Sikhs query the deadly price of peace

TIM McGIRK

Chandigarh

After 10 years of insurrection and banditry in the western state of Punjab, the Indian security forces have finally managed to crush Sikh militancy.

No longer can you rent an AK-47 assault rifle for an evening of killing and extortion; the "English Wine Shops" and pubs, once shut down by puritanical Sikhs, are again filled with boisterous crowds; and at Chandigarh university young women are no longer scared that if they wear jeans they will be accosted by bullying militants who will shave off their hair.

But many Sikhs are questioning the cost at which peace was restored to the rich farming plains of Punjab.

Did the police, in their brutal war against militant Sikh gangs, kill 5,000 people? Or was the death-toll closer to 25,000 or even 30,000?

Searching for an answer, seven rather intimidating-looking Sikh men in their turbans and long beards cornered a janitor at the Durginia Mandir cremation ground in Amritsar in January 1995. The seven were lawyers and human- rights activists and they demanded to see the records for unidentified bodies that had been incinerated.

"At first he showed us a register of dead beggars and migrant labourers but we said 'No, no, we wanted to see about young Sikh boys'," said Jaspal Singh Dhillon, chairman of the Shiromani Akali Dal human- rights wing. The janitor then produced a secret register for the "unclaimed" and "unidentified" corpses of Sikh youths. For each, the police had paid 38 rupees for a shroud and 178 rupees for wood to burn the corpse. The register listed 538 corpses that since 1984 had been dumped at the Durginia cremation grounds for disposal. The investigators then checked the records of two other cremation grounds, at Taran-Taran and Putti.

In all, nearly 3,000 unidentified bodies had been burnt to ashes. The human-rights investigators were convinced they were the corpses of Sikh youths who had been seized by the Punjab police and had since vanished. "Whenever we visited the villages and rural areas, we'd come across wives and sisters showing us photos of their young men who had disappeared after being taken into custody. Now we had a good idea what had happened to them," said Mr Dhillon.

The police also dumped large numbers of bodies in Punjab's canals, he added. So many corpses were floating into the neighbouring state of Rajasthan that in 1987 an official complaint was made.

Punjab responded to this embarrassment by stringing nets across the canals to snare the corpses before they drifted into the next state.

When one of Mr Dhillon's colleagues, Jaswant Singh Kalra, dared to accuse a police superintendent in Taran-Taran district of wholesale murder, the officer reportedly warned him: "If we can make 25,000 people disappear, we can easily make one more disappear." Then, on the morning of 6 September, while Mr Kalra was outside his home washing his car, five men came and kidnapped him. Witnesses said the abductors were policemen with walkie- talkies who drove off in a police vehicle. "We're 100-per-cent sure he's dead," said Mr Dhillon. "It was a warning to all of us who are investigating these disappearances."

Not all Punjabis want the issue of dead bodies to be exhumed. Many accept the official line that police were forced to use brutality to counter the militants, who used weapons smuggled across the border from Pakistan. Many bandit gangs used Sikh militancy as a guise to carry out rapes, robberies and extortion. Their activities had little to do with "Khalistan" - the Sikh "land of the pure". A Punjabi journalist, Asit Jolly, explained, "In the border areas, where the militants were strongest, you'd see the oldest man in the village touching the foot of this young Soldier of God. But once the militants started using their guns to kill people for their lands or steal their daughters, the boys lost support."

The tide turned against the militants in 1992, when the ruling Congress party won elections which were boycotted by many of the local parties. With backing from the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, the new Congress government in Punjab increased its police strength to more than 70,000 men and gave wide-ranging powers to the controversial police chief Kanwar Pal Singh Gill.

A giant Sikh with piercing eyes, Mr Gill gained a reputation for ruthlessness. Seldom did his officers take prisoners. A superintendent in Amritsar admitted to me that because the courts seldom convicted Sikh activists - the judges were afraid of revenge - the police killed the suspects in "fake encounters". Of course not all the suspects were "terrorists".

Terrorism may not be extinguished (the chief minister, Beant Singh, was killed in a car bomb in August) but it is waning. Now the civil administration is trying to wrest back the dictatorial powers it gave away to the state police. As Pramod Kumar, director at the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh, said, "Before, the judiciary and the civil administration surrendered everything to the police - now they want these powers back."

The new Chief Minister, Harcharan Singh Brar, forced out his police chief (Mr Gill now faces a misdemeanour case for slapping a woman's bottom) this month and the supreme court is investigating the disappearance of Mr Kalran.

Mr Dhillon is also relieved by the police chief's departure. A police friend had tipped him off that he, too, was targeted for assassination.

Navkiran Singh, a supreme-court lawyer, explained: "Jaspal heard that the police were going to kill him but someone high up intervened.

"Gill was angry about this. So he summoned Jaspal to his office and told him: 'Don't thank God for this but me - I'm the one who spared you.' "

In retirement, the police chief says, he wants to write poetry.

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