India won't be 'the world's largest democracy' until it upholds human rights
Twenty-five years ago, India suspended part of its Constitution and launched a brutal campaign against Sikh separatists in its Punjab province. Today, India must provide reparations to the victims and vow to uphold human rights, especially in Kashmir and the northeast states.
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In December 1996, the Indian Supreme Court, relying on an inquiry by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation into mass cremations in Punjab, found a “flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale.” The court cited evidence that police had secretly cremated more than 2,000 people during the 10-year insurgency. And that was in just one district. Many human rights advocates believe that mass cremations took place in Punjab’s then 12 other districts, as well.Skip to next paragraph
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That’s why nearly 10 years ago, my colleague, Jaskaran Kaur, and I launched a nongovernmental organization called Ensaaf, which means "justice" in a number of South Asian languages, to investigate the human rights atrocities committed by the Indian government in Punjab. Our findings have been presented to such forums as the United Nations and India's National Human Rights Commission.
To be sure, other states have promulgated special laws and extrajudicial measures to quell insurgencies. One only has to look to the dirty wars of Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador – countries ruled by military juntas at the time – to understand the implications of such policies and practices.
What distinguishes India’s case, however, is that it was a functioning democracy when it adopted these measures. Its parliamentarians introduced the amendment as a bill in both houses; the requisite majority voted for the legislation; and the president officially enacted it into law on March 30, 1988. “The world’s largest democracy” had convened to strip the promise of life and liberty, not some military dictator ruling by decree.
And it’s clear that India is continuing its abuse of human rights. There is now considerable evidence that many of the same measures that were used to quell dissent in Punjab are consistently being used in Kashmir and the northeast states. Both these regions have sought to secede from India, and just like Punjab, their citizens have experienced arbitrary detention, torture, and in some cases unlawful killings and disappearances.
There is no doubt that India has done much to inspire the loyalty of its people and to command the respect of the world. But it must do more. To this day, families are waiting to learn the fate of their disappeared loved ones, and none of the senior government officials or the architects of the crimes have been held accountable. If India is to cement its reputation as “the world’s largest democracy,” it must provide truth and justice to its victims, and vow to hold due process and human rights protections as sacrosanct.
Sukhman Dhami is a human rights attorney in New York and cofounder of Ensaaf. He has also coauthored reports on abuses in Punjab and refugee matters with Human Rights Watch and the Public International Law and Policy Group.