Inventing genocide

Print edition : November 07, 2003

Reduced to Ashes, a compilation brought out by the Kathmandu-based South Asia Forum for Human Rights, claims to contain irrefutable evidence of the state having carried out genocide in Punjab. But investigations by Frontline reveal a different story.

in Amritsar

The cremation ground in Bagarian village where Karaj Singh was cremated.-HARPREET SINGH

One is left with the feeling that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.

- Agatha Christie, Autobiography (1977).

MORE than 20 years after it first began, and contrary to what most people in and outside Punjab believe, the war for Khalistan continues to splutter on, gasping for air but refusing to die. In not a single year bar 1998 and 1999 has any life been lost in the cause of a separate Sikh state.

But bombs and bullets, the scale of killings shows, are no longer the primary instruments of this conflict. Instead, it is waged at the level of ideas, through the efforts of ideologues who survived the carnage within Punjab, through lobbyists in Washington and London, and through a plethora of websites run out of every conceivable corner of Europe and North America. None of these efforts, however, has been of as much consequence as the stubborn interrogation of the basis of peace in Punjab by human rights groups in India and abroad.

Ever since 1993, human rights groups have argued that the Indian state's ruthless suppression of Khalistan terror came with unacceptable costs, in the form of mass disappearances, widespread custodial torture and extra-judicial killings. Put simply, human rights activists suggested the war against the Khalistan insurgency did not just kill terrorists, but also murdered democracy.

In May, the Kathmandu-based South Asia Forum for Human Rights published the first volume of Reduced to Ashes, a massive compilation of research and informant accounts which constitute seemingly irrefutable evidence of the Indian state having carried out genocide. But, an investigation by Frontline suggests, much of the evidence produced in support of this contention could be seriously flawed. Eyewitness testimony and old official records obtained by Frontline show that in several cases, the informants on whom Reduced to Ashes depends were extremely economical with the truth. Informants who claimed their relatives had been extra-judicially executed often concealed the fact that police, army and paramilitary personnel also died in these supposedly fake encounters. Evidence on the past records of encounter victims was on some occasions suppressed; on others, cases unconnected with the police were misrepresented as examples of state atrocities.

Authored by Ram Narayan Kumar with Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur, Reduced to Ashes traces the history of investigations into allegations of genocide in Punjab, first highlighted by human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra. In 1995, Khalra alleged that the Punjab Police had murdered or illegally executed more than 2,000 people in the district of Amritsar alone. Khalra was later murdered, allegedly by the Punjab Police, but Kumar and his fellow authors continued their investigations. Reduced to Ashes contains the testimony of relatives of hundreds of alleged terrorists on "the circumstances in which they disappeared or died before getting [sic.] cremated by the police". It charges the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with having abetted efforts to shield guilty police officers, and attacks the National Human Rights Commission for refusing to extend its investigation of extra-judicial killings beyond Amritsar district.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reduced to Ashes has provoked a furore among the liberal intelligentsia in New Delhi. Calls for Nuremberg-style trials of the guilty officials abounded in the media; several commentators have also endorsed the authors' calls for lessons to be drawn from the truth commissions in South America and Africa. "When stories came out about abductions and cold-blooded killings of over 2,000 young Sikhs in Amritsar and Tarn Taran, I refused to accept them," wrote the author Khushwant Singh, a bitter critic of the Khalistan movement. He described the book as "spine-chilling". "I often wonder why so many senior police officers drink so hard," he concluded, "Now I have a clue." What no one bothered to do, however, was actually investigate whether the evidence on which the allegations were made was true - an exercise for which clues were not in short supply either.

CENTRAL to the problem is that the authors of Reduced to Ashes do not seem to have made any serious effort to test informant accounts, which are often riddled with inconsistencies. Karaj Singh's mother Balbir Kaur was the authors' principal informant on his killing. On December 19, 1988, she said, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel "arrested Karaj Singh while he was on his way to village Bagarian. Karaj Singh was interrogated and then killed along with Sher Singh, resident of Bagge Khurd village in Ferozepore district, in an encounter staged near village Pakhoke". Karaj Singh, she said, had been earlier arrested in 1985, and remained in jail until September 1988 when he was acquitted in two cases and obtained bail in two others. Evidence of the fake encounter, then, rests on Balbir Kaur's assertion that her son was arrested well before his death and his judicial acquittal.

Balbir Kaur's account, however, sits uncomfortably with the details of what actually happened on the day of the encounter. For one, three CRPF constables, M. Sundaram, Kashi Nath and M.D. Salim, sustained injuries when the patrol party reached the house where the police say Karaj Singh and a second terrorist, Shamir Singh (referred to in CBI documents as Ramesh Singh and in Reduced to Ashes by his father's name, Sher Singh), were hiding out. It took a two-and-a-half-hour fire-fight, described elaborately in FIR 163 filed at the Sadar Police station in Tarn Taran, before the police and the CRPF personnel could cut a hole in the roof of the house where the terrorists were hiding, and lob grenades inside. Second, by Balbir Kaur's own admission, the Tarn Taran police asked her husband Suba Singh "to collect the body for cremation [the] next morning", after they had identified the bodies. This hardly seems consistent behaviour for officials seeking to conceal evidence - the presumable raison d'etre for the inclusion of this case in the Reduced to Ashes case studies.

Cases where relatives do not even pretend to have firsthand knowledge of police or Army wrongdoing are also included in Reduced to Ashes. Iqbal Singh, his brother Sukhraj Singh told its authors, "sympathised with the ideal of an independent Sikh state... [but] was not involved in any political or the militant movement [sic.] in any manner". On March 7, he left for Shahkot for reasons unspecified in his brother's account. The next day, he was killed in an encounter led by the 8 Dogra Regiment, along with top Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF) terrorist Devinder Singh `Commando'. "The family members believe that the story of the encounter must be false and concocted," Reduced to Ashes flatly records. The Indian Army knows for certain that it was not. Havildar Subhash Chander was killed in the encounter, a certain sign that someone at least fired on his battalion near the village of Bhoorsi Rajputan.

In other cases, such as that of Sukhdev Singh, a resident of Chamiari, near Ajnala, the Reduced to Ashes version of the truth is at the very least contested. According to the book's main informant, Sukhdev Singh's widow Sawinder Kaur, the 25-year-old had disassociated himself from politics after spending 18 months in the Jodhpur jail in the wake of Operation Bluestar. On October 1, 1987, Reduced to Ashes asserts, "the Ajnala police raided his sister's house at Tole Nangal village, where he was staying with his wife. Sukhdev managed to dodge the police but was later arrested the same evening at village Bhitte Wadh. The police interrogated him for two nights and then killed him in a fake encounter." FIR 293 of October 10, 1987, registered in the Ajnala police station, however, claims that Sukhdev Singh was killed after 4-30 p.m. that day, by personnel who chased terrorists responsible for the killings of three police personnel and an autorickshaw driver - murders that took place nine days after his alleged kidnapping.

THE killing of Lakhwinder Singh `Bhoora', according to the story in Reduced to Ashes, again raises questions about the credibility of the informant. On December 22, 1992, the book records, "a few militants led by Lakhwinder Singh of Chhajal Wadi village, reasonably well known in the area, came to Tarsem Singh's house." There, they kidnapped the teenager. The villagers turned to the police for help. Three days later, the police were "able to surround Lakhwinder Singh, his wife Harpal Kaur, their six-month-old daughter and Tarsem Singh when they were cycling through the fields near village Dhoolka. The police shot all of them down and announced the incident as an encounter." But FIR 187 registered that day at the Jandiala police station also records the death of someone else - constable Manjit Singh. The fact that two Kalashnikov rifles were recovered from the site, which, coupled with the constable's killing, suggests that the encounter was not what Reduced to Ashes' informants would have us believe.

Such examples abound. Mukhtiar Singh, his mother Jagir Kaur told the authors of Reduced to Ashes, "was watering his fields when the Sadar police, supported by soldiers of the Indian Army, cordoned off the area for a combing operation. The next morning, some villagers discovered Mukhtiar's body, along with that of another unidentified young Sikh, and informed his family members. Later, the village council complained to the Army and the police authorities that they had killed an innocent man." The Army, however, recorded events in a very different fashion, omitting any mention of the police. A company of the 7 Bihar regiment, it stated in FIR 35 of April 12, 1991, was carrying out night training exercises when the troops saw four men approaching. On being challenged, someone opened fire at the soldiers. Sepoy Hira Lala Mariya opened fire, killing Mukhtiar Singh and an associate, Vijay Mohan Goyal. Havildar Tomda Oran sustained injuries in the three-hour gun-battle.

Inderjit Singh's father, Gurnam Singh, is cited by the authors of Reduced to Ashes as saying that his son was arrested on December 13, 1992, from a temporary home where he was staying with a friend wanted in several terrorism-related cases. Just what Inderjit Singh was doing in his company is not clear, but the family heard of his death in an encounter from newspapers published on January 1, 1993. However, if FIR 84 filed the previous day at the Sadar police station in Tarn Taran is to be believed, Inderjit Singh and four terrorists killed along with him had four assault rifles and a machine gun with them. Constable Amar Singh suffered injuries in the course of a prolonged battle, which was brought to an end only after the police pressed an armoured tractor into service. Neither the constable's injuries, nor the prolonged gun-battle, are mentioned in the accounts provided by Reduced to Ashes. Inderjit Singh's parents were themselves in hiding when the encounter took place.

Among the few cases where Reduced to Ashes informants concede that the "exchange of fire was real" is the killing of Kala Singh on May 8, 1991. Kala Singh's mother said that one police officer was killed in the course of this operation. In fact, the terrorists holed up in Rataul claimed the lives of Deputy-Inspector General of Police Ajit Singh, four other police personnel and a soldier. Six other security force personnel, including Senior Superintendent of Police Narinderpal Singh, were injured. Nine terrorists, according to FIR 66 filed at the city police station in Tarn Taran, died in the encounter. Kala Singh's mother admitted that he was "acquainted with many who belonged to underground militant groups", but stopped short of saying that he was a terrorist, insisting he made his living as a ceremonial reader of scripture. She either did not know, or concealed the fact, that, three FIRs had been filed against him earlier, for charges ranging from using explosives to murder.

WORST of all, many of the cases Reduced to Ashes documents do not, on the face of it, have anything to do with the police (see box). Sukhdev Singh, an outstanding sportsperson selected for induction into the Punjab Police, was killed on July 24, 1997. His father, Karam Singh, claims to have "received information that he was killed as a militant in an encounter with the police in Amritsar city", an allegation he claims was endorsed by a "senior police official" and "the doctor who prepared the post-mortem report." But the FIR recording his death makes no such claims, and neither do the people in whose house he died. Sukhdev Singh and three other people allegedly entered the house of Naresh Kumar in Amritsar and attempted to kidnap his son Sumir. A scuffle broke out in which one of the residents of the house, Dharminder Singh, sustained bullet injuries. Naresh Kumar's brother, Vipin Kumar, claims to have caught hold of Sukhdev Singh and used him as a shield when one person among the armed group opened fire with a side-arm.

Police accounts, of course, do not settle the issue one way or the other: police, paramilitary and Army officers could have shot their own to gloss over their guilt; they could have faked past criminal records; they could have planted recovered weapons; they could, as Reduced to Ashes claims on the basis of an interview with a single, unnamed source, have had "quotas for murder". All of this, however, is speculation. By the same yardstick, the informants on whose accounts Reduced to Ashes is founded could be faking their stories in the hope of winning some compensation from the NHRC; they could be telling lies fuelled by ideological convictions or a desire to avenge the deaths of their kin; they could simply be completely misinformed. Frontline's investigation does not seek to settle the issue one way or the other either; it is merely to point out that the facts are at best ambiguous, with key elements censored from the narrative as a result of sloppy research.

All that Reduced to Ashes has done is to take a corpus of allegations and repackage them as fact. It is interesting that the authors of Reduced to Ashes have grouped informant accounts under the heading `Illegal Cremations', a term at a considerable semantic distance from Khalra's allegations of mass disappearances and genocide. Indeed, the fact that the FIRs and other forms of public documentation exist suggests that there was no such project in the first place. It is true that the Punjab Police's record keeping was abysmal, that errors litter its paperwork, and that post-mortem forensic work was often conspicuous by its absence. To make the a priori assumption that this in itself is proof of genocide is, however, an enormous leap of imagination, not an exercise of reason. It is undoubtedly true that some individuals, terrorists or otherwise, were executed by the Punjab Police. So far, however, there is little hard evidence to suggest that the scale of such killings were anywhere similar in scale to that Reduced to Ashes would have us believe.

Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the ideological subtext that suffuses Reduced to Ashes. There was, it argues, "nothing clandestine about the state terrorism in Punjab". "Yet", its authors continue, "given the communal cleavages of the situation, the security forces operated under approving eyes and with the complicity of large sections of the population." Put simply, this means that the supposed state terror had the support and endorsement of Punjab's Hindu minority. This, however, is a horrific misrepresentation of what actually happened in Punjab's decade of carnage. The overwhelming majority of the victims of Khalistan terror were Sikh; the overwhelming majority of those who fought it, by all means available, were also Sikh - at least by birth if not by religious persuasion. Workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, as well as many from the Congress(I0, engaged in armed battle against communal Khalistan forces, sometimes in tactical alliance with the state. Khalistan terrorism was defeated not just by strength of arms, but because of its rejection by the overwhelming majority of Sikhs in Punjab.

Was the indisputably bitter struggle to win the war, then, worth it? In 1991, before the Punjab Police began its onslaught, more than 5,000 people on all sides of the fence were killed.

Not even 500 have died in violence since 1994, when peace was firmly restored. It is unlikely that those who are alive today because of that struggle would have to think for long to answer the question.

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