Truth To Power

Recently published on under the title Public Advocacy & The Art of Being Heard

Truth To Power
by Rubin Paul Singh

Last month, Ensaaf in conjunction with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) at Benetech released a groundbreaking report titled “Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India.”

What is unique about this report is that it does not focus on individual narratives or specific accounts of the human rights violations in Punjab, but instead provides a statistical analysis – based on quantitative research – of fatal violence across Punjab during the conflict between 1984 and 1995.

This analysis brought together six data sets comprising of more than 21,000 records. It incorporates documentation from several different fact-finding initiatives over the last two decades investigating human rights violations in Punjab, as well as the Tribune newspaper and recovered logbooks from local cremation grounds.

Using the statistical analysis as a basis, the report examines patterns and trends of violence that contradict the government’s claim that lethal human rights violations in Punjab were “minor” and “random.”

For example, the report found that majority of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions happened in 1991 and 1992, as counter-insurgency operations by Indian security forces intensified and the Punjab Police was reorganized by K.P.S. Gill. The report also notes that as state violence increased, fewer bodies of those who disappeared or were executed were returned to the next of kin. This correlates with evidence of increased “secret illegal cremations” during that same time period. The document also studies the report of so-called “encounters,” which imply exchange of fire between a militant and security forces. However, evidence shows a significantly higher ratio of militants being killed than officers. This is consistent with qualitative evidence that such encounters were, in fact, faked. The report also found that victims were nearly all males between 18 and 45. Such patterns contradict the government’s claim that the events were “random” or a “minor aberration.”

So you may ask yourself – after collecting the data, analyzing it, and producing this report – the end result is proving the violence in Punjab was not random? The Indian authorities’ claim of human rights violations in Punjab being an “aberration” is, in fact, false?

Well … didn’t we already know that?

Yes, of course.

Any Sikh who has read the accounts, heard the stories, watched the interviews, and lost family members to the violence in Punjab knows full well that these atrocities committed by the government were no aberration; they were widespread and systematic.

But up until now, most of the research has focused on individual stories and experiences. These personal narratives are powerful, heart-wrenching, and inspiring. They allow us to understand the experience of the victim’s families and, more importantly, allow their voice to be heard. In order for us to heal as a community, it is essential for us to reflect and commiserate. However, if our goals are something bigger – if we intend to seek justice for the thousands of lives lost, if we are determined to change policies and hold the guilty accountable – such accounts will not be enough.

As Ram Narayan Kumar (South Asia for Human Rights) states in the report’s Preface, “until the society at large is able to identify, classify and quantify the wrongs perpetrated with impunity, then accountability, reparations, and reforms will not follow.”

Some may say that whether one hundred lives, one thousand lives, or ten thousand lives were lost doesn’t really matter; if just one life is lost unjustly, that should be enough for public outcry.
But the world has not heard us. If we intend for these human rights violations in Punjab to reach the world stage, they must be presented in their full magnitude, based on systematic and verifiable research. As slain human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra said in his last international speech, “We say about 50,000 … about one million … the educated of the world will not accept estimates … they want exact figures.”

During a recent presentation on 1984, I quoted the number of casualties during the anti-Sikh pogroms with the lowest number I could find – in the Indian government’s own White Paper. Hands quickly went up with objections that my number was too low. Participants then shouted out numbers that were four or five times as much. Perhaps they are correct, but until we have numbers based on some verifiable evidence or technical analysis, our hands are tied. Throwing out inflated or inaccurate numbers based on anecdotal evidence can only weaken our case.

Friends I’ve discussed this report with have said, “What good is it? Why waste the resources? Human rights lawyers seem to release books and reports every few years, but to what end do they serve? They will just end up in the shelf of a law library many years from now, collecting dust.”

Years ago, Dr. Cynthia Mahmood (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame) was in town speaking in a panel discussion at the University of Chicago. I was to meet her and a few of her students for coffee afterwards; since I arrived a bit early, I listened to the panel. The discussion was on torture, and the psychological and sociological effects it has on the victims, families and communities involved. I was stunned to hear that two of the panelists had done their field research specializing on Sikhs and the violence in Punjab during the 80’s and 90’s, and nearly all of the panelists referred to the “Punjab Conflict” in the papers they presented.
I looked around the room; I was the only Sikh in sight. I started to wonder … where else are these panel discussions going on where the “Punjab Conflict” is being discussed? Are human rights lawyers and academics huddled around tables in conference rooms throughout the world trying to seek justice for the thousands of lives lost at the hands of the Indian government?

I started to reflect on the day I walked into my university’s monthly Amnesty International meeting over a decade ago. Each month, Amnesty would send us an Urgent Action Appeal to work on. To my surprise, that month’s case was the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra. I was shocked! This was an appeal for a Sikh, yet neither my Sikh peers nor our gurdwara management knew anything about him. And here were these Black, White, and Chinese students diligently writing their letters to the Indian government urging them to investigate Khalra’s disappearance. They didn’t really care that he was a Sikh, all they knew was that an innocent human rights activist was abducted by the police, and something needed to be done.

Will such reports end up on library shelves collecting dust? I guess that’s up to us.

The academics and human rights activists of the world have done the research, they have documented the facts and figures, they have done the leg work for us. They have armed us with the truth; it is now upon us to bring truth to power.

We must read such reports and present them … anywhere and everywhere … to anyone who will listen: our gurdwaras, our local Amnesty International chapters, student groups, talk radio, public television, newspaper op-eds, etc. We must also create awareness of these findings in whatever format we can – through music, art, theatre and poetry.

I truly hope the efforts of Ensaaf and their partners will take this case to the highest courts of the land but, as Khalra said, we must also take this to the “biggest court of all … the court of the people.” And the activist in all of us is responsibile for that.

I don’t believe this report alone will be enough to hold the guilty accountable, but it does put them on notice. If the Indian authorities make lofty claims and simply dismiss the injustices committed in Punjab, it will not go unchallenged.

Ensaaf and Benetech indicate they plan to continue their research, so they can draw further statistical analysis and ultimately present the full magnitude of the conflict. I commend Ensaaf and Benetech on the release of this report and encourage them to keep the flame burning. Such reports are an invaluable stepping stone toward exposing the truth and achieving justice.

[The report, “Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency In Punjab, India,” can be downloaded for free at ]

February 12, 2009

About RP Singh

Writer. Reader. Runner. Thinker. Seeker View all posts by RP Singh

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