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India: Information on treatment of human rights activists in Punjab

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 4 September 2003
Citation / Document Symbol IND03006.ZSF
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, India: Information on treatment of human rights activists in Punjab, 4 September 2003, IND03006.ZSF, available at: [accessed 7 June 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Provide information on the treatment of human rights activists in Punjab.



Human rights activists in Punjab no longer face the often severe repression that was common during the Sikh separatist insurgency in the 1980s and early 1990s, though they are at times subjected to intimidation and harassment.


Thousands of people were killed between 1984 and 1994 as a result of the Sikh separatist insurgency in the Indian state of Punjab. "The decade-long police crackdown of [sic] the insurgency…led to the deaths of at least 40,000 people in Punjab" (CCDP Jun 2003), including 10,000 civilians (AI 20 Jan 2003). Combatants on both sides of the conflict committed grave human rights abuses (AI 20 Jan 2003).

According to Human Rights Watch:

"Police counter-insurgency efforts included torture, forced disappearances, and a bounty system of cash rewards for the summary execution of suspected Sikh militants. The campaign succeeded in eliminating most of the major militant groups, and by early 1993, the government claimed that normalcy had returned to the state. Police abuses continued, however, and there was no effort to account for hundreds of forced disappearances and summary killings. Even though the identity of the perpetrators is well documented, no one has been successfully prosecuted by the state" (HRW 10 Jun 2003).


According to a January 2003 Amnesty International report on police abuses in Punjab, there have been no reports of killings of human rights activists in Punjab since 1995. "However, human rights defenders continue to be under constant surveillance and have been subjected to harassment, threats and violent attacks by the police in attempts to intimidate and silence them" (AI 20 Jan 2003). Amnesty said that some activists have had false criminal charges filed against them as a means of harassment (AI 20 Jan 2003).

One of the most flagrant misuses of criminal proceedings took place in 1998, when several human rights activists were arrested on charges of conspiring to aid a jailbreak in Chandigarh, the Punjab capital (HRW 1999). One of those arrested, Jaspal Singh Dhillon, head of the watchdog Human Rights and Democracy Forum, spent ten months in jail. "It was widely alleged that the charges were filed against them as a means of harassment because of their human rights activities, including their involvement with several high profile cases against police officials," Amnesty International said in a 2000 report (AI 26 Apr 2000).

Separately, activist Kesar Singh was reportedly detained and tortured by police and had several false criminal cases filed against him in 1998. Singh worked with two rights groups, the Punjab Human Rights Organization (PHRO) and the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) (AI 26 Apr 2000).

In addition, charges were brought in 2001 against Kirpal Singh Randhawa, deputy chairman of the PHRO, and Narain Singh, head of the activist Akal Federation. The activists and their supporters said that the charges were baseless (TRIBUNE 9 Mar 2001; TRIBUNE 23 May 2001).

Meanwhile, witnesses to the 1995 killing of human rights lawyer Jaswant Singh Khalra, the last activist killed in Punjab, have also had false criminal charges filed against them, apparently to discourage them from testifying. And activists working on the case reportedly have been intimidated or otherwise harassed, Amnesty International says, citing a series of incidents in 1998 (AI 20 Jan 2003; AI 1 Apr 1998). Khalra disappeared in police custody while investigating alleged mass cremations by police, during the insurgency, of the bodies of militants who had disappeared (CCDP Jun 2003). Nine police officials were on trial for Khalra's killing as of early 2003 (AI 20 Jan 2003; AI 1 Apr 1998).

Another activist who has felt the ire of Punjab authorities is Vineeta Gupta, a medical doctor who was illegally detained and had her private clinic raided in 2001, apparently because of her opposition to the closure of a hospital (AI 20 Jan 2003). Dr. Gupta, who now heads the non-profit Insaaf International, resigned as a medical officer in the Punjab health service in the late 1990s after facing years of official harassment for her criticism of alleged corruption in the service and efforts to secure the removal of torture devices from Punjab police stations (AI 26 Apr 2000).

In addition to targeting activists and eyewitnesses, Punjab police reportedly have also harassed family members who are seeking justice for relatives who disappeared or were killed in police custody during the Sikh insurgency. The family members "routinely received threats of 'dire consequences' and sometimes get implicated in false criminal cases," a prominent Indian human rights lawyer said in a 2002 e-mail to the Resource Information Center (RIC) (Indian human rights lawyer 31 Jul 2002).

This same lawyer regularly receives anonymous and threatening phone calls and e-mails, was questioned by a New Delhi official in 2001 who investigates financial and foreign exchange matters, and had his laptop computer tampered with in a Chandigarh hotel room in 2002, the 2003 Amnesty report said (AI 20 Jan 2003).

This harassment comes as Punjab and national officials have tried to portray Punjab human rights activists as unpatriotic. "Officials have made unsubstantiated and public accusations that human rights organizations are anti-national or support terrorist organizations," the 2003 Amnesty report said (AI 20 Jan 2003). It said that such accusations have been made by senior officials including the national law minister and the director general of the Punjab police (AI 20 Jan 2003).

Overall, "Police, para-military and military authorities take a very dim view of us and our activities," said another Indian human rights lawyer in an e-mail to the RIC (Human rights lawyer 13 May 2003).

In addition to the restraints on individual activists, a private commission of inquiry into rights abuses in Punjab was forced by a 1999 court order to curb its activities. The Punjab People's Commission was set up by the watchdog Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) to gather information on past rights violations and pursue legal redress. Headed by a panel of three retired judges, the commission held one sitting in Chandigarh in 1998 before the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled that it was establishing a parallel judicial system. It ordered the commission to stop sitting publicly and to cease investigating past or pending court cases (AI 26 Apr 2000, CCDP Jun 2003).

In a statement announcing the release of the first volume of a CCDP report based on an expansion of Jaswant Singh Khalra's investigation of mass cremations, Human Rights Watch stated: "Six years ago, the Indian Supreme Court directed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate 2,097 cases of illegal cremation in Punjab's Amritsar district. The NHRC has yet to hear testimony in a single case" (HRW 10 Jun 2003).

Several Punjab rights groups have also complained that members of the official Punjab Human Rights Commission, established under India's Human Rights Act which requests that each state form a human rights commission, lack the deep human rights background that is required of them by the Act (U.S. DOS 31 Mar 2003).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Amnesty International (AI). BREAK THE CYCLE OF TORTURE AND IMPUNITY IN PUNJAB (20 Jan 2003), [Accessed 25 May 2003]

Amnesty International (AI). PERSECUTED FOR CHALLENGING INJUSTICE: HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS IN INDIA (26 Apr 2000), [Accessed 25 May 2003]


Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP). REDUCED TO ASHES: THE INSURGENCY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN PUNJAB (Kathmandu, Nepal: South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Jun 2003), [Accessed 4 Sep 2003]

Human rights lawyer. E-mail to the CIS Resource Information Center (Chandigarh, India: 13 May 2003).

Human Rights Watch (HRW). "India: Justice Eludes Families of the 'Disappeared' in Punjab: National Human Rights Commission Should Investigate" (New York: 10 Jun 2003), [Accessed 4 Sep 2003]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). WORLD REPORT 1999, "India" (New York: 1999), [Accessed 4 Sep 2003]

Indian human rights lawyer. E-mail to the CIS Resource Information Center (Chandigarh, India: 31 Jul 2002).

TRIBUNE (Chandigarh). "PHRO Dy Chief Threatened by SSP" (23 May 2001), [Accessed 25 May 2003]

TRIBUNE (Chandigarh). "Rights Bodies Threaten to Launch Stir" (9 Mar 2001), [Accessed 25 May 2003]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2002, "India" (31 Mar 2003), [Accessed 25 May 2003]

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