A Study of 95 Sikh Refugees Seeking Asylum in UK*

Duncan Forrest, FRCS

* Excerpted from LIVES UNDER THREAT, Published in UK by the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims by Torture (1999). 

[Reproduced from The Sikh Review, June 2000]

Introduction : As a result of the violence in the Punjab there has been an increase in the numbers of Sikhs coming to the UK from the Punjab to escape harassment. Some of these have come to the Medical Foundation for treatment or for examination by a doctor who may then write a medical report to assist their asylum application. Doctors and other health workers at the Foundation see a large number of clients who allege torture from over 90 countries. Those from the Punjab, like clients from many other countries or districts, show a consistent pattern in their histories, pointing to a systematic abuse of power on the part of the security forces.

Subjects and method : Between November 1991 and March, 1999, 341 Sikhs attended the Medical Foundation. Of these, only five were women. This imbalance between the sexes perhaps indicates a cultural difference : more men than women arrive in the UK as refugees; perhaps fewer women have been detained and tortured, though it is reportedly not uncommon for women to be raped in the home at the time of their male relatives’ arrest.

I personally interviewed and examined 95 men, who are the subjects of this chapter. This represents an unknown but certainly small percentage of all the Sikhs applying for asylum in the UK. All but three, who were fluent in English, were interviewed with the aid of Punjabi-speaking interpreters to ensure accurate communication.

Three of them were seen in detention, one each in Bedford Prison, Pentonville Prison and Haslar Detention Centre. All the others came to the Medical Foundation in London, one after having been recently released from Pentonville Prison. All were asylum seekers.

At interview, documents relating to their asylum applications were available, in all cases the Home Office Political Asylum Questionnaire or Interview, completed when they first claimed asylum, and in most cases, also the statement given to their solicitor. Three brought medical reports, or affidavits from India, but none of these were of sufficient quality to assist the application for asylum.

The examination of clients seeking asylum has some distinctive features. The need to obtain a complete picture of the detentions means that every possible detail about the circumstances and methods of interrogation and the weapons used for beating has to be elicited, but this often conflicts with the patient’s real fear of talking about his experiences. Consequently, the interviews have to be conducted with extreme patience and are accordingly often very time-consuming. Occasionally, recalling certain details causes the subject extreme distress, and on several occasions these interviews were interrupted by weeping.

Similarly, physical examination is likely to induce painful reminders of torture and has to be conducted gently. Occasionally the physical examination could not be carried out fully at the first interview because it caused undue distress.

Findings : The 95 men studied were aged from 17 to 58 years when seen, but had been aged between 14 and 53 when first arrested.

The subjects came from a rather narrow social spectrum. All but eight (who had left school by the age of 12) were educated at least to secondary level, and nine were graduates. Thirty nine came from farming families and, after finishing their education, had worked on the family farm, while six others had jobs related to farming such as cattle dealing or milk delivery. Nine were employed in professions, eight were skilled workers, while 15 were still students.

Thirty-eight of them had joined the All India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF) while at school or college, and many worked actively for the organisation. Thirty belonged to other political organisations, while 27 admitted to no political affiliation at all and claimed that their detentions were arbitrary, due to mistaken identity or else were caused by the political activities of relatives or friends. Three of these claimed they had been arrested simply because they were strangers in hiding in the locality.

All the men except one claimed that before their first arrest they were fit and had not suffered from serious disease or injury. One of them was a full-time athlete (a middle-distance runner), one was a professional hockey player who had played for India, one had played volleyball for the Punjab and one was a professional kabbadi player. Others had played active sports at school or college, one playing football for his university. Several displayed scars sustained at sports, in childhood or at work but only one had been disabled by injury (a leg fractured at kabbadi)

They reported detentions between the years 1978 and July 1998 : the longest interval between release from the last detention and interview at the Medical Foundation was 8 years 3 months and the shortest 6 months.

The man who reported 35 detentions might not have been believed had he not produced police records detailing them. Detention was usually for a comparatively short time on each occasion, ranging from one to 10 days, but totals ranged from two days to eight months in police custody. Four of the earlier arrests (in 1984) were by the Indian Army, and the detainees were held in army barracks, but the rest (since the withdrawal of the army from the area) were all taken by police and held in police stations, often in their own village. Eighteen were later transferred to a special investigation unit of the Central Investigation Agency (CIA). Of the 95 only 18 were charged and tried; two were convicted. The large majority were never charged with any offense. In addition to the detentions listed, several stated that they had many times been held, questioned and threatened but not detained overnight.

Methods of ill-treatment : All reported severe ill-treatment, usually worst in the first few days of detention. An indication of the severity of their beating was the statement by 82 of them that one or more occasions they had been beaten unconscious. One man said that he was beaten only with truncheons, but the others all claimed to have been beaten with an assortment of weapons, including fists, boots, blows with lathis (long stout bamboo canes), leather belts with metal buckles, pattas (leather straps with wooden handles) or rifle butts. One was beaten with a branch torn bush, five with metal rods and one with a metal chain. In addition, 57 reported being suspended by the wrists, ankles or hair and then beaten.

A particularly painful method of suspension, which was suffered by 20 men, is to tie the wrists or arms behind the back and then suspend the whole body weight by them (Fig.1).* Most survivors of this treatment have permanent damage to the shoulder joints. Eleven men had their arms twisted behind the back, 22 had their hands trodden on, or hammered, and ten were repeatedly thrown against a wall or onto the floor. Thirty five were given electric shocks, either by a magneto or from a mains socket. One man was forced to pass urine into a bucket and another passed urine into an electric fire, giving painful electric shocks in the penis. One was given shocks while in a water tank. Fourteen suffered burns, and seven had their nails pulled out by pliers.

While these methods of torture are found in many countries, there are some which appear to be peculiar to the Indian police, using local items of equipment. The lathi is the standard weapon issued to the Indian police. Being long and stout it delivers punishing blows which often cause unconsciousness. However, it tends not to cause an open wound except over a bony point. There is often a metal knob on the end which in one case was claimed to be sharpened to a point and used to poke the victim painfully.

One method we have not seen practised in other countries (though it has been reported in neighbouring Kashmir) is given the nickname of cheera (“tearing” in Punjabi). It consists of forcing the hips strongly apart, often to 180o, sometimes repeatedly and at other times continuously for 30 minutes or more. This is often done with the victim sitting on the floor with a policeman behind him pulling the head back by the hair while pressing a knee into the back (Fig.2), but in three cases was achieved when the victim was strapped to a manja or charpoi (a wooden bed frame). Forty-eight men reported this torture, four of them stating that they heard and felt the muscles tearing while others reported that extensive bruising appeared in their groins immediately afterwards. Two men, on examination, had severe scarring in the groin which could have been caused only by excessive stretching of the skin.

Another method, alleged by 69 men, involves the use of a thick wooden roller. The police sometimes have a thick log of wood or a steel tube kept for the purpose, but they often use a ghotna, the pestle about four feet long and four inches in diameter which is used locally for grinding corn or spices. One man reported being beaten on the back with a ghotna, one had the ghotna placed between the thighs and then the ankles tied forcibly together, 19 had the ghotna placed behind the knees and then the legs flexed over it (Fig.3),* but the commonest method, applied in 63 cases, was for the ghotna to be rolled slowly down the things or calves with one or more of the heaviest policemen standing on it (Fig.4).* Fourteen men suffered both of the last two methods. Usually the roller was said to be smooth and caused no break in the skin, though the pain was unbearable. One man, however, stated that the surface was rough and cut the skin, while another said that a square-section table leg was used. Sometimes the roller was made of stone or metal and clearly made specially for the purpose. One had “Welcome” written on it had another was labeled “75kg”.

Much of the abuse took place during interrogation sessions, but police also beat detainees randomly at other times. Twenty-seven men reported having been beaten late at night when the officers were drunk.

Some forms of torture which are common in other countries were rarely found, emphasising the fact that torture methods are a geographically selective phenomenon. Whereas in Sri Lanka, for example, burning with cigarettes in extremely common, in this group it was seen only twice. Burns were inflicted with a hot iron rod in eight cases, an electric iron in one, hot candle wax in four, caustic liquid in one and, in one case, the victim was suspended, head down, over an electric fire. Similarly, sexual abuse, usual in Algeria or the former Zaire,6 for example, was uncommon in this group though five men had hot chillies or petrol pushed into the rectum.

Sites of injury : The majority were beaten principally on the back, the legs or the buttocks, while 20 said they had been beaten all over and 20 had been beaten over the head. Nine had been beaten about the ears, resulting in bleeding and deafness. Beating the soles of the feet was used on 37 victims. It is an extremely painful method widely used in the Middle East, where it is known as falaka or falanga. It does not appear to have a special name in India. Six men described having their ankles fixed in a wooden frame (khaath or sakanga) so that their soles could be beaten. Forty-two men said that their heads had been forcibly pulled back by the hair while a knee was held in the back. One man had chilli powder thrown into the eyes, one had salt rubbed in the eyes and one other lost an eye as a result of a blow from a sharp implement.

Psychological abuse: Forty-nine men reported being threatened with further punishment, death or harm to family. Six experienced mock executions, and others were told that the police could easily make it appear that the detainee had been shot in a gun battle or when attempting to escape )”false encounter”). Twenty suffered extreme humiliation, often with removal of the five sacred objects (the five Ks) which baptised Sikhs wear at all times. One particularly devout man had cigarette smoke and ash blown in his face, alcohol poured into his mouth and threats of having his beard and hair cut off. He remembered this as worse than his (very severe) physical abuse.

Release: Most men were released without charge, usually after representations by the village elders (the panchayat), a politician or lawyer, but in 44 cases, only after the payment of a large bribe. One man estimated that, after his five detentions, his family had paid out 4 lakh of rupees, equivalent to about £7,400. Five men were forced to sign statements before release, exonerating the police from blame for injury. On release, 61 were unable to walk. Three were thrown out of a police car close to their village. In several cases the relatives had to hire a taxi to take the victim home from the police station and one man was twice sent home in a rickshaw. Twenty-two were hospitalised but some were refused admission to a government hospital on the grounds that they were “police cases”. Most stayed in bed at home for up to two months and were treated by a private doctor or received traditional treatment.

Present condition : Most of the Medical Foundation examinations were conducted long after the last detention, the shortest interval being six months and the longest eight years, but nevertheless, all subjects had physical symptoms and signs which they attributed to the ill-treatment they had received and which they claimed had not been present prior to detention.

The most common complaints were of back pain and pain on walking, principally but not only, by those who had suffered beating on the soles of the feet, cheera of the hips and/or crushing by the ghotna. Permanent damage to the shoulder girdle was common among those who had suffered suspension, especially with the arms tied behind the back, or arm-twisting – or both. Eight men had visual disturbance that they attributed to blows on the head with rifle butts. The man who had had chilli powder thrown in the eyes still had severe lachrymation, while the man who had lost an eye through injury with a sharp implement had an unsatisfactory prosthesis which caused pain. Eight had deafness or discharging ears attributed to blows. Four had sensory loss and one had vascular impairment in the lower limbs attributed to application of the ghotna.

Psychological damage was obvious in all cases, with elements of post traumatic stress disorder, such as loss of concentration (65 cases), memory loss (34), confusion (11), intrusive thoughts (37), flashbacks (eight), panic attacks (20), and especially, recurrent nightmares reproducing events experienced during detention (56). Thirteen men claimed to be depressed (though only two were receiving treatment for clinical depression), and five confessed to suicidal thoughts (strongly condemned by their religion). On the other hand 15 stated that they were strongly supported during detention and afterwards by prayer and religious observance.

Discussion: The first problem in interviewing alleged torture victims is the great difficulty many have in talking of their experiences. Some have never before seen a doctor who seemed sympathetic or who was not the employee of the authorities. Immigration offices, HM prisons or detention centres are not the most reassuring environments for an interview. Confidence is much more easily gained in a friendly and welcoming environment. The importance of a knowledgeable and sympathetic interpreter cannot be over-emphasised.

A great deal of time needs to be spent in slowly eliciting the account of detention and torture. Many subjects experience great distress at the recollection, and in several of the present cases the interview had to be temporarily halted while the man wept bitterly. Many had not previously described the most painful, and perhaps humiliating, events to a living soul, not even their wives. In almost every case, relevant material that did not appear in the original interview record or questionnaire was elicited by patient questioning.

With one exception all these men gave a history of abuse with a variety of techniques that show a pattern peculiar to the region, partly due to the use of materials easily available to the police, such as the lathi and the ghotna. Several factors are evident :
Severe physical and psychological ill-treatment is routinely employed during interrogation in police stations and interrogation centres.
Clearly, torture is at least a semi-official policy since several detainees affirmed that the torture occurred during questioning by senior officers, some of whom were named by the victim.
— Ill-treatment was clearly aimed at obtaining information about dissident groups.
— An additional purpose seems to be to terrorise the supposedly disaffected population.
— Forty-two subjects stated that they were released without charge only after a substantial bribe was paid. It has been alleged that this is sometimes the sole motive for the repeated arrest of the sons of well-to-do parents.
— The beating was often very severe, as shown by the fact that 82 of the 95 reported having lost consciousness on one or more occasions during interrogation.

The visible scars months or years after the detentions were often few. This could be explained partly by the passage of time, but more particularly by the fact that much of the physical injury was superficial. Many men described how they were covered in bruises that faded and disappeared after a few weeks, but had few open wounds that would leave scars. Others described how their arms or legs and been wrapped in towels before suspension, which could only have been with the intention of avoiding abrasion and scarring.

The police seemed to be aware of the need to avoid gross visible injury in detainees who may have to be presented in court, hence the common finding that suspension had left no visible scars round wrists or ankles. Several men advanced the information voluntarily that soft cotton ropes or turban cloth were used, or ordinary rope was bound with cotton cloths when suspending detainees, clearly with the specific purpose of avoiding permanent scarring to the wrists or ankles. One man described having his back covered with a wet towel before the police beat him. However, though the police are cautious about causing visible scarring, they often do not avoid more insidious damage. A recent paper from neighbouring Kashmir,7 reports 10 cases of kidney failure due to products of muscle breakdown escaping into the bloodstream following police beating. In addition to official interrogations, 26 detainees reported beating, apparently random, by drunken police, usually late at night. There is often clear evidence of long-lasting damage to the joints or muscles of the shoulders, hips and knees as a result of the techniques of suspension and crushing used by the Indian police.

In taking a history from torture victims, it is sometimes difficult to decide if the description is accurate and credible. In any medical interview it is, of course, imperative to make an estimate of the patient’s credibility. An important feature is that the history obtained at a medical examination often brings out features that have not been mentioned in previous statements. This should not cause surprise, because the doctor seeking specific information (while attempting to avoid leading questions) about the methods of torture and their effects, elicits descriptions which have not been asked for by solicitors or immigration officers. Many studies have documented the fact that when giving a medical history, a patient will often not reveal quite important facts until a second or subsequent interview.9 It is hardly to be expected that a man who has suffered horrific treatment will be able to recall and reproduce every detail at once to a stranger. One who has suffered many detentions will naturally have difficulty in recalling accurately what happened on each separate occasion. Indeed, it might be suspicious if he did so.

It is often alleged that asylum seekers embroider or invent their experiences. If this were so, one would expect them to attribute every scar or deformity to their torture. In fact 70 of the 95 men in the present study pointed out scars that they said were due to childhood injury or accidents at work and were often at pains to dismiss them as unimportant. Only two of the present group gave the impression that they were embroidering the truth, and consequently no report was written for them. The subjects normally have a strong impression of transparent honesty and, if anything, belittled their injuries. The longer the interviews went on and the more details of their ill-treatment came to light, the more credible their stories sounded. In addition, some gave details so bizarre that they could hardly have been invented. One man recounted how the police, before beating him with a patta, showed him the flat wooden handle upon which was written “Welcome”, and at the end of the session, showed him the other side with the legend “See you again”. Another told how the police brought in an electrical apparatus, evidently new, which they experimented with at first achieving only gentle shocks, but after testing, were able to deliver graduated shocks of greater severity.

A common finding of those who see a variety of torture victims is that asylum seekers from a particular region tend to produce very similar histories of torture. This is sometimes taken to indicate that they are colluding with one another to fabricate a story they hope will further their cases. In the present study it appears that there is a pattern of abuse in a region and that police have a limited repertoire of techniques, some of which are traditional and some developed using locally available materials. Indeed, the only subjects whose credibility was in doubt were those who described conditions of detention and methods of torture which had not been heard before. The descriptions of ill-treatment given by all the other men closely corresponded to descriptions previously collected in the Punjab and described independently by Dr. Pettigrew in her book and by Amnesty International.4 By contrast, other methods of torture found in any countries around the world, such as burning with cigarettes or sexual abuse, were found only occasionally in this group.

In all but one of the men there was physical evidence, such as scars or damage to joints and muscles, to support their allegations. In no case was there categorical proof of torture, though in 32 cases there were scars that appeared highly suggestive that they had been caused as described, and unlike any accidental wound. Concrete proof, often expected by solicitors or asylum officials, is almost never available unless, as is seldom the case, the victim can be examined within a few days or weeks after the injury. Even apart from the fact that there is often conscious effort on the part of interrogators to avoid any permanent visible evidence, there is no way after a lapse of years to prove that a scar or deformity could have been caused only in the manner and at the time alleged. Whereas in many countries that practice torture, interrogators are not restrained by any attempt to hide it, in India the possibility that the victim may have to appear in court makes them go to some lengths to avoid causing severe external injury.

Nevertheless, the ghotna and cheera, routinely used by the Indian police, do leave long-standing changes in the joints and muscles which are characteristic and quite unlike signs caused by natural disease or other forms of trauma.

X-ray or other imaging, biochemical tests or muscle biopsy may supplement clinical examination but are unlikely to provide proof that cannot be elicited by physical examination.

Consequently, in the present group, it was not considered justified to subject anxious subject to an additional burden.

Psychological changes, though very real, were even less specific than the physical. All the subjects showed clearly that they were suffering from the long-term effects of trauma, but in none could it be causally related with any certainty to their history of torture. It is inevitable that at least some of the psychological damage must be due to the harmful effects of exile, separation from family, social deprivation and uncertainty about the future.

Conclusions: It must be admitted that this group of asylum seekers who came to the Medical Foundation for medical reports are a highly selected sample of all the refugees who find their way to the UK: they all allege that they have suffered torture; their lawyers have decided that documentation of their alleged torture is relevant to their asylum claim and that the torture has left some residual evidence; their application for a medical report was accepted by the Medical Foundation; and in all but two cases the examining doctor decided that their history and examination gave sufficient support to their allegation of torture to justify the submission of a medical report.

The total number of refugees arriving in the UK is in turn a tiny minority of all those have suffered gross police harassment. The vast majority remain in their own country. Dr. Pettigrew’s study suggests that many of those detained by the police in the Punjab, often on trumped-up charges, “disappear” or are killed in “false encounters”. Only those with considerable financial means are able to obtain release from detention (the family of one of my patients had to sell a plot of land in order to pay the bribe for the release of their son), and it may taken several months to find the money to pay an agent for false documents and transport to the country of refuge. It is no surprise, therefore, that all the men included in this study came from families of substantial farming, business or professional stock. None of them showed evidence of having come to this country as “economic migrants”. They all had well established life-styles before their peace was shattered by police harassment and persecution. Many of them were politically active or had given food, shelter or assistance to rebel groups and thus were at risk of detention, but a significant number had no political or criminal history and were caught up by accident or by a friend or relative giving their name under torture. Some were arrested simply for being young Sikhs. One young man who had moved to another part of India for safety was once more arrested, simply, he claimed, for being a stranger and therefore suspect. Two others had similar experiences while visiting a distant village.

There are many reasons why an applicant, having arrived in the UK, may not present his case for asylum to the best advantage. The initial interview or questionnaire is the key document which is used throughout the asylum process, and any subsequent amendment or addition is viewed with mistrust. It is often conducted at the port of entry, when the applicant has just arrived in the UK, often still suffering physically and psychologically from recent experiences of detention, torture and flight into exile. The victim of torture may suffer from confusion or loss of memory because of the trauma he has suffered, as exhibited by 45 men in the present study. He often suffers from cultural inhibitions that induce deep shame for any transgression he may have committed or felt he has committed against the mores of the community. This is particularly true of sexual attacks which victims from many countries never reveal even to their spouse. The agent who has sold him false documents, wishing to cover his own tracks, may have instructed his client to destroy all documents before landing and warned him not to mention torture or imprisonment, one reason being that the UK authorities might take this as a sign that he is a criminal and therefore undesirable. He may have deep distrust of the interviewer or interpreter, having learnt by bitter experience that it is safest to reveal as little as possible to those in authority. With all these inhibitory factors, is it any wonder that many initial interviews produce errors, omissions and apparent discrepancies?

The uncomfortable conclusion is unavoidable – that at least some asylum applicants are being unjustly labelled as “economic migrants”, “bogus refugees” or “abusive claimants” and refused asylum to which, by any humane or legal standards, they are fully entitled. They are in danger of being sent back to an environment they rightly fear, of summary detention, torture, “disappearance” or execution in a “false encounter”.

All the evidence provided by human rights agencies as well as the continuing number of clients at the Medical Foundation who claim that they have been tortured in the late 1990s suggests that, although terrorist activity has largely died out, police brutality is still rife. Fresh examples of torture are still surfacing in the Punjab as well as other parts of India. The traditional methods that the Indian police have employed from time immemorial appear still to be in common use. Seven of the cases I have seen recently have reported severe torture, including all the methods described here, during detentions between May 1997 and July 1998. The fears that these Punjabi Sikh asylum seekers entertain are both real and justified.


1. Amnesty International, Human rights violations in Punjab : use and abuse of the law, May 1991. AI Index: ASA 20/11/91.

2. British Medical Association. Medicine Betrayed. London : Zed Books Ltd., 1992.

3. Amnesty International. A Glimpse of Hell: reports of torture worldwide. Ed. Forrest D. London : Cassell, 1996.

4. Amnesty International. India : torture, rape and deaths in custody, 1992. All Index: ASA 20/06/92.

5. Human Rights Watch/Asia with Physicians for Human Rights. Dead Silence : the legacy of abuses in Punjab. New York : Human Rights Watch/Asia, 1994.

6. Medical Foundation. Zairian Asylum Seekers in the UK: their experiences in two countries. London: Medical Foundation, 1995.

7. Malik G. H. et. al. Acute renal failure following physical torture, Nephron 1993; 63:434-437.

8. Ramsey P G et al. History-taking and preventive medicine skills among primary care physicians: an assessment using standardized patients. American Journal of Medicine. 1998; 104:152-8.

9. Callahan E.J. et al, The impact of recent emotional distress and diagnosis of depression or anxiety on the physician-patient encounter in family practice. Journal of Family Practice. 1998;46:410-8.



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