Date: 1/22/2005


.............Reduced to Ahses, A book review

..................-Dr. I.J. Singh NY

REDUCED TO ASHES: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. (Final Report: Volume 1). By Ram Narayan Kumar with Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur. South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu, Nepal, June 2003. 635 pages.

TWENTY YEARS OF IMPUNITY: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India. By Jaskaran Kaur with a Foreword by Barbara Crossette. Ensaaf, USA, June 2004. 150 Pages.

Reviewed by: I.J. Singh, New York University

The release of the book REDUCED TO ASHES was deliberately timed for June 2003. Twenty years ago, it was in June 1984 that the Indian army attacked the premier gurdwara (temple) of the Sikhs The Golden Temple and forty other gurdwaras across the north Indian state of Punjab. It was this attack more than anything else that set into motion the events chronicled in the book the insurgency in the Punjab and the horrendous record of human rights violations by the Indian government that are only partially documented in this report.

The violations included mass roundups of young Sikhs and virtual emptying of Punjabi villages by the police. Young male Sikhs were incarcerated for years without trial or any opportunity to defend themselves. Many still languish in prison without any trial or legal redress. Freely utilized by the police, as instruments of pacification were abduction, rape and torture, even killings in staged encounters. It might shock readers to know that police had quotas of arrests and killings in order to earn rewards and bonuses.

CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), Indias equivalent of the FBI finally admitted staged encounters as well as illegal, undocumented and mass cremations of hundreds, but corrective actions have yet to be initiated. Even though directed by the Supreme Court of India to do so, the CBI has failed to investigate any. The insurgency in Punjab ended over a decade ago but as yet there has been no attempt at a complete accounting of the dead and maimed. Human rights activists, like Jaswant Singh Khalra, who protested too loudly or investigated too vigorously disappeared; their tortured bodies surfaced just as mysteriously, sans explanation.

The CBI finally admitted to 582 fully identified, 278 partially identified and 1238 unidentified cremations. Official records now admit that perhaps a little over 2000 people disappeared in those troubled times, but these figures are from three crematoria alone in only the district of Amritsar. Independent observers estimate the numbers to be at least ten times larger. Many who were cremated by the police remain only partially or incompletely identified.

The book provides a useful chapter on the genesis of the insurgency in Punjab that was driven largely by the political ambitions of Indira Gandhi, who was then the Prime Minister of India. It provides an able analysis of the many inquiry commissions that were appointed under pressure but were extremely circumscribed in their authority and mandate. How the Indian judiciary was circumvented and tamed makes a riveting tale. Reproductions from official documents of mass cremations, along with personal interviews with surviving relatives of those who permanently disappeared while in police custody, complete this case against official malfeasance.

That Indias record in human rights deserves critical scrutiny is beyond argument. For instance, as recently as two years ago (2002) several thousand Muslims were killed in a Gujarat by raging Hindu mobs with, it now appears, the active collusion and support of the government. Amnesty International has issued several highly critical reports on the imbroglio in Punjab and the failure of the government. (Amnesty International has not been permitted by the Indian government to enter India.) Indian citizens, primarily non-Sikh, have also issued several smaller booklets; the government banned many of these. But this book is the most complete recounting so far, and we have in our hands only the first volume. The second volume promises hundreds of case reports, and personal testimony of ordinary people who feared governmental repercussions and reprisals for daring to speak.

In the 1990s Yugoslavia and South Africa, emerging out of a period of horrendous violations of civil rights of their citizens, chose to confront their past by appointing Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Without such actions a government risks losing its credibility internally with its own citizens and externally with the international community. Also in neglect, the historical record is lost or tainted. This report on Punjab is a serious attempt to capture and preserve history by giving the victims a voice and to shift the focus of human rights in India from rhetoric to the healing power of truth and reconstruction.

Ram Narayan Kumar, the lead author based in Austria and Ashok Agrwaal, a lawyer and human rights activist are both non-Sikhs. Of the Sikh coauthors Amrik Singh is a human rights activist in Punjab and Jaskaran Kaur is a 2003 graduate of Harvard Law School. It should be noted that this report, issued by the Committee for the Coordination of Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP), was published and printed outside India, in Nepal; the authors were afraid that it would be seized and suppressed if published in India.

The CCDP was started in 1997 to collect and collate information about people who have disappeared from all over the state, to evolve a workable system of state accountability, and to lobby for India to change its laws in conformity with the UN instruments on torture and enforced disappearances etc. The report carries an introduction by Peter Rosenblum, Director of the Human rights Program at Harvard Law School, and starts with evidence of mass illegal cremations and the attempt by the Supreme Court of India to intervene on a petition on behalf of those who were missing and unaccounted for in police custody. This is followed by extensive discussion of the case of Jaswant Singh Khalra who first released copies of official documents that confirmed the complicity of security agencies in the undocumented and secret cremations of thousands of people abducted by the police. As a result Khalra was abducted by armed police commandoes in 1995, never to be seen alive a! gain.

The report next provides a fairly detailed narrative on the tortured history of human rights and the failure of the political process in Punjab. This is necessary to understand the issues in Punjab and how they were so mishandled that they brought India to the brink of fragmentation. The movement on Punjab was not secessionist though it was so cast by Indira Gandhi.

The Indian government enacted draconian laws to deal harshly with political issues that allowed years of incarceration without trial. The Punjab police was transformed into an instrument of torture with quotas and rewards for summary killings of suspected terrorists. The rise of a nascent human rights organization in the face of governmental harassment and opposition is well documented, as is the diminution of the Indian judiciary to an instrument of the government.

Since the body of the report consists of interviews with survivors of the police torture or the relatives of those did not, the interview process is critical. Everything hangs on the veracity of the witnesses, cross checking of the information, and in the process confidentiality and safety have to be assured. In the politically volatile and dangerous Punjab this was not always easy, but Kumar and his team have achieved a near miracle. The interview process is well laid out.

Now this painfully detailed report has been followed by a Twenty Years of impunity that carries a foreword by Barbara Crossette, the noted correspondent for the New York Times, who covered the horrendous events in Punjab. It details the killings of Sikhs that continued for a decade after 1984, and the denial of justice. In the meantime many an investigative commission was appointed, more to obscure the truth than to expose it.

Jaskaran Kaur lists the arguments that the Indian government posited to these commissions to justify why police failed to protect any Sikhs or arrest any of the killers. In the submissions of the administrative hierarchy, police inaction was based 1) on the presumption that there was widespread simmering resentment against the Sikhs due to acts of omission and commission, overt and covert; 2) common pattern of allegations that Sikhs were armed with kirpans and thats why the mob had armed with lathis and wooden sticks, and had the mob been organized it would have been armed with deadly weapons; 3) time was too short to plan and organize a response to the mob violence; 4) the charged atmosphere created by the assassination of the prime minister; and finally 5) that the few people who were arrested belonged to different areas, indicating that they were not a part of an organized conspiracy.

Such a submission from governmental authority would be laughable if it was not so painfully absurd. It is now clearly and repeatedly established that within hours of Indira Gandhis assassination, mobs armed with guns, in trucks loaded with kerosene arrived at Sikh localities. They carried lists of which and factories were Sikh owned and which were not. They killed Sikhs, looted and burnt their property selectively while sparing others. Policemen stood by, watched the show and actively jeered while they egged on the looters.

Keep in mind that in India weapons are not easily obtained, they are licensed. In 1984 one could not buy kerosene on the open market, trucks are few and at a premium and lists of house owners take time to procure.

To me the carnage of Sikhs in 1984 speaks of a high degree of very efficient organization and management that I would term a criminal conspiracy.

Both books contain documentation that is a monumental undertaking and a painful read. They are all the more significant because India is the largest democracy on earth and, with Israel, perhaps the only other functioning one in that corner of the world. Indias and neighboring Pakistans nuclear capabilities make this an area ready to blow. That is more than ample reason for the world to pay attention to the fissiparous internal dissensions within India.