Kumar with Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur.
By A.J. PHILIP
The Tribune, Jun. 1, 2003
Those who have read Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen know how the Nazis accomplished their task under conditions of social collusion. The comparison may be farfetched or even hideous but it cannot be gainsaid that the rampant human rights violations that occurred in Punjab during the militancy days would not have been possible but for the sanctions they received from influential sections of the society. It is this collusion, conscious or otherwise, that emboldened the police to pick up persons they found inconvenient and bump them off in fake encounters. The exact number of people the security forces killed in this manner or those who mysteriously disappeared after they were last seen with the police would never be known.
At this point it is immaterial whether they are 2,000 or 20,000. But for the wives who lost their husbands, the parents who lost their sons and the children who lost their fathers, it is a loss, which can never be quantified. They suffer the loss every moment of the day. To talk about them or to write about them is to solicit ridicule from the champions of the state, who have even a contemptuous term to describe them, 'the human rights wallahs [people].' Little do they know that human rights is a concept that predates even the United Nations and the Constitution and has its origins in the Scriptures. It is an inalienable right of man, the protection of which is the primary responsibility of the state.
And when that very state through its agencies like the police and the security forces make mincemeat of human rights in the name of fighting terrorism, the concerned citizen cannot but sit up. That is how Jaswant Singh Khalra stood up against the police highhandedness but only to be tortured to death by the custodians of law. Fortunately, the fight that he started did not end with him. Far from that, the Supreme Court was forced to ask the premier investigating agency of the country to probe Khalra's own abduction and the complaint he had himself made about illegal cremations.
Much water has flowed down the Sutlej since 1995 when the apex court entrusted the job to the C.B.I., which in its final report disclosed that '2,097 illegal cremations were carried out by the security agencies in three crematoria of Amritsar district.' It would not have, perhaps, occurred to the court that the probing agency could be headed by persons whose own track record, while they were posted in Punjab, was hardly inspiring. The court could also not have visualised how powerful vested interests would create roadblocks against such an inquiry making the whole process meaningless.
The C.B.I. did such a shoddy job investigating the illegal cremations that truth remained hidden under mounds of illegible paperwork. It is against this backdrop that the painstaking effort of four intrepid researchers Ram Narayan Kumar, Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur of the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab should be seen and commended. In Amritsar district alone, they have documented as many as 672 cases of police cremation by interviewing their relations and poring over dusty police records. The question that crops up is: if the foursome can do such a splendid job, why could not the C.B.I. with its enormous reach, huge resources, legal and administrative clout do a better job? But then who believed that the C.B.I. would do an honest job which would have exposed those who in the name of saving Punjab from militants gave carte blanche to their subordinates to eliminate those who stood in their way?
Is it any wonder that the case pertaining to those who 'disappeared' before the National Human Rights Commission is stuck in procedural wrangles and legal hair-splitting? It was quite heart-rending to read the stories of all those 'Singhs' whose cases have been enumerated in this book. By the time the N.H.R.C. is able to cut the Gordian knot of investigation and verification, many of the parents who lost their sons and daughters or the wives who lost their husbands would have departed from this world. There is every likelihood of the whole exercise eventually ending up as a farce. Hence, Paramjeet Kaur, wife of Jaswant Singh Khalra, is not wide of the mark when she asks: 'I have no hope. In 10 to 15 years, we will also sit down and give up. How much can we do?'
It is nobody's contention, least of all this reviewer's, that the militants who created mayhem in Punjab should have been dealt with leniently. No, they should have been dealt with severely under the law of the land. In fact, no effort should have been spared to bring them to book. How did the British react to such situations? Did custodial killings, victimisation of family members of revolutionary suspects or false prosecution occur then? This may provoke a prompt counter-question: what about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? It was the act of a mad cap and not the result of state policy.
There are ex-guardians of law, who strut about claiming that they had saved Punjab from militancy. It is not their strong-arm methods but the conscious decision of a vast majority of the people not to support militancy and participate in the political process that was initiated in the state, which helped Punjab make a turnaround. Had it been the other way round, Israel would have with all its sophisticated weapons and brutality 'finished' the Palestine problem a long time ago. In any case, a modern state must at all time uphold the rule of law. The moment it approves of extra-judicial killings and torture, it loses its right to be called civilised.
Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab
"K.P.S. Gill, You Have Questions to Answer", By KHUSHWANT SINGH, The Hindustan Times, Jun. 20, 2003