Ranjan Lakhanpal, a human-rights activist and lawyer from Punjab, has warned that the Khalistan issue will keep simmering if the Indian government continues denying justice to victims of state repression during the Sikh militancy of the 1980s.
A practising Indian High Court lawyer based in Chandigarh, Lakhanpal told Straight during a visit to Surrey that initially, he and his colleagues found it difficult to have charges laid or obtain convictions against police officers involved in human rights abuses.
According to him, that's because judges were influenced by a state narrative aimed at containing the militancy by all means. Eventually however, lawyers gradually started having some success as several police officers were convicted and sent to jail.
“This was the time when the state was heavily compensating the people whose relatives were killed by the militants, but those who lost their loved ones at the hands of the police hardly got anything," Lakhanpal said. "And we wanted to change this.”
An armed struggle for a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan started in Punjab during the 1980s. This was the outgrowth of a peaceful agitation by moderate Sikh leaders for extra rights for Punjab and concessions for the Sikh minority, who make up merely two percent of the Indian population.
The mishandling of the issue by the Indian government, which wanted to polarize the Hindu majority on its side by keeping the Sikh minority under its boot, led to a violent escalation by a parallel group of militants. However, the movement died during the mid 1990s, partly because of police excesses and partly because it lost popular support due to atrocities committed on innocent civilians by pro-Khalistan extremists.
Lakhanpal has since been advocating for people who were victimized through extrajudicial means by the police, who were waging a war on terror. Police were given a free hand to restore peace in the state. As a result, many political activists were abducted and killed without fair trials, while innocent Sikhs were frequently detained, tortured, and even murdered after being branded as militants.
Under these circumstances, Lakhanpal became associated with the World Human Rights Protection Council that advocated for the rights of people in Punjab.
Though years have passed, he acknowledged that there's even an inconclusive number of people who disappeared after being abducted by the police and were cremated unceremoniously. And the victims’ families continue to await justice.
Though he agreed that the Khalistan movement does not have popular support in Punjab anymore, he said the issue remains alive both in India and Canada. He wasn't surprised when it was raised by the Indian leadership and his country's media during Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's visit to India earlier this year.
“Till the time government continues to deny justice, the issue of Khalistan will keep on simmering," Lakhanpal said. "Something has to be done to heal the wounds."
He added that the situation on the ground in terms of human-rights abuses hasn’t changed, as people from other minority communities continue being persecuted by security agencies and the police.
Standing up for the victims of police high-handedness was not easy for Lakhanpal, who lost his 10-year-old son Ashish in a road accident under mysterious circumstances in 1995.
At the time, Lakhanpal was pursuing the case of a senior police officer involved in the killing of two individuals related to a political activist. Kakhanpal alleged that he was earlier offered a bribe to keep silent and even received threatening phone calls before the incident.
“I was constantly watched and followed by the police.”
This was at a time when several human rights lawyers and activists were kidnapped and killed. A list of lawyers on the police watch list was released by human rights groups to raise awareness about the potential threat to their lives in Punjab. Lakhanpal's name was on the list.
Those involved in the accident that led to Ashish's death, Lakhanpal claimed, were security personnel reporting to the senior police officer, and this was possibly done to deter him from pursuing the matter in the High Court. He continues to fight for a full investigation. Shortly after the accident, a candlelight vigil was organized in Chandigarh for Ashish. (The writer of this article covered it back then.)
Lakhanpal, who is a Punjabi Hindu, said that his religious background never stopped him from standing up for alleged Sikh militants, who were frequently blamed for the killings of Hindus. That's because he believes that "humanity" is the first religion.
Notably, he is representing Simranjit Singh Mann, a die-hard Khalistani leader in Punjab. Mann is a former Punjab police officer who had sympathies with the militants and endured torture after being arrested.
What motivated Lakhanpal to take such a position when Indian society was polarized during those troubled times? He said that he's been inspired by the legacy of his activist father, the late C.L. Lakhanpal, who died in jail.
C.L. Lakhanpal participated in the agitation in 1975 against emergency and media censorship imposed by then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. Thousands of political activists were thrown in jail for standing up for civil liberties and C.L. Lakhanpal was one of them. Lakhanpal believes that his father was killed as part of a conspiracy.