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The post-armed conflict scenario in Punjab: Neither Reconciliation nor Resolution

September 30, 2014 | By

Note: A paper titled: “The post-armed conflict scenario in Punjab: Neither Reconciliation nor Resolution” was presented by Karnail Singh PeerMohammad, president of All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) during a seminar on “Post-armed conflict reconciliation” by National Law University, Delhi on September 28, 2014. This paper is being reproduced below, in verbatim, for the information of readers/ visitors of the Sikh Siyasat News (SSN) – Editor.

The post-armed conflict scenario in Punjab: Neither Reconciliation nor Resolution

It is an honour for me to be asked to contribute to this important seminar on post-conflict reconciliation, jointly organized by the National Law University, Delhi, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Centre for Dialogue Reconciliation.

My organization has been at the very heart of the tragedy in Punjab. One of my predecessors as president, Saheed Bhai Amrik Singh Ji, along with thousands of other members died whilst resisting the Indian aggression that triggered that terrible decade of armed conflict. I myself have been arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions and feel desperately the need for true peace and harmony in my homeland.

There have been very few external efforts to understand the situation in the Sikh homeland of Punjab since the cessation of the armed conflict there in the mid-1990s. This is an opportunity therefore which I greatly appreciate and which will, I hope, help the people of India and the international community to understand the need for action.

The Sikhs are a sovereign, proud nation which has previously enjoyed independence and freedom. Our ideology requires us to espouse the cause of liberty and human rights which we have done gloriously over the centuries, whether it was to resist foreign domination in our homeland or the evil of Nazi aggression elsewhere. Today we call on others assist us and I hope this seminar will help policy makers tackle the modern day colonialism we face in Punjab.

Similar conflicts in Kashmir and the North East are being considered and that will also enable us to identify certain basic issues that are common to those troubled regions. That will, in turn, hopefully provide critical guidance as to how to bring about conflict resolution and real reconciliation to the tens of millions of people who have experienced decades of mass violence, economic paralysis and human misery.

Post – armed conflict Reconciliation

The world has seen numerous worthy attempts at healing the wounds of armed conflict in recent years. Some have been more successful than others but the underlying principle is to enable communities, peoples or nations to once again live together after years of bitter hatred, violence and injustice.

No two situations are ever exactly the same and so we have seen different approaches used, but the ambition is always to secure the outcome of dignified and enduring co-existence between erstwhile adversaries. That goal is certainly worth pursuing, not just because our idealistic desire for harmony demands it, but because we know that pragmatism is also at play here – without such dignity the prospects of peace will remain fragile.

I will deal with the Punjab situation but firstly let me outline the essential ingredients of reconciliation in this context.

1.    Reconciliation must surely follow, or at least run in parallel with, a genuine effort to address the causes of the conflict; without that there will always remain the possibility that violence (on either or both sides) will resume, which would destroy the very notion of true reconciliation.

2.    The process of reconciliation must not excuse the evil of war crimes, genocide or other crimes against humanity; any such impunity would destroy the very fabric of the rule of law and any concept of justice.

3.    The truth must be told; all sides to the conflict must see that there are no attempts to hide the (often painful) facts, otherwise the process will be seen as disingenuous and inevitably fail.

4.    The victims should, so far as possible, be given succor; that may mean seeing justice being done to perpetrators of war crimes, or financial compensation for loss or otherwise.

5.    In an increasingly inter-woven world, where the role of international law and international institutions is growing, there will almost certainly need to be international intervention to force the actors in to respecting their obligations towards each other; this is will give credibility to the process and provide a ‘neutral’ referee to oversee a complex and very difficult emergence from violent conflict.

We have seen various features of these features arise in recent post-conflict situations in South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Ruanda and Northern Ireland which inspire us in formulating our vision for reconciliation elsewhere in the world. Equally however, there have been many, many recent cases where reconciliation has not been even attempted. Unfortunately, the Punjab is one such case.

The Indo-Sikh armed conflict 1984 to 1995

Many of you will recall the events – traumatic for the Sikhs – of June 1984 when Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army in to Punjab where it conducted a full scale military assault on the Harimandir Sahib (sometimes known as the Golden Temple) complex in Amritsar. That was her response to a powerful, mass Sikh agitation for greater autonomy and for the acceptance of Punjab’s legitimate linguistic, territorial and riparian claims. Ostensibly designed to eliminate a small number of Sikh political opponents, Operation Bluestar was, in reality, an act of war against the Sikh nation.

Thousands perished in the brutal attack, as Mrs. Gandhi made a cynical political calculation that ‘minority bashing’ (Sikhs make up just 2% of India’s population) would secure her electoral success across India. The BJP (now India’s government) lauded the attack as it competed for the ‘Hindutva’ vote in the notoriously ‘communal’ Indian political set up. Last year the former Indian army, chief V K Singh (now a MP in the national parliament), admitted that the attack was a “hasty political decision” and said the army was unwilling to carry it out.

That decade of armed conflict was characterized by massive, systematic human rights abuses by the state, including mass killings amounting to genocide, routine use of  torture, illegal detentions and ‘black’ laws (including the suspension of the right to life for a period). Those abuses have been expertly documented by human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Despite the ‘exposure’ of this state terrorism, Sikhs are stunned by the refusal of the Indian judicial system to punish the guilty, whilst at the same it feels free to hand down death sentences to Sikhs accused of militancy.

Retired Justice Ajit Singh Bains, a highly respected former High Court judge and now a leading human rights campaigner, has described post-1995 Punjab as manifesting the “silence of the graveyard”, where the people live in fear, the guilty continue to enjoy power and justice remains elusive.

It may shock you to learn that, having thrust the disastrous decade of armed conflict on Punjab, there has been no attempt to resolve the underlying political conflict by the government. The Sikhs responded to the 1984 aggression by deciding, at their national gathering (Sarbat Khalsa) on 26 January 1986, to create an independent sovereign Sikh state in their homeland of Punjab. The demand is based on the Sikh nation’s right to self-determination under international law. The Indian state has simply killed the top leadership of that movement and suppressed the mass demand by force. Sikh are even now harassed by the police, who routinely charge them with sedition or false ‘terrorism’ offences. The political stalemate casts a huge shadow over Punjab whose people are demoralized and whose economy lies in ruins.

That is the devastated Punjab we are looking at today. One would think it is a prime candidate for the type of reconciliation initiatives I described earlier. Let us see …

Post – armed conflict Punjab

The story post 1995 is not a happy one and the Sikhs today remain dismayed at the callousness of the Indian political, media and judicial establishments, which superficially dismiss the whole episode as a ‘law and order problem’ that has been dealt with, irrespective of the legality or morality of the means used.

I was asked to provide you with a testimonial today, setting out the “best practice” learned in Punjab since 1995, in terms of reconciliation. There is no such thing in the Punjab context as there has been no attempt at reconciliation at all. Quite the reverse. A few examples will help me elaborate:

A: No recognition, no rights

The Sikh demand for national self-determination has not even been acknowledged, never mind addressed by India. India does not recognise the Sikhs as a nation and, ludicrously, does not even

recognise Sikhism as a distinct religion for the purposes of the Indian constitution! In fact none of the Sikh political demands of the 1980s to date have been addressed at all.

India is a state whose borders house a number of distinct nations; there should be an acceptance of that fact and recognition that those nations have rights. Based on its denial of Sikh, Kashmiri, Naga and Assamese nationhood the Indian state has openly defied the UN itself by claiming that international law gives those nations no rights as they do not exist as nations. I will return to that important point later.

Article 25 of the Indian constitution officially lumps Sikhs in with Hindus for the purposes of personal and religious law. Sikhs have campaigned for decades to amend this absurdity but even this simple demand is ignored. This lack of recognition is deeply insulting to the Sikhs and is not an inadvertent omission – it is a clear statement by India that it will not deal with legitimate Sikh aspirations and rights at all. This approach is fully in line with the outrageous recent comments of Mohan Bhagwat, head of the RSS (the BJP’s mentor) that everyone living in India should be considered a Hindu. According to this doctrine the Indo-Sikh conflict does not exist, needs no resolution and there is no need for any reconciliation.

B: Impunity for crimes against humanity.

The Indian political and judicial system has turned a blind eye to crimes against Sikhs that fall within the internationally accepted definition of genocide.

The November 1984 massacre of Sikhs in this very city and elsewhere in India was state sponsored mass killing of Sikhs over three days – tens of thousands were killed. Those that directed and organised the genocide remain free and hold high ranking political posts. It is a matter of deep shame that Delhi still hosts a ‘Widow Colony’ where thousands of Sikh widows and orphans from that carnage still reside in poverty and despair. In 2011 we discovered the mass grave of Hondh Chillar in Haryana – a Sikh locality totally destroyed in that act of genocide – the site literally lay as a mass grave for over 25 years without any action by the state
to find the culprits or even decently cremate the dead. The Sikhs have asked UNESCO to preserve the site as a heritage site to mark the holocaust.

Similarly, we have the scandal of mass cremations of ‘encounter’ victims in Punjab. An estimated 60,000 young Sikhs were killed in fake encounters and then secretly cremated by the police. The National Human Rights Commission has decided not to investigate those killings but to limit its concern to police irregularities in not following cremation protocols!

This is not the behavior of a state that is interested in reconciliation. The Sikhs now look to international action, such as the UN establishment of criminal tribunals relating to the former Yugoslavia and Ruanda, as the only realistic hope of securing justice.

C: Sikh Political Prisoners still languish in jails.

India refuses to release Sikh political prisoners or Sikh Prisoners of War, in accordance with the practice of other states. The armed conflict, as noted above, was initiated by an act of aggression

by the Indian state in 1984. Following the cessation of that armed conflict in 1995, Sikh prisoners were not and have not been released. I will just mention the case of just one prisoner Professor. Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar which you may all know, who is languishing in Tihar Jail from the last 19 years, Who was awarded death sentence but his mercy petition was rejected (now passed) so many times which led to his mental instability, still now he is incarcerated when he should be under the due care medical authorities. Just last year Sikhs – including myself – had to mount an (unsuccessful) agitation for the release of Sikh prisoners whose jail terms had already been fully served. The experience of prisoner releases in Northern Ireland shows states that are serious about reconciliation can act positively to bring about peace and reconciliation.

D: India is hiding the truth of its actions.

The truth about India’s horrific treatment of the Sikhs is still not being told. I have already alluded to the refusal of the political class and the courts to investigate and punish those of grotesque crimes. The media is also culpable in this. As a result, the people of India are being hoodwinked and the world is being told that India is a progressive, responsible state which complies with basic standards. An interesting  recent manifestation of this policy can be seen with the treatment of four films which depict the reality of the terrible events I have referred to. All of them, including one banned just a few weeks ago entitled ‘Dilli 1984’ and made by a courageous Hindu friend of mine, have been banned by Indian censors or the central government on the pre-text that they may lead to communal strife. How is civil society meant to come to terms with the past if the past being buried by those who are afraid of their own despicable actions being exposed? This is very far from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission we have all applauded in South Africa.

The Future

I expect that you will find this paper a source of disillusion; it is as bleak as it is possible to be if you are a believer in human dignity, human rights and true reconciliation. I regret that I am not able to share with you any positive experiences from Punjab in the context of this seminar.

Punjab will one day move forwards and those of us who believe in the triumph of good over evil, as I do, will remain hopeful of a resolution to the conflict in an entirely peaceful manner, in

accordance with international law and democratic mechanisms. The very recent Referendum on independence in Scotland was an impressive example of how to conduct genuine conflict resolution in such a manner. Irrespective of the outcome, the people of Scotland will be able to

reconcile because they have been allowed to exercise their rights in a peaceful, dignified manner. One day the people of Punjab must be allowed to do the same; one day the butchers of humanity must face legal sanction for their crimes. Only then will reconciliation be a meaningful ambition in my homeland.

The conflicts in Kashmir and the North East are remarkably similar and will also ultimately need an approach based on self-determination and accountability for mass human rights abuses.

India must reverse its illegal, formal policy of denying self-determination, which the UN itself has formally condemned. I am circulating with this paper a summary of the international law aspects of India’s position on the point. It will allow readers to understand, at a glance, the real narrative as to why Punjab, Kashmir and the North East have failed to see any reconciliation and why they remain conflict zones, whether or not the bullets are flying.

India must also abandon its policy of impunity for genocide perpetrators, so that neutral international courts can restore the rule of law. International practice has, over recent years, developed the idea of ‘universal jurisdiction’ for gross human rights violations – if Indian courts will not administer justice then international tribunals should step in.

Given the recent right wing electoral success of the BJP – though notably not in Punjab – most observers of the Indian political scene will be skeptical of India voluntarily making these changes any time soon. It therefore falls to the international community to require the changes under threat of sanctions if necessary. The task is admittedly daunting but nevertheless unavoidable.

I thank you for listening and hope we have today made some small progress to developing ideas for a better future for all of us.

Karnail Singh Peermohammad
President All India Students Federation.


Read in Punjabi/ Gurmukhi:

ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੇ ਹਿੰਸਕ ਦੌਰ ਦੇ ਬਾਵਜੂਦ: ਨਾ ਕੋਈ ਸੰਧੀ, ਨਾ ਕੋਈ ਹੱਲ

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