Throughout this period of unrest many thousands of civilians have ‘disappeared’, leaving their families uncertain as to their fate and with little legal redress, as most lack the resources to take their case to court, and those who are able to do so receive a standard denial of any state wrongdoing. The ‘disappeared’ are mostly young men, suspected of being supporters of autonomist sympathisers, who were arrested or abducted by the police never to be seen again, although some women, elderly people and children were also victims. Despite Indian State claims that these ‘disappeared’ died in armed encounters with police, or fled abroad, human rights observers recognise that the vast majority of them have been killed in police custody, the term “encounters” in Punjab has become synonymous with extra-judicial executions.
Observers estimate that, since 1984, over 50,000 1 people have been killed in Punjab and thousands more have suffered torture and illegal detention. The responsibility for a huge amount of these deaths lies with a variety of Indian State forces, including the Army, the Border Security Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Central Reserve Police Force, and, most of all, the Punjab Police, who the European Court of Human Rights described as “accustomed to act without regard to the human rights of suspect[s]”. 2
“Thousands of Sikh homes in the Punjab villages have been raided by the police and paramilitary forces. Young Sikhs have been dragged away for questioning never to be seen again” The Guardian
“The pattern in each village appears to be the same. The army moves in during the early evening, cordons a village, and announces over loudspeakers that everyone must come out. All males between the ages of 15 and 35 are trussed and blindfolded, then taken away. Thousands have disappeared in the Punjab since the army operations began. The government has provided no lists of names; families don’t know if sons and husbands are arrested, underground or dead.” 3 Christian Science Monitor
1 The Human Rights and Democracy Forum that was set up to investigate those 'disappearances' found that in just three cremation grounds in the area of Amritsar in Punjab, over 3,000 bodies had been cremated by the police as unclaimed between 1984 and the end of 1994. It is now known that over fifty cremation grounds in Punjab have been used regularly by police to cremate bodies. 2 Application No. 70/1995/576/662, Strasbourg, 15th November 1996 3Mary Ann Weaver: Christian Science Monitor 4