Jaswant Singh Khalra (1952-1995) was a famous Sikh human rights activist who investigated and highlighted the 25,000 unclaimed bodies (of Sikhs) burnt by the Panjab security forces during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. In 1995, he was kidnapped and killed by the Panjab Police led by KPS Gill for revealing evidence against the Panjab police in an International forum.
Jaswant Singh Khalra was born in 1952 (age 43; at time of death) in a remote area of Punjab near the India-Pakistan border. He hails from Khalra, Tarn Taran district of Punjab. He studied Law. In college, he was the spokesperson of the Punjab Students’ Union. He organized various protests against anti-police corruption and abuse of power by the government. He also established small unions within his village and college to encourage students to participate actively in national politics. Khalra was inspired by Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh. After graduating, Khalra started working for the local governing body, the 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 rebellion against the British. His father’s name is Kartar Singh, and his mother’s name is Mukhtar Kaur. He has three brothers Rajinder Singh Sandhu, Amarjeet Singh Sandhu, and Amarjeet Singh Sandhu. Rajinder and Amarjeet live in the UK, while Gurdev lives in Austria. She has five younger sisters, Pritam Kaur, Mahinder Kaur, Harjinder Kaur (retired BEO), Baljit Kaur (retired Principal), and Beant Kaur.
Wife & Children
In 1981, he married Paramjit Kaur, who worked as a librarian in the library of Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. Later, he became a defender of human rights.
Together, they have two children, a daughter, Navkiran Kaur Khalra, and a son, Janmeet Singh. Her daughter, Navkiran, was 10 years old when she was abducted.
Jaswant Singh Khalra worked as a director of a bank in Amritsar, Punjab, during the period of militancy in Punjab. In 1987, he quit his job for investigating extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police. Additionally, Khalra served as the 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 were empowered to arrest anyone they suspected of being militants, leading to the Sikh Massacre of 1984. Although the extremism of the riots troubled Khalra from the start, it was the kidnapping and murder of his close friend Piara Singh, the director of the cooperative bank where Khalra worked, that led Khalra to begin a detailed investigation into the murder. Khalra went to the Durgiana Mandir crematorium in Amritsar to collect his friend’s body which had been illegally cremated. There, he discovered that his friend was not the only one who was burned illegally. He discovered a major error while checking the cremation register, which displayed the names of extrajudicial execution victims along with the names of their fathers and the village where the bodies were labeled as “unidentified.”
Khalra Mission Committee
In 1995, to pursue the cases of unidentified bodies, a committee was formed which was named as the Khalra Action Committee. S. Surinder Singh Ghariala was appointed as Chairman, Balwinder Singh Chabhal Head Sec. and Satnam Singh Amishah as Spokesperson. Khalra used errors from crematorium records to reveal 25,000 unidentified corpses from 1984 to 1995. He investigated four major cases which included the killing of Behla prisoners, the human shield case involving the deaths of seven civilians, the cremation of 25,000 bodies of people allied with Punjab, and 2 unidentified corpses in Punjab, and 2 unidentified corpses in Punjab. terror operation. As the general secretary of the human rights wing of the Akali Dal, Khalra released a copy of an official document showing secret cremation in Punjab on 16 January 1995. The allegations were based on a survey of the number of missing persons in the district and an investigation of the records of three crematoriums, Shamshanghat Patti, Taran Taran district and Durgiritsar district1. In January 1995, the Khalra organization filed a writ petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, seeking an inquiry into the disappearance and subsequent cremation. The high court dismissed the petition on the grounds that it was “vague” and that the petitioner organization had no locus standi to file such a petition. On September 6, 1995, the Punjab Police kidnapped Jaswant Singh Khalra from his residence in Amritsar. In 1998, the name of Khalra Action Committee was changed to Khalra Mission Committee.
On September 6, 1995, the Punjab Police abducted Jaswant Singh Khalra from his residence in Amritsar while he was washing his car. However, police officials denied that Khalra had been arrested or detained. On 7 September 1995, he was imprisoned at 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, the SC ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate Khalra’s disappearance. The CBI found evidence that Khalra was detained at Kang Police Station in Tarn Taran district after the police abducted him. However, the CBI later found that he was transferred from Kang Police Station on 25 October 1995 after which he was not known. A witness named Kuldeep Singh (former Special Police Officer) claimed that SHO Satnam Singh who arrested Khalra was kept in illegal confinement at Jhabal police station, Tarn Taran. Kuldeep Singh served his food to Khalra during the illegal detention. Kuldeep Singh was recruited into the police force by Taran Tarn’s former Senior Superintendent of Police, Ajit Singh Sandhu. Sandhu was the main accused in the case who committed suicide in May 1997 by jumping in front of a moving train. Another name that came up during Kuldeep’s testimony was KPS Gill. Kuldeep claimed that one day the police officers started beating Khalra, meanwhile, Kuldeep was asked to take a glass of hot water. While Kuldeep was heating the water, he heard two gunshots after which he rushed towards the room, where he was directed by Satnam Singh to go to the parking lot. After that, police officials dumped Khalra’s body in a Maruti van and dumped her body near the Harike Bridge on the Sutlej River.
On 9 September 1995, a PIL was filed by Paramjit Kaur to demand justice for her husband’s death. It took ten years to bring the case of Khalra’s detainee death to trial, but in 2005, the non-profit organization Ensaaf worked with private lawyers to bring the perpetrators to justice. Collaboratively, the NGO 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 officers were convicted of Khalra’s murder of which five were sentenced to life in prison in 2007, and the sixth officer was acquitted. SC held,
Police have eliminated young people on the pretext of being militants and dumped their bodies without keeping any records and without performing their last rites.”
According to witness testimony of SPO Kuldeep Singh, former Punjab Police Chief KPS Gill arrested and interrogated Khalra just days before his murder. Gill questioned Khalra for half an hour. After Gill’s departure, Kuldeep Singh heard SHO Satnam Singh tell Khalra that he could have saved himself if he had listened and agreed to Gill’s advice. Although the court found Kuldeep Singh credible and accepted his testimony, prosecutors continued to investigate 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-year prison sentence of four policemen, Sub Inspector Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh, and Head Constable Prithipal Singh. Later, the court increased their sentence to life imprisonment. Although an appeal was filed against the life sentence of the four accused in the Supreme Court of India, it was dismissed and the SC upheld the decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
- In 2017, the City Council of Fresno, California, passed a resolution to rename Victoria Park after Sikh human rights advocate Jaswant Singh Khalra.
- In 2022, it was announced that Punjabi singer and actor Diljit Dosanjh will play the role of Jaswant Singh Khalra in his biopic. After that, several people staged a protest on the sets of the Jaswant Singh Khalra biopic against Diljit Dosanjh’s character calling him “Videshi” and stating that he is a westerner.
- Three months before his disappearance, Khalra visited Canada at the invitation of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, where he presented his research on the atrocities committed in Punjab at the WSO Parliamentary Dinner.
- While he was in Canada, his Canadian Sikh friends suggested that he apply for refugee status in Canada because returning to India would be fatal for him. However, Khalra said that he knew he might be killed, but he had a job to do and he didn’t think he could do it outside Punjab.
- On the 25th anniversary of Jaswant Singh Khalra’s death in 2020, the City of Burnaby is proclaiming Jaswant Singh Khalra Day.