Frequently Asked Questions

Historical Context


Historical Context

Where is Punjab?

Punjab is a state in northern India. A composite of the Persian words for five and water, Punjab means “Land of Five Rivers.” Covering 19,445 square miles, Punjab’s population is approximately 27.7 million, the majority of whom are Sikh, though the state also includes Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jains. The official language of Punjab is Punjabi.Sometimes, Punjab is referred to as a region, which in addition to including the state of Punjab, encompasses central Pakistan and other parts of India. For Ensaaf’s purposes, when referring to Punjab, we are speaking about the Indian state, not the region.

Who are Sikhs and what do they believe?

The Sikh religion was revealed in the 16th Century, in what is today known as the Punjab region (located in northern India and Pakistan). The revelations of its founder Guru Nanak and nine successive Gurus preached belief in one God, remembrance of God at all times, equality of all human beings, and the rejection of idolatry, ritualism, caste, and asceticism. In 1699, the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created an initiated order of Sikhs, who wear specific articles of faith, making them readily identifiable. These articles of faith include: Kesh (uncut hair), which is kept covered by a distinctive turban, the Kirpan (religious sword), Kara (metal bracelet), Kanga (comb), and Kaccha (under-shorts). They all have deep religious meanings for Sikhs who wear them.

Can you give me a brief background to the abuses Ensaaf works on in Punjab?

From 1984 to 1995, India’s security forces engaged in widespread and systematic human rights violations in the state of Punjab, as part of counterinsurgency operations aimed at crushing a violent self-determination movement. Special counterinsurgency laws, and a system of rewards and incentives for security forces, led to an increase in disappearances and unlawful killings of civilians and militants alike. Although all Punjabi Sikhs were vulnerable to disappearance and killing, police especially targeted Amritdharis (initiated Sikhs), those who were politically active with the Akali Dal parties, and families and friends of alleged militants. By the end of the “Decade of Disappearances” in 1995, security forces had disappeared or killed thousands of Sikhs.To conceal their crimes, Punjab security forces killed human rights defenders such as Jaswant Singh Khalra and Sukhwinder Singh Bhatti, as well as destroyed their victims’ bodies through mass cremations and by dumping them in rivers. Hundreds of perpetrators remain unaccountable. Further, the architects of these crimes remain in positions of power, and have traveled to other regions of India to advise on counterinsurgency operations. As demonstrated in Ensaaf’s joint report with Human Rights Watch, Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India (Oct. 2007), India’s institutions have failed to acknowledge the systematic and widespread nature of the abuses, and accordingly have not provided truth, justice, and reparations to the victims and survivors.

What is a "disappearance"?

An enforced disappearance occurs when officials affiliated with the government arrest, detain, or abduct an individual, and then refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of the individual’s liberty or disclose his fate or whereabouts. The practices of disappearances and unlawful killings violate several human rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to a fair and public trial, as well as the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. An enforced disappearance is a continuing crime until the disappearance is resolved.


What is impunity?

Impunity means the institutional refusal to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable. Ensaaf believes that impunity is the root cause of ongoing abuses and perpetually violates survivors’ rights to truth, justice, and reparations. Impunity allows perpetrators to remain in power and commit further abuses, conceals the truth about the government’s crimes, and oppresses entire communities through fear. Impunity further erodes the rule of law by stagnating reforms in laws and institutions that provide justice. The impunity gap is nowhere more evident than in Punjab, as is the opportunity to overcome impunity. We must therefore first defeat impunity in order to enforce human rights in India.

Can you provide an example of impunity?

A prime example of impunity was the refusal of the Government of India to hold former Director General of Punjab Police KPS Gill accountable for disappearances and unlawful killings in Punjab. KPS Gill was in charge of most security forces operating in Punjab during the majority of the counterinsurgency period, and helped develop the widespread and systematic policy and practice of torture, unlawful killings, and disappearances of persons accused of involvement in the militancy.Because Gill was never held accountable for his crimes, prior to his death in 2017 he helped develop counterinsurgency practices, accompanied by gross human rights violations, in other regions of India.

Can Indian security officials be tried for crimes against humanity in an international court?

International and special tribunals and courts for crimes against humanity and war crimes have been created by the United Nations Security Council and consenting nations in the aftermath of horrific civil conflict – such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994, and the Special Court in Sierra Leone. In 2002, the International Criminal Court entered into force to systematize the prosecution of war crimes, including genocide, torture, rape, and other violations of international humanitarian law. However, Indian officials cannot be held accountable in the ICC because the ICC’s jurisdiction does not encompass crimes committed before 2002, and the ICC does not have jurisdiction over India since India has not ratified the relevant statute.Additionally, India continues to hold a sizable influence over the UN system. This influence, while a hindrance to pursuing the most direct measures of accountability within the UN system, also implies that India has an investment in its international standing and is subject to international pressure through other international advocacy approaches.

Shouldn’t we forget about these abuses and move on? What purpose does this work serve?

We are not dealing with “past” abuses but ongoing violations of fundamental human rights. Under international law, a disappearance is an ongoing violation of the disappeared victim’s right to life until the disappearance is resolved.Further, victims and survivors of disappearances and unlawful killings have the right to an effective remedy for the violations they have suffered. A victim's right to an effective remedy obligates the state to take the necessary investigative, judicial, and reparatory steps to redress the violations and address the victim's rights to knowledge, justice, and reparations.The state is under a continuing obligation to provide an effective remedy; there is no time limit on legal action and the right cannot be compromised even during a state of emergency. Thus, until this right is vindicated, the violation continues.“Forgiving” is also only possible when the state has thoroughly investigated and punished the abuses and publicly acknowledged and accepted responsibility for its crimes.Ensaaf works to implement international and Indian law and break the cycle of violence and impunity in India. Without confronting impunity, India will continue to operate outside the rule of law, and conflict and abuses will not end.Furthermore, Punjab presents a unique and timely opportunity to challenge systematic impunity in India because:

  • Key cases have reached higher courts. These cases will set national precedents and we must support them.
  • Accused police officers have been promoted to senior positions. They must be removed from power.
  • Key evidence is lost each year as survivors die and documents are destroyed. We must capture this evidence before it is gone forever.

How do you respond to government or police officials who say human rights work supports militants?

Ensaaf notes in all its reports that militants were responsible for numerous human rights abuses during the 1980s and 1990s. However, abuses committed by militants do not negate abuses perpetrated by the state, or minimize the state’s obligations to conduct counterinsurgency operations in conformity with the law or redress human rights violations. Under international law, fundamental human rights are non-derogable under any circumstance and “terrorism” can never be a justification for violating fundamental human rights.Indian police and government officials have tried their best to equate human rights work with terrorism, as former Punjab police chief KPS Gill alleged after the release of Ensaaf’s joint report with Human Rights Watch. However, Ensaaf and other human rights groups consistently call for the implementation of Indian and international law against all criminals, state and non-state actors.The Indian government is obligated under international law to specifically address accusations of human rights violations and provide an effective remedy to the victims and their families. The objective of Ensaaf’s work is to compel the Indian government to uphold its obligations under international and Indian law. Ensaaf works within the framework of international human rights law and standards, independently of any government, political ideology, or religious affiliation.

Can’t the victims just go to court themselves?

In our joint report with Human Rights Watch, Protecting the Killers, we discuss the hurdles families face in pursuing justice in India, such as biases within the prosecuting authority and its role in protecting police, challenges brought on by prolonged trials, the police’s role in the destruction of evidence and fabrication of records, and police intimidation and abuses suffered by survivors and witnesses. Those who initiate petitions against police officials and the witnesses who are brave enough to come forward often face extreme harassment, including criminal cases framed against them and death threats.A Commission of Inquiry that prioritizes truth, justice, and reparations would be able to spare victims much of this hardship in getting justice. This institution would bear the burden of investigation and could work to protect witnesses, among other advantages. For a full listing of our recommendations towards ending impunity in Punjab, please read the last chapter in our joint report.

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