Bhalla Commission & Subsequent Subcommittee
Ensaaf provided litigation support, attended hearings, and investigated and documented disappearances and extrajudicial executions in Punjab for the petitioners before the Bhalla Commission, new subcommittee, and NHRC.
In its October 9, 2006 order, which effectively closed all of the major issues dealing with the matter of police abductions leading to disappearances and secret cremations in Punjab, the NHRC appointed a commissioner of inquiry in Amritsar, retired High Court Judge K.S. Bhalla, to identify as many as possible of the remaining 814 cremation victims from the CBI list within eight months. The number of unidentified cremations was subsequently revised to 800.
After its appointment, the Bhalla Commission and NHRC held ex parte meetings, excluding the petitioner Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP). As a result, the NHRC issued an order on October 30, 2006, that limited participation in the Bhalla Commission proceedings to those families who were among the 1,857 families who had submitted claims in response to NHRC public notices issued in 1999 and 2004. The NHRC also restricted all 1,857 claimants from participating in the proceedings by requiring the claimants to resubmit their claims in response to a public notice issued in November 2006. The end result was that only 70 of 1,857 claimants were eligible to participate in the Bhalla Commission proceedings. In its October 30, 2006 order, the NHRC did not provide any rationale or legal justification for narrowing participation in the Bhalla Commission through such a procedure.
The NHRC limited Justice Bhalla's mandate to identifying the remaining illegal cremations, but placed no further restrictions. However, Justice Bhalla demonstrated little interest in the underlying facts. In his February 3, 2007 order, he explicitly stated that human rights violations by the police did not fall within his scope of inquiry. Further, at the April 10, 2007 hearing, Justice Bhalla stated: "Naturally, if the police had known the identity of the individuals, they would have turned over their bodies to the families. What interest would they have in keeping the bodies?"
This comment reflected Justice Bhalla's dismissal of the contention that the police purposely covered up the identities of the individuals and destroyed their bodies in order to eliminate significant forensic evidence of torture and custodial death.
Justice Bhalla continued the NHRC practice of relying on the Punjab police for identifications or confirmations of victims of illegal cremations, instead of developing an independent methodology or conducting his own investigations. While CIIP and other petitioners submitted identification information to Justice Bhalla, he waited for confirmation from the Punjab police. If the Punjab police rejected the identification, Justice Bhalla placed insurmountable evidentiary burdens on the petitioners, requiring them to produce evidence of the dead body or cremation.
The NHRC and Bhalla Commissions never acknowledged the possibility that the remaining 800 unidentified bodies could not be identified from the pool of 1,857 prior claims, and that a more inclusive process of participation was required if the Commissions were serious about establishing the identities of all 800 victims. At least 10 percent of the victims previously identified by the NHRC as having been secretly cremated in Amritsar lived outside of Amritsar district.
The Bhalla Commission held its last hearing on June 29, 2007, and submitted its final report to the NHRC. In its report, the Bhalla Commission submitted the identification information of an additional 90 victims.
On March 25, 2008, the NHRC issued its latest order in the Punjab mass cremations case, addressing aspects of the Bhalla Commission's report. Although the NHRC took steps to address its arbitrary procedures and practices, it retained major defects that will likely continue to compromise even its limited objectives. The NHRC granted compensation to the next of kin of 90 victims identified during the Bhalla Commission proceedings for the violation of the "dignity of the dead," ignoring the violation of the right to life preceding the secret cremations. The NHRC established another subcommittee to identify the remaining 657 cremation victims in Amritsar district to which it had limited its inquiry and which had not been identified by the Bhalla Commission. The four-person subcommittee began operating in August 2008, and Ensaaf attended the first hearing. The NHRC placed a senior Punjab police officer on the subcommittee adjudicating the claims.
According to the NHRC's order and public notice outlining the terms of the subcommittee, claim forms would be made available in every district of Punjab at the District Commissioner's office. However, victim families throughout Punjab reported to Ensaaf harassment and defects in the claim form process, making it very difficult for them to obtain, complete, and submit their claims. Further, the subcommittee is continuing the practice of relying on Punjab police, the perpetrators, to investigate and verify the claims. This subcommittee was suspended temporarily during election season in early 2009.