By Prof Pritam Singh | OPINION |
In the last phase of India’s 2019 General Election, Punjab votes on 19th May. One broad generalisation which can be reasonably made about this election in India is that there is no wave of any kind countrywide unlike some of the previous parliamentary elections. Each state is witnessing a unique combination of forces and alliances that reflect the specific regional character of that state. We can safely stretch it further to argue that within each state, each seat while reflecting the specific regional political culture of the state is also witnessing its unique characteristics.
In Punjab, though the outcome of each seat will contribute to the numbers that will determine the nature of national government, some seats are of importance mainly for the regional politics of Punjab such as Ferozepur, Bathinda and Patiala. From Ferozepur, the Sikh Akali Dal (Badal) president Sukhbir Singh Badal is contesting; from Bathinda, his wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal who is a minister in the current Hindu nationalist BJP-led government at the Centre is contesting and from Patiala, Preneet Kaur, the wife of Amarinder Singh, the Congress Chief Minister of Punjab, is contesting against a sitting Member of Parliament Dr Dharamvir Gandhi who had, as an Aam Admi Party candidate then, inflicted a spectacular defeat on Kaur in the 2014 General Election. However, there is one seat in whose outcome, there is significant international interest because of the universal subject of human rights having emerged as a key issue. This seat is Khadoor Sahib from where Bibi Paramjit Kaur Khalra is one of the candidates who has given prominence to the issue of human rights.
Bibi Khalra is the widow of Jaswant Singh Khalra who became internationally known for his work on tracing the identity and whereabouts of persons who had disappeared (translated in Punjabi as laapata) in the violent conflict between the Indian security forces and the armed Sikh opposition groups in the 1990s. His work in Punjab on abduction and elimination of anti-state activists, and their cremations being categorised as those of unclaimed persons was unique though he might have been inspired by similar human rights endeavours on enforced disappearances in other parts of the world.
In international human rights law, an enforced disappearance is a crime and is considered to have occurred when a person is secretly kidnapped by a government or non-government organisation, followed by a denial of such disappearance to place the victim outside the protection of the law. Many countries in the world which have witnessed human rights violations have gone through the phenomenon of enforced disappearances with some of the Latin American countries such as Guatemala, Argentina, Chile and Columbia which saw military dictatorships being the worst examples. The resistance against disappearances also developed most in Latin America. For example, in Argentina, where a very brutal military regime between 1976 and 1983 had secretly liquidated, in what came to be called Dirty War, a very large number of young opponents of the regime, a very powerful organisation called The Mothers of the Disappeared emerged in defiance of the military regime. This gave impetus to the emergence of another organisation called The Grandmothers of the Disappeared. Such organisations supported by other human rights organisations in Argentina and abroad contributed to the strengthening of the democratic forces and managed to get support even of US President Carter. This resistance eventually contributed critically to the downfall of the military regime and victory of a democrat Raul Alfonsin, a lawyer, to Argentinian presidency in 1983. Responding to the popular demand, Alfonsin instituted a National Commission for the Disappeared for a thorough probe into enforced disappearances.
Punjab’s Jaswant Singh Khalra did not have the success the Argentinian campaign for disappeared had. He was picked up from his home on September 6, 1995 and himself became a disappeared, a fate he shared with many other such activists in the world. The evidence unearthed by the India’s Central Bureau of Intelligence has emerged that he was tortured very brutally, killed on October 28, 1995 and his body was thrown in Harike canal. Of the many reprehensible actions of Punjab policemen during the counter-insurgency campaign, this was one of the most disgusting and degrading acts as it was against a man who as an unarmed opponent of the state was conducting a peaceful activity out of humanitarian concerns.
BIBI KHALRA’S EXEMPLARY COURAGE
Bibi Khalra has displayed an exemplary courage in carrying on the campaign her husband gave his life for. Her relentless legal battle to seek justice under the rubric of Khalra Mission Organisation formed shortly after his death in 1995, succeeded partially when six police officials were convicted and sentenced for seven years imprisonment in 2005 for her husband’s abduction and murder. For four of them — Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh (all former Sub Inspectors) and Prithipal Singh (former Head Constable) — the sentence was extended to life imprisonment in 2007 by Punjab and Haryana High Court which was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court. One of the accused — Ajit Singh Sandhu SSP — had committed suicide by jumping before a train near Chandigarh on May 24, 1997. KPS Gill, the Punjab police chief, who was involved in interrogation of Jaswant Singh Khalra shortly before Khalra was made to disappear, died in 2017 before ever being put on trial.
I have never met Bibi Khalra but about a decade ago, the late Ram Narayan Kumar, one of the finest South Asian human rights campaigners, introduced her daughter to me at a human rights conference in Chandigarh. When I expressed my condolences to her at the loss of her father, she spoke in a mixture of pain and pride that though she missed him every day, she also remembered the great cause for which he gave his life. I could see that her parents had raised her to be a strong moral and ethical person.
The circumstances and the way Jaswant Singh Khalra died could have led Bibi Paramjit Kaur Khalra to depression and possibly self-harm but she seems to have drawn inspiration from his sacrifice for the higher cause of human rights. It is not easy for any widow in a deeply patriarchal society such as in Punjab to operate in the public field, but Bibi Khalra has defied those pressures in keeping up the campaign for human rights.
THE KHADUR SAHIB BATTLE
If she loses this election battle, it will signify that in Punjabi society, those who have money and organisational power even if they suffer from moral deficit can subdue those who are less resourceful even if the latter are higher on the moral ladder. However, if she wins, it will signify that democratic and moral values are still clicking strong in Punjabi society.
Whether she wins or loses, a new progressive turn is taking place in Punjab politics especially on the question of human rights. I demonstrated in my 2010 book Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond that human rights movement in Punjab has suffered from terrible sectarianism. When there were massive human rights violations of individuals and groups during the Maoist Naxalite movement in Punjab in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Sikh organisations did not protest against these violations. In a repeat of this sectarianism later when there were brutal violations of Sikh activists after the 1984 crackdown in Punjab, the Left-wing organisations and individuals (with few exceptions among whom I can humbly claim to be one) did not protest against these violations. One central lesson – moral and political – to learn from the international human rights movement is that when the human rights of one are violated, the human rights of all are violated. Sectarianism is damaging to all defenders of human rights.
In the Khadoor Sahib election battle, turning against the discredited legacy of sectarianism in Punjab, the Left-wing activists are openly and spiritedly supporting Bibi Khalra. This admirable break with sectarianism has a great potential for further development of progressive politics in Punjab.
The international human rights community and the organisations such as the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances would feel enormously strengthened – morally and institutionally – by Bibi Khalra’s election victory. She will represent a new moral force in the Indian parliament. Paradoxically, it will improve the international human rights image of the Indian state by demonstrating that a human rights campaigner can also win a seat to India’s parliament even though her voice in defence of human rights may be an irritant for the establishment. At international arenas, India is viewed as a laggard in promoting human rights organisations and institutions.
Though justifiably critical of the Indian establishment’s shameful record on human rights; Bibi Khalra, if she wins, may contribute not only to rectify the poor international image of India on human rights, it will add strength to human rights organisations, institutions and practices in India and beyond.
Prof Pritam Singh is an academic visitor at Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford, UK. He is the author of ‘Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy‘ (Routledge, London, 2008) and co-editor with S Thandi of ‘Punjabi Identity in a Global Context‘ (Oxford University Press, 1999) and with M Pearl of ‘Equal Opportunities in the Curriculum‘ (Oxford Brookes University, 1999).
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