We remember S. Jaswant Singh Khalra on the anniversary of his disapperance. We reflect here on his work, his death his legacy and how the uproar over his abduction caused ripples in Canada.
Jaswant Singh Khalra's Abduction & Murder
On this day in 1995, S. Khalra was abducted from his home in Amritsar, Punjab by plain clothes police officers from the Tarn Taran district. Earlier, when S. Jaswant Singh’s research had uncovered the illegal murder and cremation of thousands of young Sikhs by the Punjab Police, the Superintendant of Police from Tarn Taran, Ajit Sandhu had said “if 25,000 have disappeared, it will be easy to make one more disappear too.”
Ajit Sandhu and the Punjab Police made good on their threats.
From his abduction on September 6, 1995 until his eventual murder on October 27, 1995, S. Khalra endured unspeakable torture and abuse.
The story of S. Khalra’s death may have remained a complete mystery if not for Kuldeep Singh, a former Special Police Officer who later came forward as a witness in the Khalra murder case. Kuldeep Singh was tasked with the job of giving S. Khalra his meals during his illegal detention.
Kuldeep Singh said that the head of the Punjab Police, KP Gill came to visit Khalra while he was in custody a few days before his murder. Gill remained with S. Khalra for half an hour. After Gill’s departure, Kuldeep Singh heard the head of the police station, SHO Satnam Singh say to S. Khalra that he could have saved himself if only he had listened to and agreed with the advice of Gill.
On October 27, 1995, Kuldeep Singh said that police officers began beating S. Khalra (a regular occurrence) but then shot him twice in the chest. It was around 10pm. S. Khalra’s body was taken in a police jeep and thrown into the Harike canal. The police officers, Arvinder and Balwinder, who disposed of S. Khalra’s body were rewarded with two bottles of liquor which they consumed on the lawn of the Harike rest house, as their senior officers enjoyed themselves inside.
S. Khalra & the Canadian Connection
Three months prior to his disappearance, S. Khalra was in Canada at the invitation of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. He spoke at WSO’s Parliamentary Dinner about his research and the atrocities being committed in Punjab.
Those that hosted S. Khalra in their homes say that he was very quiet. He didn’t speak much and it seemed as though he was always focused on the task he had undertaken of making a difference in Punjab.
Some Canadian Sikhs approached him and suggested that he would be wise to apply for refugee status in Canada because a return to India would put him harm’s way. S. Khalra said that he knew he may be killed. But he had a job to do and he didn’t think he could do it sitting outside of Punjab.
When news of S. Khalra’s abduction reached Canada, WSO’s team sprung into action. A news release was issued on September 6, 1995 calling for S. Khalra's immediate release along with letters to Canadian officials from the Prime Minister to the MPs S. Khalra had met during his visits asking them to call on India to free S. Khalra.
The response in Canada to S. Khalra’s shocking abduction was strong and startled the Indian Government.
The Indian Government denied that S. Khalra had been abducted by the police and in a letter clarifying the Government position, the former Governor of Punjab, S.S. Ray said that the kidnappers were merely “masquerading as policemen”.
When MP Collen Beaumier raised the issue of S. Khalra’s disappearance with Indian Consul General Prem Budhwar during his meeting with members of the Commons foreign-affairs committee, Budhwar grabbed Beaumier and told her to “cool it”. The shocking incident was reported the following day by the Canadian Press:
MP says India's high commissioner grabbed her
The Vancouver Sun [Vancouver, B.C] 07 Oct 1995: .16.
OTTAWA -- A Liberal MP says India's high commissioner grabbed her and told her to “cool it'' after she grilled him about human rights abuses in India.
Colleen Beaumier says the incident took place last week when Prem Budhwar met members of the Commons foreign-affairs committee.
“He thought we would focus on trade,'' Beaumier said. But instead almost all the questions focused on India's human-rights record.
After the questions ''he grabbed me and told me to cool it,'' she said.
Budhwar was not available for comment, an official at the Indian embassy said Friday.
Beaumier said she sent Budhwar a letter a month ago asking for information about a human-rights activist who was abducted by police outside his home in India on Sept. 6.
Jaswant Singh Khalra was the subject of an Amnesty International ''urgent action'' letter the following day.
“He has not been produced before a magistrate and his relatives have not officially been informed of his whereabouts,'' Amnesty said, adding it was extremely concerned for his safety. Khalra is the head of the human-rights wing of the Akali Dal political party, which is calling for greater Punjabi autonomy from India.
He told MPs in Ottawa in June that police have murdered 25,000 people in the Punjab.
Beaumier says she doesn't want to escalate the incident. ''My biggest concern is for Mr. Khalra's safety.''
Amnesty says Khalra's human-rights group filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in January concerning the deaths of hundreds of unidentified individuals.
In January 1996, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and current WSO President Prem Singh Vinning met with S. Khalra’s family during a visit to India.
S. Khalra’s Legacy
S. Khalra’s mission did not end with his death. Human rights activists continue to work on the cases of those innocents who were disappeared by the Punjab Police despite the fact that the records of cremation grounds in other districts of Punjab which S. Khalra had not yet studied have now been sealed and are inaccessible. During WSO's annual events in June of this year across Canada, Navkiran Kaur Khalra and senior Indian advocate Colin Gonsalves spoke about the ongoing campaign for justice in Punjab.
In Canada, young people continue to be inspired by S. Khalra’s mission.
In 2011, the WSO and the Human Rights Law Network in Delhi India launched the Khalra Centre for Human Rights Defenders to protect those heroes who like S. Khalra risk their lives to speak out against injustice.
S. Khalra talked about being a single candle which would fight the darkness. With his inspiration, countless candles have been lit and will continue to burn until the darkness is finally dispelled.