Why Thousands of Sikh Men Disappeared at the Hands of Police

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Why you should care

A crackdown saw a generation of young men go missing at the hands of Indian security forces.

The January night was dark and dull. Sitting on a charpoy bed, 21-year-old Harjinder Singh Rana was playing his one-string tumbi, a traditional instrument, and singing, “Nanak dukhiya sab sansar.” Lord, the whole world is ridden with sorrow. At about 1 am, his music was interrupted when two police officials came knocking at the door. Rana, who worked as a special police officer, went with the men, thinking he was headed off on a mission. Eight days later, he was dead: His colleagues had killed him, saying he’d been a “militant.” 

That was 1994, and Rana’s octogenarian father, Sohan Singh, is still awaiting justice. “I want to see the guilty punished,” says Singh, a resident of Kahnuwan at Gurdaspur in India’s northern state of Punjab, bordering Pakistan. “I want the court to tell the world that my son was not a militant,” he says.

Rana was not alone. Three other men, ages 17 to 35, were killed alongside him. In the ’80s and the ’90s, state-sponsored violence was routine in Punjab: Tens of thousands of Sikh men, according to estimates, were detained, tortured, killed and unlawfully cremated.

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A man shows photos of his sons who disappeared during the Indian government’s counterinsurgency campaign in Punjab.

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Originally, the police crackdown was a response to the Khalistan movement, a radical Sikh cause that advocated for a separate Sikh homeland through a violent campaign that included hundreds of murders in the early 1980s and the hijacking of an Indian jetliner. In an attempt to weed out potential militants, police targeted young Sikh men. Some young Sikhs were privately commissioned as special police officers — but as Rana’s case made clear, that didn’t necessarily protect them. Human rights activist Jaswant Kaur recently released a 70-minute documentary entitled Punjab Disappeared about the region’s legacy of violence. Kaur recalls the case of 18-year-old Balwinder Singh, who was dragged off a bus by the police while traveling with his mother and was later killed. The next day, Kaur says, the police officials apologized to the mother saying her son wasn’t the Balwinder they were looking for. “Ironically, the officers were promoted,” Kaur says. The trial is still pending. 

A 2003 report described many cases where men were thrown into irrigation canals with their hands and feet tied. Torture was also routine. In a series of cases, police carried out cremations and unlawfully kept it a secret from the family members. In 1995, Punjab-based human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra — who was abducted and killed by the police the same year — filed a petition with the Supreme Court stating police had cremated 25,000 bodies, which they labeled “unidentified” and “unclaimed.”

 

The police didn’t hand over Rana’s body to his family members either. “The cops showed us the bullet marks on his neck and leg. But we were not allowed to perform the last rites,” recalls Singh. Two months after his son’s death, Singh petitioned the Supreme Court to charge 27 police officials in the case. The court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into it, but there has been no breakthrough, and Singh’s case is still pending. Still, Khalra’s investigation and death sparked international interest in the killings, which may be why after the mid-90s such disappearances became far less common.

Over the last 25 years, lawmakers and political parties have shied away from the issue of these extrajudicial killings. In 1997, Shiromani Akali Dal, the regional ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, promised to set up a truth commission investigating the crimes … but nothing ever happened. “A generation was lost but nobody wants to talk about it,” laments Singh.

But there is a renewed hope now. Kaur’s documentary, released this spring, has renewed calls for an inquiry into 8,257 disappearances, extra-judicial killings and secret cremations across 14 Punjab districts from 1984 to 1995. Kaur, who is British, came to India in 2008 to investigate these cases and started an initiative called the Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP). The documentary is the result of 10 years of research.

“It stresses the need of the families for answers to questions that have eluded them for over two decades,” Kaur says. “Many don’t know if these men who went missing are alive. They never received their bodies.”

This month, Kaur’s PDAP is expected to present its findings in a petition to the Indian Supreme Court, seeking justice for people like Rana. That could reverse decades of secrecy, but it can’t undo the toll taken on families whose children never came home. Singh says that since Rana’s disappearance, police have harassed his family and offered him money to withdraw the case. But, he says,I won’t shut up unless I get justice.” 

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