PUCL Bulletin, November 2002

National Human Rights Commission hearing-
Cremations of victims of disappearances and custodial killings in Punjab

Demand respect for facts, accountability and end to impunity

There seems to be some new and potentially problematic development with regard to the Punjab's cremations matter before the National Human Rights Commission. I am sure that some of us are aware that Ram Narayan Kumar has been involved in the issue for a long time now researching and documenting cases of disappearances and custodial killings. Ashok Aggarwal and Nitya Ramakrishnan have been handling the legal issue.

In his recent letter on the case, R. N. Kumar has written the following: -
"After nearly six months of inaction, the Commission reopened the hearing in the matter on the 26th of August. In a rare display of urgency, Chairman Verma asked the State of Punjab to file documents/ affidavits in support of the State of Punjab's stand with respect to each of the 582 "identified" cremations within the next couple of weeks. Verma indicated that he wanted to decide the cases of these before retiring in January next year.

The lawyer for the State of Punjab seems to have come prepared. He filed several charts to show the number of security personnel killed in the encounters that resulted in deaths of people cremated by the police, the number of people cremated by the police who had previous criminal history, etc. He also submitted several volumes of press clippings and a volume about police martyrs. All these submissions indicate the broad nature of the defence the State of Punjab is going to take. What I am particularly concerned about is the sudden flurry of activity by the Commission that comes in the wake of Punjab Chief Minister's promises, supported by the BJP and other political leaders at the State and the National level, to help the policemen.

I am of course wondering if the Commission has reopened the matter now on the basis of an understanding with the government.

As you should recall, in February 2001, we were able to pressurise the Commission to modify its earlier August 2000 order by which it had endorsed the Punjab government's curious position that "without examining the correctness of the claims" and "without going into the merits of the matter", 18 victim families may receive one hundred thousand rupees each by way of disposing them of. All the 18 victim families had moved the Commission to demand that it should either restore the original intent of justice, when the Supreme Court referred the matter to it in December 1996, or put an end to this farce. Embarrassed by this and the lively press campaign on this matter which developed, the Commission had passed a new order on 15 February 2001 holding that "as far as practicable efforts must be made to enquire into all or as many out of 2097 cremations as possible…". The order also said that the 18 August order was not a determination of compensation in the 18 cases.

Since then, there has been very little positive development in the matter first because of the elections in Punjab and the change of the government that resulted, and then the developments in Gujarat which kept the Commission apparently busy. Now the Commission has resumed hearing in the matter again and it is very important that we are able to refute the State government's submissions and arguments on the strength of sound factual and legal research.
Somehow I feel that we are not likely to move towards these goals unless we combine the legal strategy with a certain amount of public opinion building on the strength of the simplicity and non-political nature of our demand for respect for facts, accountability, and end of impunity.

Those who have been involved in the cases feel that they need help in not only evolving a new strategy towards strengthening support to this issue but build a larger campaign.

Yours sincerely,
(Deena) -- E. Deenadayalan, General Secretary - The Other Media

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