I recently learned of the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, an Indian human rights activist, in Nepal. Kumar, who died of natural causes, is well known in the Sikh community as the staunchest non-Sikh advocate of human rights in Punjab. What drove Mr. Kumar, as far as I can tell, was a pure, principled belief in human rights and democracy, not self-interest or any sense of loyalty to the Sikh community. After 20 years of investigating primary sources and personally documenting thousands of human rights violations in Punjab, in the past few years Kumar shifted his focus to India’s northeast — places like Nagaland and Assam — where human rights intervention may be most urgently needed now.
I got to see Ram Narayan Kumar speak in New York several years ago, and was impressed by how methodical and dispassionate he was as he spoke about his attempt to document extrajudicial killings and cremations of prisoners during the peak of the Punjab militancy period in the 1980s. Many Sikhs have taken up this cause over the years (indeed, activists still show up at local Gurdwaras every June to lecture about it), but too often emotion takes over from empirical evidence and the need to provide rock-solid documentation. Ram Narayan Kumar focused on the latter, not because he advocated any political cause, but because he had faith in the idea of Indian democracy, and demanded that the system he believed in be truthful, accountable, and transparent.
Though he wrote several books, Mr. Kumar’s greatest legacy may be his rigorous documentation efforts of extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police, which are partially collected in the massive book, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. For those who are interested, that book has been posted in its entirety here (PDF, 4.9 MB). I would particularly recommend the documentation section, starting around page 205.
The issue that stood out to me in Ram Narayan Kumar’s quest for justice related specifically to the illegal cremation of 2000+ prisoners who were killed in police custody in Punjab in the 1980s. We may never know exactly what happened to these prisoners, or how they died; a Supreme Court ordered CBI investigation has remained sealed, and its contents unknown. But cremation records were at least kept, and provide an unmistakable record. As a result of the efforts of Kumar and others, in 2006, the Indian government’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued monetary awards to the families of 1245 prisoners who were cremated in the mid-1980s. Below is a brief excerpt from one of Kumar’s more recent books outlining what happened over the decade of legal proceedings that led to a final resolution (albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one) in October, 2006. For reference, here is the National Human Rights Commission’s order related to its Punjab human rights investigation, dated October, 2006. The report is on an Indian government website (Nhrc.nic.in).
And below is an abbreviated version of Ram Narayan Kumar’s account of his investigation, quoted from Kumar’s 2008 book Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge, and Truth. I’ll pick up the account after the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the human rights activist who first discovered the record of the mass cremations, who was himself disappeared by the Punjab police in 1995:
On 6 September 1995, Khalra himself disappeared. That morning, Punjab police officers kidnapped him from his Amritsar home. In November 1995, the Supreme Court instituted two inquiries to be conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The first inquiry aimed to determine what happened to Khalra. The second inquiry intended to establish the substance of the allegations that Khalra had made. In July 1996, the report of the first inquiry [I think he means, the second inquiry] categorized 2097 cremations into three lists of 585 identified, 274 partially identified and 1,238 unidentified corpses.
After receiving the CBI’s report, the Supreme court, in its order dated 12 December 1996, noted that it ‘disclosed flagrant violations of human rights on a mass scale.’ Instructing the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly progress report, the Court appointed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to determine and adjudicate all other issues and to award compensation. The court’s order clearly said that ‘since the matter is going to be examined by the NHRC at the rquest of this court, any compensation awarded shall be binding and payable.’
After 10 years of litigation, exhausted mainly in futile legal wrangling and denials by the State agencies, the National Human Rights Commission disposed of the matter with its 10 October 2006 order, awarding arbitrary sums of monetary compensation to 1245 victims. The order divides 1245 victims of illegal cremations into two categories of ‘deemed custody,’ meaning those who were admitted to be in police custody prior to their death and cremation, and others whose police custody prior to their death and cremation was not admitted. The categorization is based on admissions and denials by the State of Punjab without further inquiry or verification and without the victim families receiving a chance to be heard. Under the first category, 194 families receive ‘the grant of monetary reief at the rate of Rs. 2.50 lakhs’ . . . Under the second category, the Commission’s order awards a grant of Rs. 1.75 lakhs . . . to 1051 victim families on the ground that the police cremated their relatives without following the procedure prescribed by the Punjab Police Rules.
When the Supreme Court designated the NHRC to examine and determine ‘all the issues’ connected with the matter, it also entrusted the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly status report on its progress. Ten years later, nothing is known about the progress the CBI has made in its investigations. The quarterly reports, if they have been submitted, remain sealed and unseen. Yet, the NHRC’s final October 2006 order affirms faith that the State of Punjab and the Union of India will take appropriate steps to ensure taht violations do not recur. The faith is misplaced, to say the least, when the NHRC, through the procedure of investigation it followed, barred all ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. How can there be a guarantee of non-recurrence when there is no knowledge of what occurred? These failures constitute a major blow to more than 10 years of work, and a hopeful engagement with the legal process for justice, reparation and accountability, which a small voluntary group of individuals attempted to develop.
The outcome is very disappointing. Yet, I am not taken aback. The atrocities and their denial, which I observed all these years, occurred in a climate of impunity and its surreal celebration, which is very aptly echoed in India’s ancient war epic, Mahabharata: ‘Yudisththira sat on the high summit of a mound of human skeletons. There, in a state of visible contentment, he ate his rice pudding out of a golden bowl.’ (Source: Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knoweldge, and Truth)
In light of the life of Ram Narayan Kumar, a second quote from the Mahabharata seems appropriate:
To those who fall in war, victory or defeat makes no difference. All the good people — the courageous, the upright, the humble, and the compassionate — die first. The unscrupulous survive. Victory becomes the defeat of the good. (Mahabharata, Udhyoga Parva, Chapter 72, 15-72; link)