Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab – Book Review

Book review by J S Kang, MD

Title:  Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab

Authors:  Ram Narayan Kumar, Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur (Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab)

Publisher:  South Asia Forum for Human Rights

Order Info:  $35 to “South Asian Center”; PO Box 391732; Cambridge MA 02139

Free Internet version available on web site:

Modern societies only progress if they learn the lessons of history and don’t repeat mistakes of the past.  The contents of Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab compels its readers to critically re-examine and re-assess the Indian state’s tactics in crushing the separatist insurgency in Punjab during the 1980’s and 90’s.  Even the internationally-acclaimed writer Khushwant Singh, who was an ardent supporter of the Punjab police’s use of extra-judicial methods to crush the uprising, has praised the objectivity of the report’s documentation and the professionalism of its writers.

Reduced to Ashes is a milestone in the human rights research on Punjab because of its highly empirical and systematic data.  The report’s principal investigators include social activists, academics, and lawyers from both the United States and India.
The book begins with a preface by Professor Peter Rosenblum of Harvard Law School.  Professor Rosenblum admits his initial skepticism about researching human rights abuses in Punjab, but writes that the “careful methodology” of the report’s investigators has appeased his initial skepticism.  He surmises that the “sheer mass of testimonies” demonstrates that the work of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the courts in India has only barely begun “because there are glaring violations of rights to be addressed and responsibility to be apportioned” even after nearly a decade of relative “normalcy.”

In the book’s introduction, Tapan Bose explains the rationale behind researching and writing the report.  He states that this report was necessary to give “voice” to the victims of the state’s human rights abuses, to shift the discourse of human rights in Punjab away from partisan rhetoric to an examination of the facts and the law, and to present a body of empirically-verifiable evidence to the NHRC and the courts (both domestic and international) in the hopes that they will finally act in a meaningful way to apportion responsibility.

The core of the book consists of 582 case studies of residents of Amritsar district who were killed while in police custody, usually in “faked encounters” or by physical torture, and subsequently cremated as “unidentified bodies” in public cremation grounds.  Each case-history is based on multiple sources of information including cremation ground records, police documents, medical reports, press reports, and personal interviews.  The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has also independently confirmed many.

The results of these case-studies reveal several patterns of state abuse that seriously challenge many of the previously held conceptions about the state’s actions in crushing the insurgency in Punjab.  For example, it was often assumed that the police used “illegal,” extra-judicial means to “eliminate” only armed insurgents (or “criminals”) who engaged in acts of violence.  The findings presented in this study disprove this claim and demonstrate that a vast number, perhaps majority, of those killed by the police where not armed insurgents (or “criminals”) but rather people whose only crime was being a “nuisance” for the police and the state.

This included members of Sikh nationalist (but non-violent) political organizations, relatives and associates of suspected dissidents (both violent and non-violent), human rights activists, and even “innocent” civilians.  The police also often acted in its own self-interests by picking-up individuals for extortion of bribes and killing them after their relatives could no longer afford to pay money.  Most of the case studies presented in the book also pinpoint the place and date that many of the “unidentified” persons were killed and the police party which arrested them before their death.  Khushwant Singh has described the case studies as being “spine-chilling.”

The study also points to another disturbing pattern regarding human rights abuses in Punjab- the relative impunity of the police and its immunity from meaningful prosecution.  With few exceptions, the study shows that cases filed against police officers have made little headway in terms of prosecution. This is so because of intimidation of applicants and witnesses by the police, the financial inability of applicants to sustain years of complex litigation, evidentiary complexities, and the reluctance of judges to prosecute agents of the state (i.e. police officers).  In addition, the legal jurisdiction of the NHRC, which came into existence in 1993, has been so narrowly defined that it cannot effectively take up a majority of the cases relating to Punjab.  Thus, the avenues for legal recourse for the surviving victims of the state’s human rights abuses have been few and ineffectual.

This raises a fundamental question.  The state can deliver various forms of “justice” to insurgents and criminals who threaten country’s unity or who violate the rights of others.  But, does this mean that agents of the state should be allowed to act with complete impunity regardless of their actions?  Furthermore, does the state have a monopoly on all that is supposedly “just” and “righteous”?  This book deals, in part, with the former question while the latter question is best left to political philosophers, which the authors do not claim to be.

A substantial portion of Reduced to Ashes is dedicated to its original investigator- the slain human rights lawyer, Jaswant Singh Khalra.  Mr. Khalra came from a family of freedom fighters.  His grandfather, Harman Singh, was a passenger on the infamous Komagata Maru ship in 1914, and spent most of his life either in prison or away from his home fighting for Indian independence.  Mr. Khalra’s father, Kartar Singh, was an active member of the Indian National Congress before Independence.  As a university student, Jaswant Singh Khalra had leftist leanings and was involved in numerous social causes.  His spirit of activism continued into the 1980’s and, especially, the 90’s when he joined the human rights wing of the Akali Dal and began to investigate the cremation of “unidentified bodies” by the police during the separatist insurgency.  His research caused him to become a “nuisance” to the Punjab police.  The police abducted him in front of his home in Amritsar in September 1995 and subsequently he was declared, “Disappeared.”  His case, in which former Punjab police chief K.P.S. Gill is also a prime accused, has been lingering in the Indian judicial system for the last eight years without nearing any resolution.  His widow, Paramjeet Kaur, is quoted in the book as saying, “I have no hope.  In ten to fifteen years, we will also sit down and give up.  How much can we do?”

In conclusion, the evidence presented in this book is too systematic and too compelling for the book to be simply characterized as a denunciation of the Indian state.  The findings of this study present a mirror for the democratic Indian polity to see that it, even with its many positives points, has in this case failed to respect its own constitution and the fundamental human rights of many of its citizens.  This book is a must-read for well-wishers of human rights and also for all well-meaning, enlightened Indians who wish to see their society progress into a healthy and just state.  To forget and forgive injustices and abuses of today is to welcome their reoccurrence in the future.  This approach is not commensurate with the professed ideals of any democracy.  Read the book and critically judge for yourself.

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