October 28 marked the 25th anniversary of the custodial murder of Jaswant Singh Khalra. The towering Punjabi human rights defender laid down his life fighting tirelessly for justice for those killed extrajudicially—all in the name of a war against terrorism.
Khalra was abducted by the Indian police from his home in Amritsar on September 6, 1995, and was never seen after that. While an eyewitness testified that he was murdered by police 52 days after being kidnapped, his body wasn't recovered. Khalra was among thousands of Sikhs who were abducted and killed by Indian police and security forces in Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of these people remain untraced and are presumed dead.
There has been no accountability for senior police officers involved in these illegal operations to deal with an armed insurgency by Sikh separatists who were seeking an independent homeland.
Sikh men were frequently kidnapped, tortured, and killed in faked encounters with impunity. Perpetrators in uniforms were rewarded with out-of-turn promotions and gallantry awards.
In almost all cases, the victims' bodies were disposed of unceremoniously.
Khalra’s only fault was that he started an investigation into the enforced disappearances. At the time, he was collecting records of those who were cremated secretly in Amritsar.
Prior to being kidnapped and murdered, Khalra came to Canada in 1995 to raise international awareness about this issue.
Even though he was offered a chance to apply for asylum, true to his convictions, he chose to return and continue his unfinished task in the face of threats coming from senior police officers.
Interestingly, Khalra’s grandfather, Harnam Singh, was aboard the Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel carrying more than 350 Indian passengers in 1914 who were forced to return from Vancouver under a racist immigration law. Singh later became involved in the struggle against the British occupation of India.
U.S.-based teacher Gurmeet Kaur has published a book that makes many important revelations about Khalra's daring work.
The Valliant Jaswant Singh Khalra contains numerous documents and pictures that bring his activism to life.
It helps promote understanding about how India’s claim of being the world’s largest democracy is flawed as minorities continue to live under fear in the Hindu-dominated nation.
Despite being a practising Sikh, Khalra also stood for Hindus who were killed during militancy in Punjab and publicly opposed violence against them.
Apart from that, he also denounced the demolition of an ancient mosque and subsequent violence against Muslims by the currently ruling right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) back in 1992.
Even though Khalra led the human rights wing of Akali Dal, an alliance partner of the BJP, he pulled no punches while criticizing them for remaining indifferent to an assault on the Muslim faith, distancing himself from the party.
Khalra was an exceptional hero who believed in the true values of Sikhism that teaches its followers to stand up for others and rebel against any kind of oppression. He has been a part of many pro-people movements before dedicating himself to the cause of Sikh rights. Among these was the revolutionary Communist movement of late 1960s.
Khalra’s story remains relevant both in India and across the world as security forces continue to use enforced disappearances as a tool to create terror and suppress any voice of dissent with impunity. Especially when citizens in North America are organizing against systemic racism and police violence against Indigenous people and Blacks.
Khalra’s story needs to be shared widely to challenge myths about the tolerance and transparency of the Indian government, which has far too many skeletons in its cupboard.
Kaur’s book is available through the Surrey-based Sikhi Awareness Foundation for $20. For more information call Shamandeep Singh at 604-825-8464.