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During the militancy, thousands of Sikh youths disappeared suddenly and were killed in fake encounters. Jaswant Singh Khalra waged a war against such instances. However, he became a victim of forced disappearance. Later, he was assassinated by the Punjab Police. Despite his unhindered efforts, Jaswant Singh Khalra remained a forgotten icon in Punjab for a long time. 

Khalra’s investigation into extrajudicial murders attracted the attention of the United Nations. On 6th September 1995, the Punjab Police abducted Khalra. On 27th October, he was murdered, and his body was disposed of in Harike. In 2005, a Patiala court convicted six police officers of his murder. In 2011, the verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Years later, in response to pressure from the local Sikh community, four Canadian communities — Regina, Burnaby, Brampton, and Westminster — and one American city — Manteca — have announced plans to mark "Jaswant Singh Khalra Day" on September 6. The Sikh Press Association of the United Kingdom also decided to observe Khalra week beginning on August 30.

Forgotten in Punjab

While Khalra’s efforts gained recognition in foreign lands, there is no official or governmental acknowledgement of Khalra's commitment to human rights in Punjab. However, a Youtube video mentions him as ‘Laawaris Laashan Da Waaris’. 

Even the Shiromani Akali Dal has no plans to mark the day. About a year before his kidnapping, Khalra was appointed general secretary of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) by then-SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra. The SAD had set up the wing specifically for the former Cooperative Bank director turned human rights crusader in order for him to continue exposing extra-judicial killings in the name of combating militancy in Punjab. The wing was disbanded after Khalra's death and could never be restored.

The SAD spokesperson, Maheshinder Singh Grewal, said, “ (You can’t have a) Human rights wing just for formality’s sake. You need dedicated people. One cannot find a person like Khalra every day.

According to Grewal, the decade of the 1990s was a time when militancy was at its highest point and when there was an increase in the number of fake encounters and forced disappearances of young people. He said that while the party does not have a human rights wing, human rights issues are raised on the appropriate platform. 

Khalra’s kidnapping and fake encounter 

Gurbachan Singh, a journalist and political analyst, recalls Khalra attending a human rights conference in Jalandhar. He said that he recommended Khalra to leave Punjab for a few days till things calmed down, but he refused. Meanwhile, on August 31, 1995, former Chief Minister Beant Singh was killed. There was political turmoil in Punjab and six days later Khalra was kidnapped.

The SAD working committee met the next day at Jalandhar's Skylark Hotel. Gurbachan went there and asked Prakash Singh Badal to pass a resolution for Khalra's release, but he ignored him. After this, Gurbachan urged a prominent journalist to write an editorial to spare Khalra's life, but even the journalist decided not to take it seriously. 

According to him, Tohra knew that Khalra's life was in danger when he selected him as the general secretary of the SAD's human rights section. In the second week of September, Tohra and Gurbachan met Harcharan Singh, the new chief minister, in Chandigarh. Gurbachan explains that as they were leaving the office, Harcharan Singh informed them that they were late in approaching him. 

Paramjit Kaur, Khalra's wife, has converted their home into the headquarters of the Khalra Mission Organisation, a human rights organisation. She regrets that Akali Dal did not offer her assistance following her husband's murder. She said that SAD came to power in 1997 on the promise that it would punish police officers responsible for widespread breaches of human rights. However, they soon forgot their pledges. Paramjit even visited the then-chief minister Prakash Badal multiple times to demand justice for her husband but he told her to forget what happened. 

The big question

Kaur wonders why "no big fish" was convicted despite the fact that the court found six policemen guilty. Former Director General of Police KPS Gill was still alive when the case was being argued in court. She asks, “How was he not responsible when the entire police force was working directly under him?”

All the political parties in Punjab have given shelter to such police officers who committed gross human rights violations during the militancy. Paramjit said that it came as a shock when Akali Dal decided to appoint Sumedh Singh Saini as DGP.

Responding to allegations, Grewal says, “Saini has been named as an accused in the alleged kidnapping and murder of Balwant Singh Multani. But it often happens that complainants do not come forward against such officers”.

There is no mention of Jaswant Singh Khalra in any of the human rights classes that are taught at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, which is located not too far from the Khalras' home. Associate Professor Dr Satnam Singh stated that not only Khalra but also human rights courses taught in universities do not discuss any practical movement on human rights in any part of India. He stated that this is the case throughout India. The concept of human rights as presented in the curriculum originates in the Western world.

The dilemma: Activist or Hero?

Dr. Satnam Singh also points out the dilemma over Khalra.. Before calling him a hero, there is a need to ask society what they think of Khalra's contribution. Only if the society is willing to accept that the (unidentified and unclaimed) dead enumerated by Khalra were executed unjustly can we label Khalra a hero. Otherwise, KPS Gill and CM Beant Singh would be remembered as heroes. There is dispute on why those killings occurred. There was no political initiative to raise human rights awareness.

Sarabjit Singh Verka, a human rights activist, views Punjab as a special case. He stated that there would be very few Indian activists who would honour Khalra. It is complicated, but human rights activists should recognise that Khalra's tale is one of resistance. We have the chance to recognise the significance of his legacy.

For Paramjit Kaur, the search for justice for Khalra and others continues even after more than two decades. She says,

 “We got much better response when I contested elections from Khadoor Sahib Assembly constituency in 2019. Our main issue was human rights and a large number of people came in our support and voted for me even though I was not successful in winning the election. You should compare this response with when my husband was kidnapped and killed by police, there was no one to stand with us to seek justice.”

Later, Gurmeet Kaur wrote a book, The Valiant Jaswant Singh Khalra, which was released on 6th September 2020. 

On her part, Gurmeet Kaur states that she wrote the book with children aged 12 and older in mind. All that people know about Khalra is his work during his final years. However, there is much more to Khalra, such as his differing political ideas and the fact that he fought for the human rights of not only Sikhs but also Hindus who were killed by militants or police black cats. 

 

*Based on an article by Kamaldeep Singh Brar, published in Indian Express on 6th September 2020

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