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Human Wrongs

By Ram Narayan Kumar And Tanu Thomas K

Times Of India
29 June, 2003

The Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) released a report, titled Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. The report analyses alleged cases of torture and extra-judicial killings in Punjab in the 1980s and early 1990s. Authored by Ram Narayan Kumar with Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur, it contains more than 500 testimonies by the families of the victims, describing 672 cases of alleged extra-judicial executions by the police in the district of Amritsar alone. A former Reuters Foundation fellow at Oxford and the convenor of CCDP, Ram Narayan Kumar, spoke to Tanu Thomas K:

Critics argue that human rights activists are essentially anti-national in that they don't highlight abuses committed by militants...

The basis of Indian nationalism lies in a Constitution that upholds fundamental human rights to be sacrosanct and non- derogable even in situations of internal conflict. That has been the core principle of Indian nationalism ever since Gandhi launched his first satyagraha. Those who term human right struggles anti- national are completely divorced from this nationalist tradition.

Also, the accusation that we do not highlight crimes committed by militants appears to be deliberately misleading. The state and its agencies cannot use the argument of militant violence to themselves become lawless. Also, the state institutions, which permitted or tolerated abuse of power by its functionaries, can regain legitimacy in the eyes of the people only through acknowledgement of truth, contrition and restitution of wrongs. That is necessary also to safeguard our future against cycles of violence.

But after K P S Gill's time, there has been peace in Punjab.

I disagree. According to the CBI's report to the Supreme Court, 2,097 persons were illegally cremated in three cremation grounds of Amritsar district alone and there are 17 districts in Punjab. There is no peace for victims of atrocities and their families, only anguish and pain. There can be no peace unless we can convince these people about the possibility of justice through constitutional means.

How are you confident that there will be justice for hundreds of ordinary people when high-profile cases have failed?

The manner in which the CBI has been handling the prosecution of those responsible for Jaswant Singh Khalra's abduction and disappearance is unfortunate. It reflects very badly on the possibilities of justice and the rule of law in our country.

What about the NHRC?

The hope is that we can put behind the legal wranglings of the past and that the NHRC will recognise the importance of the work we have been trying to do and use the information we are offering to bring justice to those families in Punjab who are beginning to lose all hope.

What mechanism do you have in mind for reconciliation?

There can be no reconciliation without a common commitment to truth. First, we have to help those who have suffered wrongly, overcome their victimhood. We have also to make it clear that those who destroyed human rights outside the framework of law have not advanced the national interest. Let our institutions take these preliminary steps. We can then discuss the ways and mechanisms for reconciliation.

Some Khalistanis have recently returned to Punjab and entered the mainstream. Would you support them at this juncture?

Khalistanis were never popular with the people of Punjab. They were used by the state at various points to divert attention from the real issues facing the people: Democracy, constitutional safeguard for minorities, people's rights over their resources. We are critical of the Indian state because it has failed the ideals on which our nationalism was supposed to have been founded and we oppose Khalistan because it failed to provide a vision that is more genuinely democratic than what the Indian state offers.

How did you take up the issue?

My involvement with the issue started in 1988 when I began to travel in the state to understand the reasons behind the unrest. From the very beginning, I could not avoid confronting examples of state atrocities, including enforced dis- appearances and summary executions explained away as "encounters".

The Supreme Court instructed the CBI to examine the allegations after Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights worker from Amritsar who first produced evidence of secret cremations, was allegedly abducted by Punjab police officials in September 1995. The lists submitted by the CBI to the court in December 1996 disclosed 2,097 illegal cremations. After receiving the report, the court referred the matter to the NHRC for investigation because it concluded that flagrant and large-scale human rights violations had indeed taken place.

The apex court asked the CBI to continue its investigations into the matter of culpa-bility and to submit quarterly progress reports. Six-and-a-half years on, no meaningful progress has been made. The governments, both at the Centre and in the state, have done little beyond obstructing the process. The NHRC can neither adjudicate the issues nor determine the liability of the state in the absence of necessary factual information.