Information from three human rights workers and one human rights lawyer from the Punjab [IND27112.EX]

In May 1997 the Documentation, Information and Research Branch (DIRB) interviewed three representatives of human rights groups and one human rights lawyer, all from the Indian Punjab. The four were questioned on the human rights situation in the state and on their work and the work of their organizations. The individuals were as follows:

Ajit Singh Bains, Chairman, Punjab Human Rights Organization (PHRO), Chandigarh (interviewed 16 May 1997);
Jaspal Singh Dhillon, Representative, Human Rights and Democracy Forum (HRDF; formerly the Human Rights Wing of the Akali Dal), Ropar District (interviewed 7 May 1997);
Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, Convener, Movement Against State Repression (MASR), Chandigarh (interviewed 15 May 1997);
Ranjan Lakhanpal, Advocate, Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh (interviewed 21 May 1997).

This Response to Information Request is intended to be read in conjunction with Extended Response to Information Request IND26376.EX of 17 February 1997, which provides information from four Punjab specialists on the peace, order and human rights situation in the state, and with Response to Information Request IND26992.E of 20 May 1997, which provides further information on these topics from anthropologist Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. The opinions and views expressed in this paper are those of the specialists surveyed and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DIRB or the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). This Response is not, and does not purport to be, either exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed or conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

Current Human Rights Situation in Punjab

Justice (retd.) Ajit Singh Bains, Jaspal Singh Dhillon, Inderjeet Singh Jaijee and Ranjan Lakhanpal were in general agreement that the human rights situation has improved in Punjab since the very violent years between 1984 and 1995. However, they all also stressed that there remained a general fear of the Punjab police, many of whom remain on duty in districts where they have been accused of human rights violations. All four noted that there have been two high-profile cases of disappearances and killings in the last two years: those of human rights worker Jaswant Singh Khalra in September 1995 and of Akali Dal (Mann) activist Kashmir Singh in March 1997. In addition, Dhillon reported that in 1996 there were seven or eight cases of disappearances in Punjab, with one victim being Muslim and the rest Sikh. Torture and ill-treatment in custody remain serious problems according to Bains, Lakhanpal and Jaijee. Lakhanpal said that almost everyone taken into custody faces rough treatment or torture, a problem endemic not just in Punjab but throughout India.

Jaijee and Bains stressed that root causes of discontent and political friction in the state had not been addressed and stated that they did not expect the current peace to last. Jaijee added that in order to have lasting peace in Punjab, rather than the "peace of the grave," concessions for more autonomy would have to be made to Sikh nationalists. However, these concessions would require difficult constitutional changes that Jaijee believes will be beyond the powers of any Indian government to achieve in the near future. Jaijee quoted a figure of 55,000 civilian deaths and 1,700 police deaths between 1984 and 1994, statistics he said were cited before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in April 1997 by senior supreme court lawyers defending police officers accused of human rights violations. According to Jaijee, human rights workers put the figures even higher and add thousands more to the number of disappearances reported by national papers—a legacy, he said, which will not be erased quickly or easily in the coming years.

All four sources expressed disappointment that the new Akali Dal-led government in Punjab, elected in February 1997 and headed by Prakash Singh Badal, has not been able to bring about a greater improvement in human rights observances. According to Jaijee, all Indian states are strongly constrained by the power of the centre; in his view, although the Badal government was elected in part to fight state repression, it has avoided taking significant steps because of central control. He noted, for example, that human rights groups have asked the new government to conduct a census, akin to South AfricaÕs truth commission, on past killings, but so far nothing has been done. Dhillon stated that his group, the Human Rights and Democracy Forum (HRDF), separated from the Akali Dal in October 1996 because it felt the partyÕs leadership "was not serious about human rights issues."


All of those interviewed reported that since 1995 there have been a number of cases brought against Punjab police officers for alleged human rights violations and that Sikhs have come forward in increasing numbers to press claims against authorities. Ranjan Lakhanpal, who handles cases for the Akali Dal (Mann), stated that when he began his work as a human rights lawyer in the early 1990s, it was extremely difficult to bring a case forward against the Punjab police. By May 1997, however, he had filed some 1,200 writs of habeas corpus in disappearance cases. According to Ajit Singh Bains, about 30 Punjab police officers are now in jail for human rights violations. Both he and Lakhanpal stated that these officers' cases are on-going and none has been convicted to date. Jaspal Singh Dhillon said that Sikh families are starting to come forward to press claims in old cases of disappearances and killings. The HRDF, according to Dhillon, is now handling over 180 cases. Inderjeet Singh Jaijee also stated that people are beginning to have faith in the judicial process. However, he stressed that he is sceptical about the outcome of most of the cases against police officers, since the government is providing very senior lawyers to defend them and is still posting many officers to areas in which they are alleged to have committed abuses. Bains, however, expressed the view that police officers currently on trial for serious offences would eventually be convicted.

Lakhanpal explained his usual process of responding to a disappearance claim. He files a writ of habeas corpus to which, according to him, the Punjab police generally file a "false affidavit" denying they had had any contact with the person named in the writ. Lakhanpal then argues the case in court, asking for the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) to look into the matter. He stated that the CBI investigations, if ordered, often take years and have to be followed up with other investigations. To date Lakhanpal has won no convictions against Punjab police officers. He added, however, that in some rare cases judges will order compensation, which the families of the victims in his practice have so far refused, demanding instead to have their missing relatives returned. "It's a no-win situation," according to Lakhanpal.

Nevertheless, Lakhanpal has had some success. In one case, for example, he was able to find and obtain the release of a Sikh family that had been in illegal detention for three and a half years. According to him, the family had been rounded-up in an attempt to force the surrender of a son, a suspected militant. While incarcerated, the family's house and crops were destroyed and the daughter was raped. Lakhanpal was unable to win any compensation in the case because of pressure from the Punjab police; however, according to Lakhanpal, the guard who raped the daughter did eventually agree to marry her, since she would be unable to find another husband.

Lakhanpal further stated that people laying charges against police are commonly threatened and often their families are, too. He alleges that two years ago his own son, aged 10, was killed by the police because of his work in pursuing human rights cases. The majority of his clients have been pressured by police to withdraw charges. As recently as 12 May 1997, he related, a client asked to withdraw his case after receiving threats from the police. (The client was eventually persuaded by Lakhanpal to proceed anyway.) According to Lakhanpal, people are still very fearful of Punjab police.

Dhillon reported that with the relative calming of the political situation in Punjab, increasingly Sikhs are bringing their cases to human rights lawyers to be taken up in court, rather than to human rights groups for investigation. Both the HRDF and the Movement Against State Repression (MASR) rely on the volunteer work of lawyers. The HRDF has a large network of lawyers who volunteer some time to represent cases in court. The MASR, which does not provide legal services, nevertheless uses a smaller network of volunteer legal advisors to help claimants in their investigations. According to Lakhanpal, however, very few lawyers take on more than a small number of human rights cases in Punjab; among the most active he named himself, Navkiran Singh and Rajvinder Singh Bains, the son of Ajit Singh Bains, all of whom work in Chandigarh. Lakhanpal stated there are not nearly enough lawyers taking human rights cases in Punjab to provide adequate legal services given the number of abuses committed in the last several years.

Jaijee stressed the lack of redress for past abuses. Despite the thousands of Sikhs killed in the tumultuous events of 19841 and numerous judicial inquiries and reports, "not a single person has been taken to task," he stated. The present sense of peace in Punjab, which has descended with the defeat of the militants, has not been solidified with a sense of justice, according to Jaijee.

The Work of Human Rights Groups

According to Jaspal Singh Dhillon, there are only four main human rights organizations in Punjab: the HRDF, the MASR, the Punjab Human Rights Organization (PHRO) and the International Human Rights Organization (IHRO). The first three are described below by their respective representatives. The DIRB was unable to contact a representative from the IHRO, which is based in Ludhiana. Dhillon added that there are a few other ÒfringeÓ human rights groups but maintained that their work was marginal.

According to Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, there are too few human rights groups in Punjab. He considers that what his own organization, the MASR, is doing is a very small portion of what needs to be done. When you are dealing with disappearances up to 50,000, or investigation of cases leading up to 150,000 killings, two or three voluntary groups of our type cannot do this. We need at least 200 groups working here.

Similarly, Ranjan Lakhanpal stated that in general there are not enough human rights groups in Punjab and that those that exist are unable to provide an adequate level of service to meet the needs of clients. In Lakhanpal's view the major problem is police pressure on human rights groups to curtail their activities and the activities of human rights lawyers.

HRDF (information provided by Dhillon):

The main work of the HRDF is to provide legal aid to victims of repression. The organization operates state-wide but is unable to offer services outside of Punjab. It has a core of 147 workers, most of them lawyers, with a looser network of about 9,000 people who sometimes help out. The HRDF also co-operates with other human rights groups to produce reports. In March 1997, for example, it collaborated with the PHRO and the MASR to report on the disappearance and killing of Kashmir Singh. Earlier, as the Human Rights Wing of the Akali Dal, it reported on the secret police use of crematoriums to dispose of large numbers of bodies of suspected militants.2
PHRO (information provided by Ajit Singh Bains):

The PHRO is a small group with limited resources. Founded by Bains in 1985, it is made up of not more than 20 volunteer lawyers and human rights activists, some based in Amritsar, Jallandhar and other places, and some in Chandigarh. Members are still funding most activities from their own contributions. The PHRO has traditionally been shy about asking others for money, but it is considering seeking more sources of funding. The organization inquires into kidnappings, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other human rights abuses, shares reports with Amnesty International and the United Nations and helps bring serious cases to trial. It works in co-operation with the HRDF and the MASR, as well as some human rights groups in Delhi. However, it generally does not collaborate with the IHRO, which works on its own. The PHRO regularly publishes reports, and Bains himself published a book on human rights in Punjab in 1988.

A prominent retired justice, Bains was incarcerated for four and a half months in 1992 and subjected to torture. In 1993 the PHRO also lost a human rights activist in a disappearance. Since the new government was elected in February 1997, the work of the PHRO as been eased somewhat; workers are able to move about more freely collecting testimony. However, a general climate of fear persists, and many people are still afraid of contacting groups like the PHRO.

MASR (information provided by Jaijee):

The MASR was established in 1988, with all its original members aged over 55 since younger Sikh males were routinely being picked up as suspected militants. The organization started work on cases of Sikhs being taken out of Punjab by security forces and killed anonymously. Their major project to date involved bringing journalists to report on numerous bodies found in the temporarily dry beds of canals beside police detention centres. They also worked on exposing the large numbers of bounties(possibly over 100,000, according to the MASR(given out for the killing of militants. The MASR does not provide legal services for victims of human rights abuses, focusing instead on investigating and publicising abuses. In November 1995 Jaijee submitted the text of his book Politics of Genocide: Punjab 1984-1994 to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The MASR has very limited funding and does not accept money from outside the country. The MASR has no paid staff and has a small but growing volunteer network that now informally includes volunteers from lawyers' unions in various parts of Punjab.

Services for Sikhs in Neighbouring States

According to Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, Haryana shares the high court with Punjab, and so is covered by Punjab human rights groups. He stated that, for the most part, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir do not have strong human rights groups. Delhi, however, has some small human rights groups and lawyers working on civil rights issues, and a separate high court. Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan also have separate high courts. According to Ranjan Lakhanpal, he and other human rights lawyers can travel to neighbouring states to represent people, if asked. However, he reiterated that police pressure and abuses are found throughout India and are the major barrier to preventing people from bringing cases forward.


Justice (retd.) Ajit Singh Bains, Chairman, Punjab Human Rights Organization (PHRO), Chandigarh, India. 16 May 1997. Telephone interview.

Jaspal Singh Dhillon, Representative, Human Rights and Democracy Forum (HRDF), Ropar District, Punjab, India. 7 May 1997. Telephone interview.

Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, Convener, Movement Against State Repression (MASR), Chandigarh, India. 15 May 1997. Telephone interview.

Ranjan Lakhanpal, Advocate, Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh. 21 May 1997. Telephone interview from San Francisco.


1 These events include Operation Blue Star, the Indian government’s June military assault on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the widespread anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in November. For further information, please see the DIRB’s January 1994 Question and Answer Series paper India: Punjab Human Rights Update, pp. 1-2.

2 For more information, please see the DIRB’s February 1996 Question and Answer series paper India: Sikhs in Punjab 1994-95, pp. 12-13.