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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.

By Sukhman Dhami / March 29, 2013

Indian voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station near the India-Pakistan border for the Punjab State Assembly elections in the village of Bachiwind, India, Jan. 30, 2012. Op-ed contributor Sukhman Dhami says India must acknowledge the brutal government crackdown that took place in Punjab 25 years ago, 'provide reparations to those who were wrongfully harmed, and cease all ongoing human rights violations.'

Altaf Qadri/AP


New York

This Saturday, India – a country that President Obama has proudly called “the world’s largest democracy” – will face the anniversary of one of its darkest, most undemocratic moments. Twenty-five years ago, on March 30, 1988, India suspended Article 21 of its Constitution, which provides that no person shall be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law. The suspension applied to the northwestern state of Punjab, home to India’s Sikh religious minority and the site of a major secessionist movement that occurred from 1984 to 1995.

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Suddenly, a police officer could arrest, detain, or even summarily execute a citizen of Punjab without judicial accountability. The promise of due process – a guarantee that so many Indians had fought for during the era of independence only decades earlier – had been jettisoned. The results were disastrous.

Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights described the government’s counterinsurgency campaign in India as “the most extreme example of a policy in which the end appeared to justify any and all means, including torture and murder.” While early reports limited the number of deaths to hundreds or the low thousands, our research indicates that nearly 20,000 people were killed, with the peak number of deaths occurring from 1990 to 1993.

India cannot hide from its past. It must use this anniversary to acknowledge what took place in Punjab, provide reparations to those who were wrongfully harmed, and cease all ongoing human rights violations.

By most accounts, the Punjab conflict began in June 1984, when India’s armed forces launched an assault on the Harmandir Sahib complex – popularly known as the “Golden Temple,” the heart of Sikh religious and political life. The attack began during an important religious holiday, when the complex was overflowing with worshipers, and resulted in several thousand deaths.

The government contended that the assault was necessary to flush out militants who had allegedly taken safe harbor inside. However, others claim that the operation was designed to derail a peaceful protest that was expected to attract hundreds of thousands of Sikhs. Many Sikhs believed that the Indian government was discriminating against them and diverting precious resources away from Punjab, and vowed to voice their dissent until the Indian government acquiesced to their demands.

Already feeling persecuted, and now with thousands dead, many Sikhs took up arms. India used all means at its disposal, including police and paramilitary forces, to quell the rebellion.

When these efforts met with limited success, India repealed the Constitution’s due process protections for the state of Punjab. Security forces now had the legal cover to target whomever they suspected of participating in the rebellion. Many suspects were picked up by the police and never seen again. In other cases, individuals unconnected to the conflict were targeted to instill fear in the population. And still others were targeted for political purposes, including appeasing police and military officers emboldened by their newfound powers.

By 1995, the movement had been crushed, and none of the political and economic demands of the Sikhs had been met. Moreover, families in villages throughout Punjab were still searching for relatives who were last seen in police custody.


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