For a man who waged a battle against the disappearance of thousands of Sikh youths who would later be found killed in fake encounters during the militancy before he himself became a victim of one such forced disappearance and was killed by the Punjab Police, Jaswant Singh Khalra remains a forgotten icon in his home state.
It was on September 6, 1995 that Khalra, whose probe into the extrajudicial killings had by then caught the United Nations’ attention, was kidnapped by the Punjab Police personnel. He was killed on October 27 and his body disposed of in Harike. A Patiala court in 2005 convicted six policemen of his murder. The verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011.
Now, 25 years later, following a push from the local Sikh populace, four cities in Canada — Regina, Burnaby, Brampton and Westminster – and one in the US – Manteca — have announced to observe ‘Jaswant Singh Khalra Day’ on September 6. The UK-based Sikh Press Association is also observing Khalra week beginning August 30.
Forgotten in Punjab
In contrast, however, there is no official or political recognition to Khalra’s contribution in the field of human rights in Punjab, where only an YouTube song hails him as ‘Laawaris Laashan Da Waaris’ (Guardian of the unclaimed bodies).
Even the Shiromani Akali Dal has no plans to commemorate the day. About a year before his kidnapping, then Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Gurcharan Singh Tohra had appointment Khalra as general secretary of party’s human rights wings. The SAD had created the wing specially for the Cooperative Bank director-turned human right activist so that he could continue expose the extra-judicial killings in the name of tackling militancy in Punjab. Following Khalra’s death, the wing was disbanded and could never be revived.
“(You can’t have a) Human rights wing just for formality’s sake. You need dedicated people. One cannot find a person like Khalra everyday,” says Maheshinder Singh Grewal, the SAD spokesperson.
Grewal says the 90s was a time when militancy was at its peak and large-scale forced disappearance and fake encounters of the youth were being carried out. “Now party has no human rights wing, but raises human rights raises on appropriate platform,” adds Grewal.
Journalist and political commentator Gurbachan Singh remembers that Khalra had attended a seminar on human rights in Jalandhar. “I had advised him to go out of Punjab for few days till things cool down but he refused. In the meantime, former chief minister Beant Singh was assassinated on August 31, 1995. There was political uncertainty in Punjab and six days later Khalra was kidnapped”.
“The next day there was a meeting of SAD working committee at Jalandhar’s Skylark Hotel. I went there and requested Prakash Singh Badal to pass a resolution for Khalra’s release, but he didn’t take note of it. I asked a senior journalist to write an editorial to save Khalra’s life, but he too decided to not take it seriously,” recalls Jalandhar-based Gurbachan.
He says that Tohra knew Khalra’s life was in danger and that’s why he had appointed him the general secretary of SAD’s human rights wing. “In September second week, Tohra and I met Harcharan Singh, the new CM, at Chandigarh. While we were leaving his office, he informed Tohra that we were late in approaching him,” says Gurbachan.
Khalra’s wife, Paramjit Kaur, who has converted their home into headquarters for the Khalra Mission Organisation, a human rights body, rues the fact that Akali Dal didn’t extend any help to her after husband’s murder. “SAD came to power in 1997 on the promise that they would prosecute the police officers responsible for large-scale human rights violations. But soon they forgot their promises. I met then CM Prakash Badal many times seeking justice for my husband. But he told me to forget what happened. He said the same thing from the public stage to all the families, whose members were killed in fake encounters or were missing,” says Paramjit Kaur.
The big question
Though court held six policemen guity, Kaur asks why “no big fish” was convicted. “Former DGP KPS Gill was alive when case was being contested in the court. How was he not responsible when the entire police force was working directly under him?”
“All the political parties in Punjab have given shelter to such police officers who committed gross human rights violation during the militancy. It had come as a shock when Akali Dal decided to appoint Sumedh Singh Saini as DGP,” she adds.
Responding to allegations, Grewal says, “Saini has been named as an accused in the alleged kidnapping and murder of Balwant Singh Multani. But it often happens that complainants do not come forward against such officers”.
At a little distance from Khalras’ residence is the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar where courses in human rights are offered with no mention of Jaswant Singh Khalra.
“Not only Khalra, in fact human rights courses in our universities do not talk about any practical movement on human rights in any part of India. The idea of human rights in our syllabus is conceived from the West,” says Associate Professor Dr Satnam Singh.
Activist or hero?
He also points out the dilemma over Khalra. “Before calling him a hero, we must ask the society what they perceive about Khalra’s works. If society ready to believe that the (unidentified and unclaimed) dead counted by Khalra were executed illegally, then only we can call Khalra a hero. Otherwise KPS Gill and then CM Beant Singh would remain heroes. There is a disagreement on the reason behind those killings. There was no political initiative to create awareness around human rights,” says Dr Satnam.
Human rights activist Sarabjit Singh Verka considers Punjab as a special case. “There would be very few activists in India who would celebrate Khalra. It is complicated… but the human rights activists should understand that Khalra’s is the story of fight back. We have an opportunity to realise the importance of his legacy”.
For Paramjit Kaur, however, the struggle is far from over and the 25-year long fight to get justice for Khalra and many others continues.
“We got much better response when I contested elections from from Khadoor Sahib Assembly constituency in 2019. Our main issue was human rights and large number of people came in our support and voted for me even though I was not successful in winning the election. You should compare this response with when my husband was kidnapped and killed by police, there was no one to stand with us to seek the justice,” says Paramjit Kaur.
She is also excited about a new book – The Valiant Jaswant Singh Khalra – written by Gurmeet kaur and set to be released on September 6.
On her part Gurmeet Kaur say that she has written the book keeping youngsters aged 12 and and above in mind. “What we know about Khalra is just his work in last years of his life. But there is lot more about Khalra like his contrasting political ideologies and how he also stood for human rights of not only Sikhs but also Hindus, who were killed by militants or police blackcats,” says Gurmeet Kaur.
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