Recently, Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal cancelled his upcoming trip to Canada. The cited reason: lack of security. With Punjab’s finances on the brink of disaster, Badal was to meet business leaders and ministers to attract funds to the state. However, he fears that Sikh groups in Canada seeking justice for alleged human rights violations in Punjab from 1985 to 1995 will file a legal case against him because he heads the police force that earned notoriety during those years. Last year, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was almost served a notice by a US court for the alleged violations. The groups claim that the state government is shielding the guilty police officers.
While Punjab bounced back from militancy in 1995, it has neither plugged the reasons why the demand for Khalistan arose, nor done anything to assuage the wounds the years of militancy inflicted on its people. The state’s roadmap to peace seems to based on doling out subsidies to silence the people. Yet, people talk. In whispers. Those whispers travel farther than propaganda. People talk about disappearances and deaths. About lack of ethics. About those who left the state and the country never to return. All that creates a sense of unease, which deters those NRIs from investing in Punjab.
So, will Punjab adopt an ethical approach towards its prosperity by setting right its record of human rights violations?
This July, the political will of the government was put to test. Punjab Police Sub-Inspector Surjit Singh confessed that during the years of militancy, the then senior superintendent of police of Amritsar district, Paramjit Singh Gill, had ordered him to kill 83 men in fake encounters. “The guilty were killed, and innocent were also brought to me to be killed,” he said. “I didn’t know whether they were guilty or innocent, but I was told to kill them regardless.”
It is true that Surjit Singh has a personal axe to grind. Allegedly, his pay has been reduced to that of a constable, his rank before he was given an out-of-turn promotion. There will always be some reason other than conscience as to why a policeman would make a confession.
Yet, a confession is a confession. It is backed with names and details of those who were killed. Surjit Singh approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court seeking personal security, but the court dismissed the petition and asked him to talk to his superiors. The decision defies logic. Why would the force he is alleging to be complicit in the killings provide security to him, the whistleblower?
One of those Surjit Singh confesses to have killed was Baghel Singh. Newspaper clippings of January 1992, in possession of Baghel Singh’s brother, show Parkash Singh Badal himself expressing apprehension when Baghel Singh was brought from Jamshedpur, where the family had fled after his two nephews were killed in fake encounters. Baghel Singh was crushed under a vehicle.
Another former police officer, Lakhwinder Singh, has also spoken about how the police tortured the victims, how his brother was killed, and how he, too, could have met the same fate. If the government is not acting, why can’t the Human Rights Commission or the Minority Commission initiate a suo moto case based on the details Surjit Singh is willing to share? It may even lead to more confessions, more perpetrators brought to justice and the people finally believing there is a sense of closure to the misdeeds of the past. After all, five police officers were convicted for the murder of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the human rights activist who was probing the thousands of disappearances. But what about all the cases that Khalra was pursuing? Who will pursue them?
By following up on confessions of the likes of Surjit Singh and testimonials of Lakhwinder Singh and the families of the disappeared and the dead — victims of the State or the militants — Punjab can open a door to acknowledging the crimes and, through it, to reconciliation. Translated into tangible political will, it would help clean up Punjab’s image and attract the investments that the state so badly needs. There cannot be progress without closure and healing.