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Frequently Asked Questions

Ensaaf’s Mission, Goals, and Basic Definitions

What does “Ensaaf“ mean?

“Ensaaf” means “justice” in many South Asian languages.

What is Ensaaf’s mission?

Ensaaf works to end impunity and achieve justice for mass state crimes in India, with a focus on Punjab, by documenting abuses, bringing perpetrators to justice, and organizing survivors.

What is impunity?

Impunity means the institutional refusal to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable. Ensaaf believes that impunity is the root cause of ongoing abuses and perpetually violates survivors’ rights to truth, justice, and reparations. Impunity allows perpetrators to remain in power and commit further abuses, conceals the truth about the government’s crimes, and oppresses entire communities through fear. Impunity further denies access to justice by stagnating reforms in laws, practices, and institutions that provide justice. We must therefore first defeat impunity in order to enforce human rights in India.

Can you provide an example of impunity?

A prime example of impunity is the refusal of the Government of India to hold former Director General of Punjab Police KPS Gill accountable for disappearances and extrajudicial executions in Punjab. KPS Gill was in charge of most security forces operating in Punjab during the majority of the counterinsurgency period, and helped develop the widespread and systematic policy and practice of torture, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances of persons accused of involvement in the militancy.

Because Gill was never held accountable for his crimes, he has helped develop counterinsurgency practices, accompanied by gross human rights violations, in other regions of India.

What are Ensaaf’s objectives?

Ensaaf is working to:

  • Document the tens of thousands of disappearances and extrajudicial executions perpetrated in Punjab, as well as the systems of abuse;
  • Hold the primary architects of these abuses accountable; and
  • Organize survivors on the issues of truth, justice, and reparations.

Ensaaf is currently focusing on Punjab because Punjab presents a unique and timely opportunity to challenge systematic impunity in India. For example, key cases have reached higher courts that will set national precedent on human rights norms. Once Ensaaf achieves its objectives, it will work to replicate its model and successes in other regions of India.

What does Ensaaf do and how does it achieve change?

Ensaaf’s staff is highly trained in law, advocacy, and investigating, documenting, and researching human rights violations.

Ensaaf employs three integrated strategies:

  • Documenting abuses to counter official denials and build evidence for accountability;
  • Engaging in strategic litigation to remove perpetrators from power and set national precedents on human rights norms; and
  • Organizing survivors to advocate for their rights to truth, justice, and reparations.

We implement these strategies through our four core programs—Community Organizing & Education, Documentation, Legal Advocacy, and United Nations Advocacy.

Please explore our program pages to gain a deeper understanding of our work.

What is a “disappearance“?

An enforced disappearance occurs when officials affiliated with the government arrest, detain, or abduct an individual, and then refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of the individual’s liberty or disclose his fate or whereabouts. The practices of disappearances and extrajudicial executions violate several human rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to a fair and public trial, as well as the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. An enforced disappearance is a continuing crime until the disappearance is resolved.

Do the families of the disappeared and unlawfully killed support this work?

Our work is primarily motivated by the expressed need from survivors to seek justice for the human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces. Dara Singh speaks for the wishes of many survivors for truth and justice:

The police murdered both of my sons, and they won’t even admit that they did something wrong. They call my sons terrorists! The police are the terrorists… The government should also give us copies of their records relating to the murder of my sons, so we can figure out what really happened.

In his last speech to an international audience before he was murdered by the Punjab police, human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra expressed the need to precisely document the abuses, challenge the perpetrators in court, and conduct advocacy to bring the issues to international attention.

In 2007, Ensaaf and Human Rights Watch released a joint report titled Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India that proposes detailed recommendations to the Indian government to ensure an effective remedy for all persons whose rights or freedoms were violated in Punjab during the counterinsurgency operations. This remedial framework includes a commission of inquiry, a special prosecutor's office with fast track courts, and a comprehensive reparations program.

Shouldn’t we forget about these abuses and move on? What purpose does this work serve?

We are not dealing with “past” abuses but ongoing violations of fundamental human rights. Under international law, a disappearance is an ongoing violation of the disappeared victim’s right to life until the disappearance is resolved.

Further, victims and survivors of disappearances and extrajudicial executions have the right to an effective remedy for the violations they have suffered. A victim's right to an effective remedy obligates the state to take the necessary investigative, judicial, and reparatory steps to redress the violations and address the victim's rights to knowledge, justice, and reparations. The state is under a continuing obligation to provide an effective remedy; there is no time limit on legal action and the right cannot be compromised even during a state of emergency. Thus, until this right is vindicated, the violation continues.

“Forgiving” is also only possible when the state has thoroughly investigated and punished the abuses and publicly acknowledged and accepted responsibility for its crimes.

Ensaaf works to implement international and Indian law and break the cycle of violence and impunity in India. Without confronting impunity, India will continue to operate outside the rule of law, and conflict and abuses will not end.

Furthermore, Punjab presents a unique and timely opportunity to challenge systematic impunity in India because:

  • Key cases have reached higher courts. These cases will set national precedents and we must support them.
  • Accused police officers have been promoted to senior positions. They must be removed from power.
  • Key evidence is lost each year as survivors die and documents are destroyed. We must capture this evidence before it is gone forever.

How do you respond to government or police officials who say human rights work supports militants?

Ensaaf notes in all its reports that militants were responsible for numerous human rights abuses during the 1980s and 1990s. However, abuses committed by militants do not negate abuses perpetrated by the state, or minimize the state’s obligations to conduct counterinsurgency operations in conformity with the law or redress human rights violations. Under international law, fundamental human rights are non-derogable under any circumstance and the excuse of “terrorism” can never be a justification for violating fundamental human rights.

Indian police and government officials have tried their best to equate human rights work with terrorism, as former Punjab police chief KPS Gill recently alleged after the release of Ensaaf’s joint report with Human Rights Watch. However, Ensaaf and other human rights groups consistently call for the implementation of Indian and international law against all criminals, state and non-state actors. KPS Gill has even gone to the extent of equating terrorism with the filing of writ petitions. Indian officials have used the same rhetoric to stop any criticism of their actions or avoid accountability, which has further entrenched impunity and compounded victims’ suffering (read more in the Background to Protecting the Killers).

The Indian government is obligated under international law to specifically address accusations of human rights violations and provide an effective remedy to the victims and their families. The objective of Ensaaf’s work is to compel the Indian government to uphold its obligations under international and Indian law. Ensaaf works within the framework of international human rights law and standards, independently of any government, political ideology, or religious affiliation.

Historical Context

Where is Punjab?

Punjab is a state in northern India. A composite of the Persian words for five and water, Punjab means “Land of Five Rivers.” Covering 19,445 square miles, Punjab’s population is approximately 27.74 million, 63 percent of which is Sikh, though the state also includes Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jains. The official language of Punjab is Punjabi.

Sometimes, Punjab is referred to as a region, which in addition to including the state of Punjab, also encompasses central Pakistan and other parts of India. For Ensaaf’s purposes, when referring to Punjab, we are speaking about the Indian state, not the region.

Who are Sikhs and what do they believe?

The Sikh religion was revealed in the 16th Century, in what is today known as the Punjab region (located in northern India and Pakistan). The revelations of its founder Guru Nanak and nine successive Gurus preached belief in one God, remembrance of God at all times, equality of all human beings, and the rejection of idolatry, ritualism, caste, and ascetism. In 1699, the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created an initiated order of Sikhs, who wear specific articles of faith, making them readily identifiable. These articles of faith include: Kesh (uncut hair), which is kept covered by a distinctive turban, the Kirpan (religious sword), Kara (metal bracelet), Kanga (comb), and Kaccha (under-shorts). They all have deep religious meanings for Sikhs who wear them. For more information, please visit the Sikh Coalition’s website.

Can you give me a brief background to the abuses Ensaaf works on in Punjab?

From 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces engaged in systematic human rights violations in the state of Punjab, India, as part of counterinsurgency operations aimed at crushing a violent self-determination movement. During this time Director General of Police KPS Gill expanded upon a system of rewards and incentives for police to capture and kill militants, leading to a dramatic increase in disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Although all Punjabi Sikhs were vulnerable to disappearance and killing, police especially targeted Amritdharis (initiated Sikhs), those who were politically active with the Akali Dal parties, and families and friends of alleged militants.

By the end of the “Decade of Disappearances” in 1995, security forces had disappeared or killed tens of thousands of Sikhs. In order to cover up their crimes, Punjab security forces killed human rights defenders such as Jaswant Singh Khalra and Sukhwinder Singh Bhatti, as well as secretly cremated thousands of victims of extrajudicial executions between 1984 and 1995. As demonstrated in Ensaaf’s joint report with Human Rights Watch, Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India (Oct. 2007), India’s institutions have failed to acknowledge the systematic and widespread nature of the abuses, and accordingly have not provided truth, justice, and reparations to the victims and survivors.

Please read this background in the Ensaaf/HRW report, Protecting the Killers, for more information.

Ensaaf’s Administration

What is the history of Ensaaf?

Jaskaran Kaur and Sukhman Dhami launched Ensaaf as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in April 2004. For more information about Ensaaf’s history, please visit our history page.

Where is Ensaaf located?

Ensaaf’s staff are based in California, Maryland, and New York. In addition, staff members cumulatively spend about six months a year in Punjab working on various documentation and legal advocacy programs.

Who funds Ensaaf?

Ensaaf is funded entirely by foundations and individuals. Ensaaf is especially grateful for the funding and support of Echoing Green and the Sikh Spirit Foundation, and of course, for the generosity and trust given to us by individual donors. Please learn how you can support this work.

How can I help Ensaaf?

We’re glad you asked! There are many ways to support our work. Making a donation is the most straightforward way to make an impact. Please visit our Donate page to see how different dollar amounts can contribute to the work to end impunity and achieve justice for mass state crimes in India.

Ensaaf is a 501(c)(3) organization and donations are tax-exempt to the extent allowed by law. Ensaaf is also eligible for matching employer donations. Matching is an easy way to increase—and sometimes double!—a contribution, at no cost to the donor.

Please also stay informed about our work by signing up for email updates, and spread the word. We welcome volunteers, in particular, individuals with the ability to translate short statements and articles from English to Punjabi. Further, if you have information on human rights violations that occurred in the context of the Punjab counterinsurgency, please let us know. Your personal testimony, photographs, and documents will help expose the truth about abuses in India.

We can also help you prepare presentations or lead discussions about Ensaaf and human rights violations in Punjab for your local community, including high schools, colleges, gurdwaras, and other forums.

Ensaaf’s Programs

How does Ensaaf document and research human rights abuses?

Ensaaf is engaged in both qualitative and quantitative analysis to document the full-scale of lethal violence that occurred during the Punjab counterinsurgency. Ensaaf primarily engages in three types of documentation.

First, Ensaaf collects and analyzes government, legal, and witness documents, such as those used in its report Twenty Years of Impunity: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India. This in-depth report analyzes thousands of pages of previously unavailable affidavits, government records, and arguments submitted to the 1985 Misra Commission.

Second, Ensaaf also conducts detailed interviews and surveys of survivors to document testimonies of abuse, as well as experiences in pursuing remedies for the abuses suffered. Such interviews provide material for reports such as Ensaaf’s joint report with Human Rights Watch, Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India. The 123-page report examines the challenges faced by victims and their relatives in pursuing legal avenues for accountability for the human rights abuses perpetrated during the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

Third, Ensaaf also engages in empirical data collection and analysis. Ensaaf has analyzed over 21,000 records of deaths from external sources such as newspapers, cremation records, and human rights reports to present verifiable quantitative findings in its first joint report with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group at the Benetech Initiative (HRDAG), Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India. After analyzing the data, the report demonstrates that as government-reported deaths of alleged militants intensified in the early 1990s, reported human rights violations went from targeted disappearances and extrajudicial executions to systematic and large-scale lethal violence, accompanied by mass secret cremations. This report uses quantitative methods to scientifically demonstrate the implausibility that these lethal human rights violations are random or minor aberrations as suggested by Indian officials.

A main area of future research includes extending the analysis of existing data by matching and merging multiple, independent datasets in a process called Multiple Systems Estimation. Additional collection of data on enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, encounter killings, and “illegal cremations” throughout Punjab is also needed. Together with qualitative data, our findings will provide evidence of the true magnitude and patterns of violence throughout Punjab.

Hasn’t the government of India already explained the human rights violations? Why isn’t this explanation sufficient?

No government institution or civil society organization has documented the full-scale of disappearances or extrajudicial executions during the Punjab counterinsurgency. Further, several issues undermine the credibility of estimates or explanations provided by government and security forces.

First, India’s security forces have an incentive to conceal and suppress information about the disappearances and unlawful killings they perpetrated. If the security forces were completely transparent about their human rights violations, they would be exposing themselves to individual and institutional civil and criminal liability. In order to avoid any kind of accountability, security forces covered up human rights violations by secretly destroying the bodies of their victims through practices such as illegal cremations and dumping bodies in canals. They also attempted to portray custodial killings as casualties resulting from an exchange of gunfire, referring to these alleged incidents as “encounters.”

For example, Punjab police released press reports almost daily to local newspapers, detailing the civilians, security forces, and alleged militants killed in the insurgency and counterinsurgency. Alleged militants were most often reported killed in encounters involving an exchange of gunfire. However, human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases in Punjab where victims were arrested, abducted, or executed by security forces in the presence of witnesses—but then would be reported a few days later as a “suspected militant,” killed in an “encounter” with security forces. These reports suggest that many such reported encounters were falsified. So-called “fake encounters,” in fact, were so prevalent that the practice has been remarked upon by the U.S. State Department and widely acknowledged in the media. Empirical findings from our joint report with the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group are also consistent with qualitative findings that reported encounters were often faked.

Moreover, the state of Punjab has admitted to forging the identities of over 300 victims of “illegal cremations” in order to protect police collaborators. In February 2006, then-Director General of Punjab Police S.S. Virk admitted that the Punjab Police faked the deaths of over 300 accused militants-turned-police-informers who were then given new identities. Virk’s confession asserted that 300 unidentified bodies of innocent victims were cremated in place of the police collaborators; these victims have yet to be identified by the police.

Lastly, the security forces, including the Punjab police, are the accused perpetrators. Instead of investigating cases, survivors have accused them of thwarting investigations by intimidating witnesses and survivors, obstructing justice by harassing lawyers, and failing to comply with court orders, among other abuses.

If there is so much information already available, why conduct further documentation?

While there are a number of different sources that have collected information about the number of people killed by security forces in Punjab, each one of these sources, or data sets, alone is incomplete and therefore unable to tell the full story of what happened in Punjab including identifying the roles of state institutions, the systems of abuse, and the identity of perpetrators and organizers of the abuses. In order to make scientifically defensible estimates of the number of people killed, we need to apply the demographic technique of multiple systems estimation (MSE) to the available data.

Ensaaf and Benetech are working to collect and organize more data to be incorporated into an MSE analysis in the near future in order to improve the reliability of the estimate of those killed during the Punjab counterinsurgency campaign.

What role can the UN play in redressing human rights violations in Punjab?

The United Nations system has numerous mechanisms that it can use to increase pressure on India to abide by its international human rights obligations. Most notably, the UN Working Group for Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), the Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Executions, and the Special Rapporteur for Torture are able to independently examine cases of human rights violations in Punjab and make recommendations for Indian institutional change. Ensaaf continues to engage with these three mechanisms about the situation of impunity in Punjab, as well as specific cases. Please read more about our UN Advocacy program.

Can K.P.S. Gill be tried for crimes against humanity in an international court?

International and special tribunals and courts for crimes against humanity and war crimes have been created by the United Nations Security Council and consenting nations in the aftermath of horrific civil conflict – such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994, and the Special Court in Sierra Leone. In 2002, the International Criminal Court entered into force to systematize the prosecution of war crimes, including genocide, torture, rape, and other violations of international humanitarian law. However, Indian officials cannot be held accountable in the ICC because the ICC’s jurisdiction does not encompass crimes committed before 2002 and the ICC does not have jurisdiction over India since India has not ratified the relevant statute.

Additionally, India continues to hold a sizable influence over the UN system. This influence, while a hindrance to pursuing the most direct measures of accountability within the UN system, also implies that India has an investment in its international standing and is subject to international pressure through other UN advocacy approaches.

Has anyone been convicted for the human rights violations in Punjab?

In 2005, six police officers were convicted of abducting and murdering human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra. Five of the officers’ convictions were upheld in 2007 by the Punjab & Haryana High Court, and the case is currently before the Supreme Court. A handful of other low level officers have been convicted for abuses. However, the Punjab government and security forces refuse to acknowledge institutional responsibility, or identify, investigate, and prosecute the key perpetrators and organizers of the abuses, including senior police officials.

The number of police officers prosecuted does not reflect the scale of the crimes involved. The architects of the violations remain free and unpunished. Moreover, many were promoted and lauded as anti-terrorist “experts.” Under the doctrine of superior responsibility, superiors must be held accountable for the actions of their subordinates, where the superior knew or had reason to know of the unlawful acts, and failed to prevent and/or punish those acts. Prosecuting a series of lower-level perpetrators, while legally and morally culpable, sends a message that the violations remain isolated incidents, which obfuscates the truth. Focusing on the systemic crimes perpetrated by those with greatest responsibility in the system addresses the full scale of the crimes, allows participation and involvement from victims, and has the greatest potential to restore legitimacy to state institutions. Ensaaf therefore calls upon government prosecutors to charge former Punjab police chief KPS Gill with murdering Jaswant Singh Khalra, among many others. Ensaaf drafted the international law section of the petition filed by Mrs. Khalra calling on the High Court to order the government to investigate and prosecute Gill.

The NHRC has done so much for disenfranchised people in India, how can you criticize it?

The NHRC was given wide powers to address enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions in Punjab, but self-restricted the scope of its consideration to allegations of “illegal cremations” by security forces in three crematoria in Amritsar district, ignoring the violations of the right to life that led the victims to be cremated by the state. In the Punjab mass cremations case, the NHRC has refused to investigate a single cremation, instead relying on the accused perpetrators to identify the victims and establish the violations, refused to identify or hold officials accountable, and rejected relevant evidence from victim families. The NHRC has taken a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards government responsibility in redressing its crimes, stating “we have no doubt that the state of Punjab as well as the Union of India are alive to their obligations in this behalf and would take appropriate steps which would also restore institutional integrity.” The NHRC is suggesting that the accused perpetrators of mass human rights violations, who have resisted responsibility for over a decade, will suddenly volunteer greater responsibility and reparations towards the victims.

The NHRC has refused to take the proactive steps in combating human rights violations in Punjab that is has taken in other regions of the country, as discussed in our report Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India, jointly released with Human Rights Watch. Rather than creating a culture of human rights in Punjab, it has adopted measures that cover up the true nature and scale of the violations and shield perpetrators from accountability. For example, by holding the government strictly liable for “illegal cremations,” the NHRC completely sidestepped the need for investigations and developing principles and criterion for reparations. Rather, the NHRC forbade the identification of the perpetrators and distributed arbitrary compensation to survivors, ignoring the actual harm and damages suffered by the victim families.

Can’t the victims just go to court themselves?

In our joint report with Human Rights Watch, Protecting the Killers, we discuss the hurdles families face in pursuing justice in India, such as biases within the prosecuting authority and its role in protecting police, challenges brought on by prolonged trials, the police’s role in the destruction of evidence and fabrication of records, and police intimidation and abuses suffered by survivors and witnesses. As detailed in the report, Mohinder Singh spent over 11 years trying to get justice without the support of any state authority, filing countless petitions, pursuing investigations himself, and presenting numerous witnesses. He has yet to receive justice, despite compelling evidence of police involvement in the murder of his son.

Those who initiate petitions against police officers and the witnesses who are brave enough to come forward often face extreme harassment, including criminal cases framed against them and death threats.

A Commission of Inquiry that prioritizes truth, justice and reparations would be able to spare victims much of this hardship in getting justice. This institution would bear the burden of investigation and could work to protect witnesses, among other advantages. For a full listing of our recommendations towards ending impunity in Punjab, please read the last chapter in our joint report.

How do I help achieve change?

The first step to achieving change is to become informed about the human rights violations and the efforts to end impunity and achieve justice in Punjab.

With this information, it is possible to spread the word about the ongoing struggle for justice in Punjab through school workshops, gurudwara programs, informal gatherings, and other events. Every action helps, and you are the best judge of how your unique skills and talents would contribute.

If you would like to explore a career in human rights, please feel free to contact us for guidance and support.