Jaswant Singh Khalra (1952-1995) was a notable Sikh Human rights activist who worked on the abduction, elimination, and cremation of unclaimed human bodies during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Punjab. In 1995, he was abducted and killed by a personnel of the Punjab Police.
Jaswant Singh Khalra was born in 1952 (age 43 years; at the time of death) in a remote area of Punjab near the India-Pakistan border. He hails from Khalra, Tarn Taran district in Punjab. He studied Law. At college, he was a spokesperson for the Punjab Student’s Union. He organised various protests against anti-police corruption and abuse of authority by the government. He also formed small unions within his village and college to encourage students to actively take part in the country’s politics. Khalra was inspired by the Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh. After graduating, Khalra started working for the local village-governing body i.e., Panchayat. In 1985, he moved to Amritsar, along with his wife. In 1990, Khalra returned from England to India. In the early 90s, he started working in a bank in Amritsar.
Parents & Siblings
His grandfather, Harnam Singh, was a freedom fighter during the uprising against the Britishers. Not much is known about his parents. He had a brother.
Wife & Children
In 1981, he got married to Paramjit Kaur, who worked as a librarian in the library of the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. Later, she became a human rights defender.
Together, they have two children, a daughter, Navkiran Kaur Khalra, and a son, Jap Singh. His daughter, Navkiran, was 10 years old when he was abducted.
Jaswant Singh Khalra was working as the director of a bank in Amritsar, Punjab, during the militancy period in Punjab. Apart from that, Khalra served as a general secretary of the Human Rights Wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
Activism During the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots
Following Operation Blue Star after which Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, the Punjab Police was empowered to detain anyone whom they suspected as a militant, which led to the 1984 Sikh Massacre. Although the extremism of the riots distressed Khalra from the beginning, it was the abduction and killing of his close friend Piara Singh, the director of the cooperative bank where Khalra worked, which led Khalra to initiate a detailed investigation of the killings. Khalra went to the Durgiana Mandir cremation ground in Amritsar to gather the remains of his friend who had been illegally cremated. There, he discovered that his friend was not the only one who was cremated illegally. He discovered a major error while examining the register of the cremation ground, which featured names of victims of extrajudicial executions along with their father’s names and villages whose bodies were labelled as “unidentified.” Khalra used this error in the crematorium records to expose over 6000 secret cremations by the police in just one of the 13 districts of Punjab and produced it before the court. He was investigating four major cases at the same time that included the custodial killing of Behla, the human-shield case concerning the death of seven civilians, the cremation of 25,000 unidentified bodies in Punjab, and the killing of about 2,000 policemen who did not collaborate in counter-terror operations.
On 6 September 1995, the Punjab Police abducted Jaswant Singh Khalra from his residence in Amritsar while he was washing his car. However, the police officials denied that Khalra was arrested or detained. On 7 September 1995, he was jailed in Chabal Police Station, Tarn Taran. On 12 September 1995, his wife, Paramjit Kaur, filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court of India, meanwhile, the police continued to deny Khalra’s arrest. In November 1995, SC ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the disappearance of Khalra. The CBI found evidence that Khalra had been held at the Kang Police Station in Tarn Taran district after the police abducted him. However, CBI later discovered that he was moved from Kang Police Station on 25 October 1995 after which time his whereabouts were unknown. A witness named Kuldeep Singh (former Special Police Officer) claimed that it was SHO Satnam Singh who was keeping Khalra locked in illegal confinement in the Jhabal police station, Tarn Taran. Kuldeep Singh served Khalra his meals during the illegal detention. Kuldeep Singh was recruited into the police by former Taran Tarn Senior Superintendent of Police Ajit Singh Sandhu. Sandhu was the prime accused in the case who committed suicide in May 1997 by jumping in front of a running train. Another name which popped up during Kuldeep’s testimony was that of K.P.S. Gill. Kuldeep alleged that one day police officials started beating up Khalra, meanwhile Kuldeep was asked to fetch a glass of hot water. While Kuldeep was heating up the water, he heard the sounds of two shots after which he rushed towards the room, where he was directed by Satnam Singh to go to car parking. Thereafter, the police officers dumped Khalra’s body in a Maruti van and disposed off his body near the Harike Bridge on the Sutlej river.
On 9 September 1995, a PIL was filed by Paramjit Kaur seeking justice for her husband’s death. It took ten years to bring Khalra’s custodial death case to trial, but in 2005, the nonprofit organization Ensaaf worked alongside private attorneys to bring the perpetrators to justice. Collaboratively, NGOs Ensaaf, Human Rights Watch (HRW), REDRESS, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice issued a call to the CBI in May 2006 for the investigation and prosecution of former police chief KPS Gill in the murder. Six police officials were convicted of the murder of Khalra out of which five were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007, and the sixth official was acquitted. The SC held,
The police had been eliminating the young persons under the pretext of being militants and was disposing of their dead bodies without maintaining any record and without performing their last rites.”
According to the eyewitness testimony of SPO Kuldeep Singh, former Punjab Police Chief KPS Gill held and interrogated Khalra just days prior to his murder. Gill interrogated Khalra for half an hour. After Gill’s departure, Kuldeep Singh heard SHO Satnam Singh say to Khalra that he could have saved himself if only he had listened to and agreed with the advice of Gill. Although the court considered Kuldeep Singh credible and accepted his testimony, the prosecutor kept investigating Gill for his alleged role in the murder. KPS Gill died in 2017 without facing trial. In 2007, the Punjab and Haryana High Court extended the seven years jail term of four policemen, Sub Inspectors Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh, and Head Constable Prithipal Singh. Later, the court enhanced their sentence to rigorous imprisonment for life. Although an appeal was filed against the sentence to life imprisonment for the four accused in the Supreme Court of India, it was dismissed and SC upheld the decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
- In 2017, the City Council of Fresno, California, approved the resolution to rename Victoria Park after the Sikh human rights advocate Jaswant Singh Khalra.
- In 2022, it was announced that Punjabi singer and actor Diljit Dosanjh would be portraying Jaswant Singh Khalra in his biopic. Thereafter, several people staged protests on the film sets of Jaswant Singh Khalra’s biopic objecting to Diljit Dosanjh’s portrayal of the character calling him videshi and citing that he was westernised.
- Three months before to his disappearance, Khalra visited Canada at the invitation of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, where he highlighted his research on the atrocities being committed in Punjab at WSO’s Parliamentary Dinner.
- While he was in Canada, his fellow Canadian Sikhs suggested that he should apply for refugee status in Canada as returning to India could be fatal for him. However, Khalra said that he knows he might be killed, but he had a task to undertake and he didn’t think he could do it sitting outside of Punjab.
- On the 25th death anniversary of Jaswant Singh Khalra in 2020, the City of Burnaby proclaimed Jaswant Singh Khalra Day.