Jatinder Singh: Quantifying Mass Murder And Why All Punjabis Should Demand A Truth Commission

In his reporting on KPS Gill’s record, Hartosh Bal omitted events surrounding human rights worker Jaswant Singh Khalra

Jaswant Singh Khalra | Khalra was disappeared and murdered by Punjab Police after he uncovered illegal cremations and evidence of rampant extrajudicial killings

Jatinder Singh
April 26, 2021 | 3.5 min. Read

When Simon Fraser University (SFU) planned a webinar on the Indian farmer’s protest with journalist Hartosh Singh Bal, they seemed taken aback after an uproar from students and community members, despite knowing of an earlier cancelation of a similar webinar at the University of British Columbia (UBC) due to Bal’s presence.

Bal is the nephew of KPS Gill, former Director-General of Punjab Police. A counterinsurgency by Punjab Police against an armed Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s-90s resulted in gross human rights abuses.

It was reported that Bal’s relationship to KPS Gill was the overriding reason for the community protest regarding the now two canceled university events. However, it is Bal’s repeated attempts to diminish the scale of the killings in Punjab which are most problematic - at least to me. 

In his reporting on KPS Gill’s record, Bal omitted events surrounding human rights worker Jaswant Singh Khalra. 

Khalra was important to mention as he had been conducting field research on illegal cremations by the police and approximated that as many as 25,000 bodies could have been cremated across the State. This led to him receiving threats to end his field research.

On September 6, 1995, Khalra was abducted and then murdered by the Punjab Police. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigated the mass cremations and in its final report, limited to the Amritsar district alone, listed 2,097 illegal cremations. They had missed an opportunity to survey the entire State and the true scale of what had befallen Punjab.

Bal stated that the 25,000 estimate was ‘a complete fabrication’. He also based his conclusions on KPS Gill’s tenure almost entirely on statistics provided by the Institute founded by KPS Gill himself.

He is not alone in making conclusions based on data that is open to question. Others have either exaggerated or downplayed the number killed in Punjab, whether by the insurgents or the police. Not knowing empirically the scale of abuse allows people to score political points against each other. Khalra was clear it was an estimate and wanted a full-scale investigation to ascertain the real figure of those killed.

I firmly believe Punjabis are owed a true account of what happened during that period, free from political influence and bias. Nothing short of a full truth commission conducted by an independent committee is required. A wholesale survey across Punjab, collecting testimonies and other data would allow us to build a database to understand the scale of the violence that impacted Punjab, and whatever lingering effects that are having on the citizenry.

The first requirement is the need for quality and comprehensive data. KPS Gill’s institute may have captured those killed by the insurgents accurately, or exaggerated it, but one doubts they would have accounted for the number killed by the police, especially considering the evidence we have of illegal cremations. 

Despite the sparsity of data for this period, some statistical analyses have been performed which show what the collection and analysis of quality data can have on investigating patterns of violence. 

As early as 1991, by looking at the number of citizens killed by insurgents through newspaper reports, a Ph.D. found through time-series analysis that when a popular government facilitated the popular expression of grievances, levels of insurgency came down in Punjab. Conversely, periods of denial of popular expressions, such as President’s rule, led to an increase in the incidence of insurgency. 

A survey conducted in 1997 on Punjab police established unique patterns of torture practices. The information garnered from this survey allowed clinicians in the USA to determine genuine torture claims for Sikh asylum seekers.

In 2007, the long-term psychopathology in 116 Punjabi Sikh survivors of human rights violations was reported. The sampling had been obtained from the 2,097 in the CBI report. The authors found that chronic injuries sustained during torture and other forms of political violence were robust predictors of long-term psychopathology, even beyond the effects of the torture itself. Consistent with the literature on injury and PTSD, there was also a clear relationship between chronic injuries and PTSD among those tortured.

Finally, in a master’s thesis, interviews with 45 women found that attempts to suppress militancy by the State led to incidents in which they were detained and tortured illegally by the police. The women concerned had to suffer a severe degree of torture of varying methods, which made many of them victims of medical and psychological disorders like depression, severe pain in the body, damaged muscles, and anxiety. 

As you can see, important insights can be gained from the data analysed. If more quality data is collected, then there is much more analysis that can be done to truly understand the nature of violence that befell Punjab. A truth commission is needed, but doubtful considering the political climate in India. One of the few groups attempting to capture the data is ensaaf, which has created a visual map of at least 5,301 victims of enforced disappearances or extrajudicial executions.

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Jatinder Singh is National Director for Khalsa Aid Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @jindisinghka.


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