A Candle in the Dark: The Legacy of Jaswant Singh Khalra

September 6th marks the day when the Punjab Police abducted the Human Rights Activist, Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, from his home never to be  seen again. The judicial process in India to bring those responsible to justice for the “enforced disappearance” of has been severely undermined, with only a handful of those who are guilty having been convicted after 18 years.

Jaswant Singh Khalra was born in Amritsar in 1952, and worked as a Bank Manager before the sudden disappearance of two of his colleagues led him to investigate their disappearances. After a short while, he discovered that the dead bodies of his colleagues had been given to the local municipal corporation (Council) by the Police to cremate. The Police maintained that as the dead bodies were unclaimed, they had to be cremated by the authorities as per law. The management at the Vijay Chowk cremation grounds kept records of each body delivered to them by the police so that they could account for the wood used in lighting the funeral pyre. Khalra realized that the records held by the cremation grounds showed that many young men who had been reported missing by their families in the Amritsar district had been cremated after the police gave their dead bodies to the local authorities. It was after this point, that Jaswant Singh Khalra took up the mission to highlight the plight of thousands of people who had “disappeared” after being arrested by the Punjab police in the 1980’s, and early 1990’s.

In a speech delivered by Khalra at a Sikh Temple in Canada, just months before his abduction, he stated that he had discovered the illegal cremation of 6,017 bodies in three towns of the Amritsar district. Many of those who had been illegally cremated after suddenly disappearing had families still waiting, and hoping, for their return.

Jaswant Singh Khalra
Jaswant Singh Khalra

Khalra’s hard work was instrumental in a petition being filled in the Supreme Court concerning the fate of those who had “disappeared.” This petition had led to the Supreme Court of India instructing the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate widespread allegations of human rights violations in Punjab.

Khalra, who was also the General Secretary of the Human Rights Wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal, openly declared the Director General of Punjab Police KPS Gill to be the mastermind of the enforced disappearances that occurred in Punjab. However no action was taken against Gill despite the numerous evidences against him, and today he is still a free man.

On the 6th of September, 1995, Jaswant Singh Khalra was picked up by the Police outside his house, and taken away. What happened to Khalra after that was unclear until 2005, when a former special constable named Kuldeep Singh gave evidence in court. Kuldeep Singh claimed that Khalra was kept in illegal confinement at the house of a Police Superintendent named Ajit Sandhu in Tarn Taran district. Sandhu was later indicted of his involvement in Khalra’s disappearance, and shot himself before he could be arrested.

Kuldeep Singh in his statement to the court also claimed that the Director General of Police, KPS Gill had visited Khalra while he was being illegally confined. In a lengthy deposition, the former Special Constable said he was responsible for giving food to the imprisoned Khalra, often after the human rights activist had been tortured by senior officers. Finally at some point in the last week of October, 1995, Khalra was shot dead. Kuldeep alleges that Khalra’s body was then dumped into a canal. All that time, the Police continued to deny that they had arrested, or picked up, Khalra.

It wasn’t until mid 1996 that the Supreme Court of India ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra. The inquiry found evidence of police involvement in the disappearance of Khalra, and recommended the prosecution of nine police officers for the kidnap, and murder, of the Human Rights activist.

In 2005, six police officers were sentenced to life imprisonment for their involvement in the case. On appeal, one police officer had his conviction overturned, and was released. Despite weighty evidence, the former Director General of Police KPS Gill, was not charged.

Jaswant Singh Khalra led the campaign against Human Rights abuses in Punjab. He fought despite death threats, and intimidation, by authorities in order to achieve justice for those who had been ill served. Like his grandfather, a leading activist of the ‘Ghadar movement’ who fought the British Raj for India’s independence, Khalra was an iconic luminary figure. A candle in the dark, he represented everything that a human rights defender should be.

Paying tribute to the memory of Jaswant Singh Khalra, I sincerely pray that the work started by him continues on, so that we become fully aware of the extent of violations in Punjab which occurred in the past, and unfortunately continue to take place today.


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