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Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India

A Preliminary Quantitative Analysis

January 26, 2009

My name is Jasmine Marwaha, and I'm a Program Associate at Ensaaf. Ensaaf is an international human rights organization that works to end impunity and achieve justice for mass state crimes in Punjab, India. We do this by documenting and exposing human rights violations, bringing perpetrators to justice, and organizing survivors to advocate for their rights to truth, justice, and reparations. Since 2004, among our other work, Ensaaf has collected testimonies from families whose loved ones were disappeared or killed in the Indian state of Punjab by the India's security forces during a period of armed conflict between 1984 and 1995. The work Ensaaf has done to collect and analyze information on human rights violations in Punjab also builds on previous documentation efforts by human rights activists.

Many of these narratives regarding the violations in Punjab have a familiar pattern. Families describe how Punjab Police abducted their loved ones, often from home in the middle of the night, illegally detained and tortured them at various police stations, and then denied having custody of the individual. Some families would never learn the ultimate fate of their "disappeared" loved ones, while others would read in the newspaper a few days later that their relative was a "suspected militant," shot dead in an "encounter" with security forces. These reports suggested that many encounters, or gun battles, were falsified. These so-called "fake encounters" were so prevalent they were remarked upon by the U.S. State Department and widely acknowledged in the media as euphemisms for extrajudicial executions.

Despite the detailed qualitative research and analysis of human rights groups documenting the abuses committed by India's security forces, the Indian government continues to deny that widespread human rights abuses took place during their counterinsurgency campaign. The former Director General of Punjab Police, K.P.S. Gill, claims that he led the "most humane counter-insurgency operation in the annals of history," and has referred to alleged human rights violations as merely "random excesses" in the war on terror. Furthermore, state institutions have failed to provide survivors with truth, justice, and reparations.

Ensaaf began consulting with the nonprofit technology organization Benetech over two years ago to enlist the assistance of Benetech's Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). Ensaaf needed HRDAG's help to establish an undeniable empirical record of human rights violations in Punjab. Although extensive qualitative evidence exists in the public domain, the government's false narrative persists. Ensaaf sought Benetech's assistance hoping that quantitative analysis would reveal unknown dimensions of the abuses and challenge the Indian government, its institutions, and Indian society at large, to honestly consider the real costs of their security policies and practices. HRDAG's team of analysts transform raw information into scientifically defensible statistical evidence of large-scale human rights abuses. Their work has been used by nine truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental organizations around the world.

The big challenge for us in establishing a scientifically defensible record of systematic human rights abuses stems from the different ways in which the abuses have been reported and concealed. Fake encounters weren't the only means by which Punjab security forces covered up human rights violations. For example, in 1995, the late human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra exposed over 2,000 secret cremations carried out by the Punjab Police to dispose of bodies of the disappeared and extrajudicially executed.

So, anyone trying to get at the extent of lethal human rights violations in Punjab has to navigate the related phenomena of reported encounters, allegations of fake encounters, and illegal secret cremations, as well as disappearances and extrajudicial executions documented by human rights organizations. Where is the intersection between all of these different events?

As a first step towards answering this question, Ensaaf and HRDAG gathered the most prevalent data available on human rights violations in Punjab, and looked at the patterns of the time, place and reported circumstances of the deaths. Our first report, entitled "Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India," brought together six data sets comprising more than 21,000 records. After analyzing the data, we found clear consistencies between the increase in counterinsurgency deaths reported by the police, cremations recorded at municipal cremation grounds, and human rights violations reported by the victims' families. As government-reported deaths of alleged militants intensified in the early 1990s, reported human rights violations went from targeted disappearances and extrajudicial executions to large-scale lethal human rights violations, accompanied by mass secret cremations.

We also found a strong, positive correlation between the reported acts of lethal violations and "illegal cremations" acknowledged by the National Human Rights Commission of India. K.P.S. Gill, the former Punjab Police chief, claims that the "illegally cremated" victims don't represent victims of human rights violations. Instead, he claims that the reported disappeared persons are not dead but immigrated abroad. The correlation between increased illegal cremations, though, and increased reported human rights violations, suggests that enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions could have been the reason for the increased illegal cremations.

When the government-reported deaths of alleged militants in Punjab spread from the districts bordering Pakistan to those further away, so did the reported distribution of human rights violations in these geographic areas. Reported human rights violations and reported fatal encounters between alleged militants and police were strongly correlated - meaning that the patterns of frequency for both events closely matched each other. These correlations strongly undermine claims by the Indian government and security officials that the human rights violations represent the "random excesses" of a few officers. Instead, our findings are consistent with qualitative - or anecdotal - human rights evidence that violations were part of a systematic policy by Indian security forces.

The report also analyzes the 3,400 alleged "encounters" reported in the Tribune newspaper in Punjab between 1988 and 1995. The report demonstrates through its analysis of these events that the vast majority of these so-called encounters involved the killing of one or two alleged militants. Security forces made up only 10% of the reported deaths from encounters, despite the fact that these incidents supposedly involved a heated exchange of gunfire. In addition, the analysis also reveals a strong correlation between enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions reported by the victims' families and encounters reported in the newspaper. These observations are consistent with claims by human rights organizations that these encounters were often fake, concealing targeted extrajudicial killings by security forces.

We also observed that the violations were overwhelmingly targeted against young Sikh males between the ages of 18 and 45, whom the police alleged were members of the militant movement; 99% of the victims fit this profile, to be exact.

In the next phase of our analysis, we will generate a scientifically defensible estimate of the scale and scope of fatal human rights violations in Punjab, and we'll be able to talk about the violations in more detail. For now, we've established that the Indian government's explanations in response to allegations of widespread human rights violations is highly implausible - and that accurate, scientifically defensible data about these violations has set the stage for a dialogue based on the facts. Quantitative analysis, such as the type done by Ensaaf and HRDAG, represents a promising new avenue for human rights advocacy in Punjab. We believe it is crucial for de-politicizing arguments, and will allow for India to truly face the human cost of suspending the rule of law in the name of national security.