Update on Bhalla Commission Hearings

January 12, 2007 | Comments Off on Update on Bhalla Commission Hearings

Of the 2000-plus illegal cremations in Punjab acknowledged by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the Punjab mass cremations case, 814 bodies have yet to be identified. The NHRC appointed a Commissioner, retired High Court Judge K.S. Bhalla, for receiving evidence and conducting an inquiry to identify the remaining bodies, if possible, within eight months. In its October 9, 2006 order, the NHRC stated the Commission must complete the identification in association with petitioner Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP) and any other parties who wished to provide relevant evidence.

The first two official hearings of the Bhalla Commission occurred on December 15, 2006 and January 2, 2007. The Bhalla Commission and NHRC also held ex parte meetings, excluding the petitioner CIIP. Further, as a result of the secret meetings, the NHRC issued an order on October 30, 2006, that restricted the mandate of the Bhalla Commission to consideration of only those claims submitted in response to two notices issued in 1999, which resulted in 88 claims, and in 2004, which resulted in 1,769 claims. Both the NHRC and Bhalla Commission have refused to give CIIP copies of the 1,769 claims, even though the CIIP helped collect those claims.

Lack of Impartiality

The NHRC held an ex parte meeting on October 13th with Justice Bhalla and the Punjab Police, where it limited the Bhalla Commission’s mandate to consideration of the claims submitted in 1999 and 2004, as stated in paragraph 16 of the October 30th order. The Bhalla Commission’s lack of transparency continued at the January 2nd hearing, where Justice Bhalla left the courtroom to hold private discussions with representatives of the Punjab Police, before returning to start the hearing.

Arbitrary and Ineffective Approach to Identifying Cremations

The October 30th NHRC order further reduced the Bhalla Commission’s ability to identify the remaining bodies by issuing notice to the prior claimants through newspapers on one day. Although the Bhalla Commission possessed the addresses of the 1,857 families who had submitted claims to the NHRC in 1999 and 2004, it failed to notify the families by mail. The inefficacy of the newspapers is demonstrated by the fact that merely 219 individuals responded to the notice, of which only 70 were found admissible by the Bhalla Commission. Moreover, as these 1,857 claims were already on file with the NHRC, these claims should have been automatically reviewed by the Bhalla Commission.

Cases that were previously identified have now been labeled unidentified, further demonstrating the defects in both the NHRC’s and Bhalla Commission’s abilities to systematically identify the victims. Out of the 88 claims that were filed in response to the NHRC’s first public notice in 1999, the Punjab Police had agreed to award compensation to 18 families with no admission of liability or guilt. All 18 families rejected the compensation in 2000. Because these families responded to the NHRC’s first public notice and qualified for compensation, they should be included in the list of identified cremations. However, some of their cases correlate with the cases in the unidentified list, based on date of cremation, place of cremation, and police station.

The limitation placed on the Bhalla Commission, to only reviewing those claims submitted in response to the prior NHRC notices, prevents families from identifying new cases in the unidentified cremations list. Even if a family knows that their next of kin was cremated in Amritsar and may be among the remaining 814 unidentified bodies, they are precluded from submitting a claim because they did not respond to the 1999 and 2004 notices. This excludes the case of Darshan Kaur, for example, whose son Hardeep Singh was abducted, killed, and cremated by the Punjab police in Amritsar district in 1991.

Key issues highlight the need for Bhalla to adopt a rigorous methodology to establish the identities of victims, and act independently of the Punjab Police to resolve the identities. First, the NHRC’s own list of 1,245 identified cremations contains at least 115 decedents abducted from outside of Amritsar, but cremated in Amritsar. The Bhalla Commission, however, has refused to look at cases from outside of Amritsar district. Second, in response to the NHRC’s first public notice in 1999, the Punjab Police disputed 44 claims of cremations that may be among the unidentified bodies. These cases must be investigated independently of the Punjab Police.

CIIP’s Arguments

At the first hearing, CIIP argued for the need of a rigorous methodology to resolve the unidentified cremations, especially in light of the admission of the Punjab government that it forged over 300 cremations in order to conceal the identity of police collaborators. It would be necessary to ensure that the true identity of the cremation victim was established in order to prevent the families of individuals who had not been cremated from receiving compensation and ensure that the true victim’s family, who was cremated in lieu of the collaborator, received compensation. CIIP further stressed the need to explore additional sources of information from throughout Punjab, such as First Information Reports, post mortem reports, habeas corpus petitions, and news reports on abductions, disappearances and encounters in order to identify the remaining bodies. The NHRC had itself catalogued that many of the 1,245 identified cremations came from outside of Amritsar district.

At the second hearing on January 2nd, the CIIP again proposed through written submission and oral argument that the Commission adopt a methodology based on receiving claims from throughout Punjab, and police, hospital, and court records.

The Commission’s proceedings have also been covered by the Hindustan Times, among other publications. On December 31, 2006, Ram Narayan Kumar published an op-ed in the Tribune.


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