Aditi Tandon, Tribune News Service
New Delhi, April 5. Had it not been for a petition filed in the Supreme Court way back in 1995 by Paramjit Kaur of Amritsar, whose husband had gone missing, the truth of killings and mass cremations of thousands of young men in Punjab would have never come to light.
What later came to be known as the “Punjab mass cremation case” actually originated in Paramjit Kaur’s habeas corpus petition in the apex court wherein she sought production of her missing husband Jaswant Singh Khalra, one of the two men who first documented extra-judicial killings in the state during militancy days.
It was in fact a press note (detailing these killings) issued by Khalra and JS Dhillon, both members of Shiromani Akali Dal’s human rights wing, which served as a tipping point for the case that later revealed gory details before ending yesterday with the National Human Rights Commission’s awarding Rs 27.40 crore compensation to kin of 1513 victims who were identified out of 2097, cases pertaining to whom were probed.
The Tribune dug into the files of this 17-year-old case which started when the Supreme Court took cognisance of Kaur’s petition and another filed by Tapan Basu of the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab. The first related to abduction and disappearance of Khalra and the second, to a press note dated November 16, 1995 issued by Dhillon and Khalra, general secretary of Akali Dal’s human rights wing. Khalra went missing soon as this press statement came out.
Captioned “Disappeared Cremation Grounds”, the press note contained investigations of the killings of 3100 men whose bodies were labelled as “unidentified” and cremated in three Punjab Police districts of Amritsar, Majitha and Tarn Taran.
The press note, which became the basis for a CBI and later an NHRC probe into the killings, stated, “Several bodies were cremated as unidentified in Punjab between June 1984 and December 1994 – 700 at Tarn Taran’s Municipal crematorium; 400 at Patti municipal crematorium and 2000 at Durgiana Mandir crematorium in Amritsar.”
Records of the court and NHRC, which The Tribune exclusively accessed, show that the Supreme Court awarded compensation to Kaur and took up the press note for investigation, directing the CBI to report back on its contents.
The court observed in its November 15, 1995 order, “This court cannot close its eyes to the contents of the press note stated to be investigated by Khalra and Dhillon. In case these are correct, it would be a gory tale of human rights violations. It is horrifying to visualise that bodies of thousands could be cremated unceremoniously by the police with a label – unidentified.
Contents of this press note are horrendous and we direct the CBI Director to investigate these.”
The CBI investigated 2097 bodies. In its fifth and final report to the SC submitted on December 9, 1996, CBI said, “585 bodies had been fully identified; 274 partially and 1238 are unidentified.”
Following the CBI’s report, the apex court, on December 12, 1996, invoked its powers under Article 32 of the Constitution, asking the NHRC to probe further. In all, out of 2097 bodies, 1513 were identified. Of these 1513, 109 involve young men who were in police custody when killed. These were later disposed of as unidentified. Their families were awarded Rs 2.50 lakh each as against 1.75 lakh to the families of those who were killed but were not in police custody prior to the killing.
(To be concluded)