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Endless wait for vanished kin

Chandigarh, Aug. 20: They deal with the dead. They rush from pillar to post, some seeking the whereabouts of their children, some on the lookout for photographs or anything that will indicate if their children are alive, years after Khalistani terrorism was crushed.

Meet the parents of those who had “disappeared” during the terrorism era in Punjab. Fear and anguish is writ on their faces. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale may have been declared a martyr by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee and his name incorporated in the controversial Nanakshahi calendar. But for the families of those who may or may not have picked up the gun but have “disappeared”, the agony continues. The last rites wait to be performed.

The Coordination Committee for Disappearances in Punjab has compiled 849 cases involving disappearances and executions till July 1999. Less than 10 per cent of the bodies have been handed over to the families for cremations.

In every district in the state there are families waiting for some indication whether their children are alive.

At Bhauwal, a hamlet near Chamkaur Sahib, a family spends most of its time waiting for some news about the fate of a loved one.

“We are poor and cannot afford to file cases and go to court ourselves. I still have no news about my elder son Dalbir who was picked up by the police on March 11, 1992. My younger son, Jaswinder, had earlier been killed in an encounter in October 1989. I had last seen Dalbir in the interrogation centre at Ropar a day after he was arrested,” Shivram lamented.

Shivram, too, had been dragged to jail after Dalbir’s arrest. Released after 40 days, his journey to unearth the truth about Dalbir’s disappearance still continues.

“I had heard a wail at the interrogation centre. Then there was the sound of a gunshot and silence,” Shivram shivered. His pleas for Dalbir’s death certificate have gone unheeded. “I cannot transfer land to my other son without it,” he added, wondering what he had done in his past life that was making him suffer this.

Interestingly, the majority of those who disappeared during the terrorism era belong to poor families. A handful of the rich who followed Bhindranwale’s orders to create mayhem are few in number and have been able to wash the stain on their families by either shifting to new locations or by using their “influence” and money power. There are whispers that when terrorism was at its height, many rich families in the state had been asked to “offer” one son to the Khalistani movement. The majority, instead, gave cash.

“Poor farmers still throng police stations with tales of how their sons were picked up never to return. We have been consoling them and telling them that what happened in Punjab in the eighties and nineties was nothing short of a war. We want the people to understand and forget what had happened,” a senior police officer said.

Take the case of Tarlochan Sidhu. His son was arrested in Mohali in 1989. He has not seen him since then. Relatives said he was cremated by the police after an “encounter”.

Sidhu has been knocking on several doors but to no avail. He has not even performed the last rites for his son.

The SGPC has done little to assuage the pain of those who are still on the lookout for their children. “The SGPC has done nothing. To them only Bhindranwale matters. My son did not follow Bhindranwale’s ideology, but he was dragged out of the house and killed in custody,” a 70-year-old father cried on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. “Why can’t we have a truth commission like the one in South Africa. At least we will be able to know how our children met their end. I am helpless. Those who took him away are still around.”

“Everybody who has disappeared was not a terrorist. The state must accept that human rights violations did occur on a large scale,” convener of Movement Against State Repression, Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, said.

According to Jaijee, the number of militants killed varies from DGP to DGP. “While K.P.S. Gill has put the figure at 25,000, P.C. Dogra’s estimate is 21,000. B.S. Danewalia has gone many steps ahead by quoting the figure at 66,000 up to 1983. The figure includes those who have also simply disappeared,” he explained on telephone from New Delhi.

Jaijee said human rights groups in Punjab estimate that nearly 2 lakh people were killed during the terrorism era.

Human rights activists cite police torture after arrests as the major reason for the disappearance of a large number of youths.

“Bodies with their hands tied have been found floating in canals. The police simply killed them because they feared persecution in case they released the youths. Custodial violence is a crime. No body, no case, no death certificate. It is as simple as that. Those who have suffered will continue their endless wait. Society cannot apply balm on their wounds,” Jaijee added.

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