A Candle in the Darkness: The Legacy of Jaswant Singh Khalra

“There is a fable that when the Sun was setting for the first time, … light was decreasing … and the signs of Darkness were appearing … Darkness set its foot on the Earth, but it is said — far away, in some hut, one little Lamp lifted his head. It proclaimed, ‘I challenge the Darkness. If nothing else, then at least around myself, I will not let it settle. Around myself I will establish Light.’”

—   Jaswant Singh Khalra

 The 6th of September marks the day when the Punjab Police abducted the Human Rights Activist, Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, from his home for him to be never seen again. Yet 18 years later, the judicial process in India to bring to justice those responsible for the “enforced disappearance” of Jaswant Singh Khalra is being severely undermined with only a handful of those guilty being convicted till date.

 Jaswant Singh Khalra was born in Amritsar in 1952 and worked as a Bank Manager before the sudden disappearance of two of his colleagues led him to investigate their disappearances. After a short while, he discovered that the dead bodies of his colleagues had been given to the local municipal corporation (Council) by the Police to cremate. The Police had claimed that the dead bodies were unclaimed and therefore had to be cremated by the authorities as per law. The management at the Vijay Chowk cremation grounds kept records of each body delivered to them by the police so that they could account for the wood used in lighting the funeral pyre. Khalra realised that the records held by the cremation grounds showed that many young men who had been reported missing by their families in the Amritsar district had been cremated after the police gave their dead bodies to the local authorities. It was after this point, that Jaswant Singh Khalra took up the mission to highlight the plight of thousands of people who had “disappeared” after being arrested by the Punjab police in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

In a speech delivered by Khalra at a Sikh Temple in Canada, just months before his abduction, he stated that he had discovered 6,017 bodies which had been illegally cremated in three towns in the Amritsar district. Many of those who had been illegally cremated were still being waited upon by their families’ years after suddenly disappearing.

Khalra’s hard work was instrumental in a petition being filled in the Supreme Court concerning the fate of those who had “disappeared”. This petition had led to the Supreme Court of India instructing the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate widespread allegations of human rights violations in Punjab.

Khalra, who was also the General Secretary of the Human Rights Wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal, openly declared the Director General of Punjab Police KPS Gill, as the mastermind of the enforced disappearances that occurred in Punjab. However no action was taken against Gill despite the numerous evidences against him and he continues to be a free man till today.

On the 6th September 1995, Jaswant Singh Khalra was picked up by the Police outside his house and taken away. What happened to Khalra after that was unclear until 2005, when a former special constable named Kuldeep Singh gave evidence in court. Kuldeep Singh claimed that Khalra was kept in illegal confinement at the house of a Police Superintendent named Ajit Sandhu in Tarn Taran district. Sandhu was later indicted of his involvement in Khalra’s disappearance and shot himself before he could be arrested. 

Kuldeep Singh in his statement to the court also claimed that the Director General of Police, KPS Gill had visited Khalra whilst he was being illegally confined. Giving a lengthy deposition, the former Special Constable said he was responsible to give food to the imprisoned Khalra, usually after the human rights activist had been tortured by senior officers. Finally at some point in the last week of October 1995, Khalra was shot dead. Kuldeep alleges that Khalra’s body was then dumped into a canal. During all this time, the Police continued to deny that they had arrested or picked up Khalra. 

It wasn’t until mid-1996 when the Supreme Court of India ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra. The inquiry found evidence of police involvement in the disappearance of Khalra and recommended the prosecution of nine police officers for the kidnap and murder of the Human Rights activist.

In 2005, six police officers were sentenced to life imprisonment for their involvement in the case. On appeal, one police officer had his conviction quashed and was released. However, despite heavy evidence, the former Director General of Police KPS Gill, was not charged.

Jaswant Singh Khalra led the campaign against Human Rights abuses in Punjab and fought against death threats and intimidation from the authorities to achieve justice for those who had been ill served. Like his grandfather who was a leading activist of the ‘Ghadar movement’ which fought against the British Raj for India’s independence, Khalra was the luminary and iconic figure that represented everything a human rights defender should be.

Whilst paying tribute to the memory of Jaswant Singh Khalra, I sincerely pray that the work started off by him continues so that we can become fully aware of the extent of the violations which took place and unfortunately continue to take place today in Punjab.

– Kirat Raj Singh

6th September 2013



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