The Man Who Fought Punjab’s Secret Police Cremations

26 Aug 2021 6 min read  Share

When violence by Pakistan-backed terrorists spiralled out of control in Punjab in the 1980s, the state police were not prepared. After Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the resultant anti-Sikh pogrom, the situation only worsened. An exclusive excerpt from a new book by an investigative journalist recounts what the Rajiv Gandhi government did next.

A representative image of a funeral pyre/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Punjab, like J&K, Manipur and other states ravaged by insurgency, exemplifies my overall argument: that the non-military parts of the security establishment are tearing into the constitutional rights of citizens and have emerged as the biggest threat to Indian democracy. That the average Indian is afraid of dealing with the police is a telling fact.


When violence by Pakistan-backed terrorists spiralled out of control in Punjab in the 1980s, the state police were not prepared for it. After the Indira Gandhi assassination and the resultant anti-Sikh pogrom, the situation only worsened. And that is when the Rajiv Gandhi government decided to bring in Julio Francis Ribeiro, an IPS officer from Maharashtra police with an illustrious and storied career, to head the Punjab police force. 

He had been police commissioner of Bombay, chief of Gujarat police, director general of CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force], and was known as the cop who smashed the smuggling rackets of Bombay. In March 1986, he took over as the DGP [Director General of Police], and came in declaring a ‘bullet for a bullet’. Meanwhile, the government had passed laws such as the Punjab Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to provide better protection to security agencies operating in tough conditions.


By April 1988, when Ribeiro handed over the force to K.P.S. Gill, another tough-talking IPS officer, the police had allegedly killed over 800 suspected terrorists. However, for all the tough action and posturing, the law-and-order situation had not improved: the number of hardened terrorists went up from just 101 to over 178 by the time Gill took over. Ribeiro introduced financial rewards for policemen who killed terrorists. This practice became the template in large parts of Kashmir, Manipur and several states that were fighting Naxalites. In this model, the war on terror is equally a national service and a flourishing business. There are financial rewards available, you can settle private scores and impunity is assured.



In Punjab, while the state apparatus efficiently documented human rights violations by militants, the misdemeanours of the police’s killer squads, which began to pick up in the second half of the 1980s, went mostly unrecorded. Human rights organisations and activists were all facing either outright bans or police action. Then, along came Jaswant Singh Khalra, general secretary of the Akali Dal’s human rights wing, who began an intrepid documentation of the secret cremations in Amritsar district. According to the law, the police are required to carry out the last rites of a body when there is no one to claim it. In Punjab, this was used to cover up criminal activities. Khalra began the laborious, but highly innovative, activity of collecting details of firewood-purchase registers maintained in the district’s three crematoria. Even these numbers may not have fully captured the extent of the police killings—an estimated 300 kilograms of wood are required to burn a single body, but the police often burnt several bodies on a single pyre. Khalra methodically went about his harrowing documentation process.


Those who knew the Khalra family were not surprised by Jaswant Singh’s courage even in a state that had gone from being terrorised by militants to being terrorized by the security agencies. His grandfather, Harnam Singh, was one of the founders of the Ghadar movement, and one of the organisers of the Komagata Maru passenger ship, which reached Vancouver with 376 Sikh immigrants but was turned away. The ship was forced to sail to Calcutta. When it arrived there in September 1914, British officials tried to identify Harnam Singh and Gurdit Singh, the organisers, and all hell broke loose. Passengers opened fire, wounding several officials. As British troops quelled the revolt, and began forcing the passengers onto a train, Harnam, Gurdit and twenty-eight others escaped. 

In November 1914, members of the Ghadar movement made their first attempt to provoke a mutiny in the army, but failed. The movement had been penetrated deeply by the British intelligence, and based on inside information, the police raided the Ghadar headquarters in Lahore on 19 February 1915, and arrested over a dozen leaders, including Harnam Singh, and confiscated weapons, bombs and rebel flags. Harnam Singh was acquitted in the Lahore conspiracy case, but was ordered to be kept under surveillance in his village, Khalra. He was allowed to marry, and Jaswant Singh’s father was born of this marriage. When Harnam Singh’s internment was revoked in 1922, he returned to Shanghai to continue his revolutionary activities, never to return. As the Punjab strife deepened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the mandatory post-mortem had been replaced, in government hospitals, by the filing of whatever information the police supplied. The doctors were merely required to sign the official document.


On 30 October 1993, when a body was brought in for post-mortem, the doctor noticed that the man was still breathing, in spite of a bullet injury to his head. When he drew the police officers’ attention to it, they took the man away and soon returned with his corpse. The son of Baldev Singh, an ex-soldier of 9 Punjab Regiment, who fought in the 1965 war with Pakistan, and whose daughter Manjit Kaur was a star national weightlifter, was killed in an encounter by the police. The father was not allowed to collect the body, which was instead rushed to a pyre at the Durgiyana Mandir cremation ground. By the time Singh reached the venue, his son’s head was burning, and the rest of his body was intact. He was allowed to collect the ashes. Khalra went to the Punjab and Haryana High Court with his findings. However, the court dismissed the petition saying that he had no locus standi in the matter. It was a bizarre argument for a constitutional court to have made, especially because, a few years earlier, the Supreme Court had expanded the scope of PILs to make justice more accessible to the disempowered.


On 16 January 1995, the Akali Dal’s human rights wing held a press conference in Chandigarh to make public Khalra’s sensational findings. The press release said that, based on firewood-purchase registers, they had identified 400 illegal cremations in Patti, 700 at Tarn Taran and about 2,000 at Durgiana Mandir cremation ground between June 1984 to end-1994.


Two days after this, then police chief K.P.S. Gill held his own press conference in Amritsar, where he claimed that thousands of Sikh youth had left for foreign countries using fake documents and names, and that Khalra was claiming those people as missing and killed by the security forces. Gill also made the usual noises about ISI trying to revive militancy in the state. The public duel was just beginning.


A day later, on 19 January, Khalra called another press conference in Amritsar. He challenged the legendary police chief to an open debate, and repeated his claims that the police had murdered and illegally cremated hundreds of people. He signed off promising to release the details of the missing people soon in a systematic manner.


The Punjab police shifted gears, no longer bothered about the court of public opinion. It transferred the controversial police officer Ajit Singh Sandhu as SSP from Ropar district to Tarn Taran. He was already facing court cases related to disappearances of people, and activists held him responsible for hundreds of such cases. The phone line at Khalra’s home started ringing at odd hours. When answered, anonymous callers threatened Khalra and told him to stop his activism for the disappeared if he did not want to disappear. When his wife picked up the phone, the other side would either go silent or shower her with abuses. Most calls came in the dead of night. Policemen began physical surveillance of him, and some of them would even sheepishly ask Khalra for his day’s travel plans so that they could report back accurately to their bosses. The police and state also deployed local political leaders to terrorise Khalra, according to those who have researched his death. ‘Jaswant appeared upset when in February 1995, a Congress member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Patti constituency invited him to his house and asked him not to pursue the matter of police cremations,’ the book records.


(Extracted with permission from The Silent Coup by Josy Joseph, published by Context, an imprint of Westland Books)