“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.
Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried.”
-Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
The Crimes Against Humanity Data Project is a portrait of widespread and systematic enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, based on data collected through primary source interviews. Ensaaf created this site to build informed consensus on the nature of the crimes perpetrated by India’s security forces in Punjab.
This site compiles information from primary source interviews, collected during the largest-ever documentation effort in India, on over 5,000 incidents of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. It represents the first phase of Ensaaf’s data release, consisting of over 40 variables per case, covering victim demographics, incident information, identity of the perpetrators, and outcomes desired by survivors, among other topics. Read about our forthcoming data releases.
Users can view victim profiles or navigate an interactive map to observe the time/space dynamic of the abuses. Both victim profiles in the gallery view and the map can be filtered according to various variables to identify subsets of victims and explore patterns of gross human rights violations. Further, keywords within individual victim profiles lead to pages listing other cases sharing the same information, whether it is the identity of the perpetrator, or the village of the victim, among many other intersections.
During the 1980s and 1990s, India’s security forces engaged in widespread and systematic human rights violations in the state of Punjab, as part of counterinsurgency operations aimed at crushing a violent self-determination movement. Special counterinsurgency laws, and a system of rewards and incentives for security forces, led to an increase in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions of civilians and militants alike. By the end of the “Decade of Disappearances” in 1995, security forces had disappeared or extrajudicially executed thousands of Sikhs. To conceal their crimes, security forces killed human rights defenders such as Jaswant Singh Khalra and Sukhwinder Singh Bhatti, as well as destroyed their victims’ bodies through mass cremations or by dumping them in rivers.
Hundreds of perpetrators remain unaccountable. Further, the architects of these crimes remain in positions of power, and have traveled to other regions of India to advise on counterinsurgency operations. 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.
Prior to this project by Ensaaf, no government institution or civil society organization had documented the full-scale of enforced disappearances or extrajudicial executions during the Punjab counterinsurgency.
In 2010, Ensaaf embarked on a village-by-village census project in Punjab to document enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions perpetrated by Indian security forces, with cases ranging from 1980 to as recent as 2012. The project aimed to fulfill a significant need to counter state denials, expose the widespread and systematic extent of the abuses, erode the moral authority of perpetrators who had received promotions and launched amnesty campaigns, and bring to light the continued perpetration of crimes and application of repressive laws against dissenting minority communities throughout India. Ensaaf specifically decided to conduct a census of then 12,000+ villages and urban areas, rather than a random sample/probability analysis, to capture every possible testimony of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial execution in Punjab.
The methodology of this project will be explained in detail in future reports, but a summary is provided here. In the first phase, Ensaaf embarked on several pilot studies and a probability study in partnership with Benetech’s Human Rights and Data Analysis Group. The purpose of this phase was to determine the best methods for identifying families of the disappeared and extrajudicially executed, consult with an Institutional Review Board, and develop field research protocols.
In the full-scale data collection phase, Ensaaf used the official 2001 census of Punjab, India, with census codes for each village, town, or city, to identify over 12,000 villages and urban areas. Field researchers approached each village and identified victim families by canvasing the village, relying on several consistently present sources of information in each village: past and current village heads (Sarpanch), past and present village council members, the births and deaths registrar (Chownkidar), and groups of village elders (Bazurg) that typically gather in public sitting areas. After all of these referral sources were consulted and consensus was reached on the identity of the victim families present in the village, Ensaaf field researchers then interviewed the identified families using both a standardized survey instrument built as a database, plus a free text form, allowing them to collect both quantitative and qualitative data on each incident. Field researchers further solicited information on other affected families in the village from those they interviewed, acting as yet another corroborating referral source.
Ensaaf subjected each case to data consistency checks, and further clarified details with families over the phone or through subsequent visits. Because over two decades had passed, and evidence had been withheld or destroyed by security forces, families shared their experiences to the best of their abilities. Often, on subsequent returns, Ensaaf found that the original respondents had deceased because of the age of elderly parents. We also identified villages that did not exist on the Indian census.
In our data collection, Ensaaf excluded cases of:
- Genuine encounters;
- Victims killed by militants;
- Disappearances with no appearance of state action;
- Families who expressed hesitation or fear of retribution; and
- Families who expressed fear over the withdrawal of government benefits.
Our survey instrument evolved over several years as we went from district to district in Punjab, with slight improvements with each iteration. One of the first steps of the post-data collection phase was to harmonize the instrument across districts.
After completing one district, we then compared our case list with cases identified primarily in Amritsar district by earlier human rights campaigns: lists released by the National Human Rights Commission in the Punjab mass cremations case, and a short-lived people’s commission on human rights violations in Punjab that held a few sittings in 1998. Ensaaf also compared co-victims mentioned by our own respondents.
Ensaaf cross-checked information given to us on perpetrators with the annual Indian Police Service lists whose copies we have from 1984 to 1995. These lists indicate the posting and rank of each officer as of January 1st of that year. For non-Indian Police Service officers, we cross-checked victim testimony where possible. Often, victims only had what they were told by the security forces themselves. A future area of research and analysis includes incorporating the information reported in contemporary newspapers about police officials’ ranks and postings, which is well underway.
This project aims to memorialize the written, photographic, and video testimonies collected by Ensaaf. Our goals are:
- To promote survivors’ right to truth and counter denial, by unveiling and preserving testimonies of state abuse, proving the abuses were widespread and systematic, and providing a “statistical map” of abuses;
- To promote accountability and support prosecutions, by preserving evidence and archival information, and articulating and demonstrating the command structure responsible for the abuses;
- To educate the public and policy makers in India and abroad about the scale and scope of gross human rights violations in India;
- To aid in survivor recovery, by promoting memory and knowledge, and reducing isolation;
- To promote understanding and discussion on key issues, such as bystander responsibility, survivor resilience, and victimhood, among other topics;
- To delineate the journey and boundaries of the Punjab Documentation Project;
- To provide information and resources on human rights documentation and advocacy; and
- To invite other disciplines to work with the data and deepen the understanding of the impact of crimes against humanity and identify further areas of research.
Ensaaf thanks its individual donors, matching corporate donors, and the following institutions for supporting this project: Ik Manzil and the Fund for Global Human Rights. Please help us continue this work.