Landmark Verdict – Life Imprisonment for Punjab Police Officers in 31-Year-Old Fake Police Encounter Case
31 January 2022.
CBI Special Court Mohali – CBI Judge Harinder Sidhu convicted former Inspector Major Singh, then SHO of police station Sadar, Tarn Taran for the kidnapping, abduction, illegal detention and disappearance of Santokh Singh in 1991, during the height of militancy and human rights violations by the Punjab Police. Inspector Major Singh was convicted under sections 364 IPC kidnapping or abduction in order to murder and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with Rs 50,000 fine and section 344 (wrongful confinement for 10 days or more) and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and Rs 20,000 fine.
The victim Santokh Singh of Village Jaspal, Mehta district Amritsar was an employee of the Butari Sub Division of Punjab State Electricity Board. On the evening of 31 July 1991 he returned home from his duties at 8:30 pm, the accused Inspector Major Singh along with a police party from PS Sadar, Tarn Taran raided his house. The victim was taken in front of his mother Swaran Kaur, his wife Rajwinder Kaur who was carrying their newborn baby son at the time. Both women raised the alarm and a number of neighbours and witnesses from the village saw Inspector Major Singh tying the hands of Santokh Singh who was taken to police station Sadar.
He was kept in illegal custody where other inmates witnessed his severe torture, they described his condition as critical, he was unable to eat or drink due to his tortured condition. Swaran Kaur pleaded for the release of her son and had even approached then SP Operations Khubi Ram who did not deny that he was in their custody and had promised her that her son would be released. After his prolonged detention and torture, he was not seen of or heard from again. As was the prevailing practice of the Punjab Police at the time the victim was enforced disappeared, meaning that he was murdered in police custody and his body illegally and secretly disposed of. For the last 31 years, Mata Swaran Kaur has fought a relentless battle for the truth and justice. In 1996 she filed Habeas corpus before the Punjab and Haryana High Court for the Punjab police to produce her son or investigate his abduction and disappearance.
It was proved during the lengthy proceedings that Santokh Singh was a man of good character, with no previous convictions or connections to militancy or terrorism. A crucial piece of evidence was from the Punjab State Electricity Board employee records which showed that he had not attended work or collected his salary since the evening of his abduction.
On 21 January 1998 the CBI was directed by the High Court to conduct an investigation. The CBI inquiry concluded that Santokh Singh had been abducted and illegally detained by Inspector Major Singh. A case was registered by the CBI on 21 August 1998. The charge sheet was filed on 21 April 1999, it has taken 22 years for the trial to conclude due to the repeated and concerted efforts of the accused to derail the proceedings. The matter was stayed by the High Court in 2002 then the Supreme Court in 2003, which was eventually dismissed in 2006. The accused again further delayed the trial and in 2016 the Supreme Court again ordered the trial to proceed. Again in 2016, he sought a stay on proceedings which was dismissed by the High Court in 2017. When the trial resumed in November 2019 for final arguments the accused again stalled the proceedings by securing a further stay in the High Court, which was vacated in December 2021. The trial resumed in January 2022 and today some 31 years after Santokh Singh’s abduction and disappearance the accused was finally convicted.
The 10 years sentence was unduly lenient for such a grave and heinous crime, “ my legal team will review the Judgement and we will be asking the High Court to impose a life sentence for my son’s abduction and killing”
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Advocate Jagjjit Singh Bajwa and Satnam Singh Bains 9988227597 email: [email protected]
On 29 June 1991, Gurmeet Singh was nearly 2 years old, when he last saw his father. His parents—Rattan Singh and Jaswinder Kaur—had gone to attend an ardaas (prayer service) for Gurmeet’s paternal uncle. At 11am, Punjab police raided the gathering. Rattan Singh was among those who were picked up. “He was taken to a police station in Gurdaspur and tortured,” says Gurmeet, now 30. He came to know of this years later from his grandfather, Varayam Singh, who raised him and his younger sister.
By the time the local MLA and panchayat members reached Talwandi in Gurdaspur the next morning to demand the men be released, Rattan Singh had been “killed in an encounter”, and cremated. They returned with his ashes.
From the early 1980s till 1995, Punjab was in the grip of militancy, as a political demand for autonomy developed into a separatist movement. Between bombings and bus-burning, people recall times where men would walk through the districts of Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur and Amritsar, armed and fearless. Many left the state. The early 1990s saw the bloodiest phase as the state launched counter-insurgency operations, arming the state police with laws such as The Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers Act (1983) and The Punjab Disturbed Areas Act (1983). They would pick up or shoot men on mere suspicion, and often their families as well.
A Human Rights Watch report conducted during that period revealed that torture in police custody included “electric shock, applied to the victim’s genitals, head, ears and legs; prolonged beatings with canes and leather straps; tying the victim’s hands behind the back and suspending him or her from the ceiling by the arms.”
At the age of 10, Gurmeet pieced together information from local panchayat meetings and things he was told. This was how he came to understand why his mother had remarried, abandoning both siblings. “Aise mujhe pata chala ki police ne brutality ki (That’s how I learnt of police brutality),” says the daily-wage worker, who earns close to Rs. 300 per day. As we speak, his voice trails after every sentence.“Humari zindagi narak thi (our lives were hell).”
Varayam, too, was routinely detained until 1997. The children would spend hours at a neighbour’s home, unsure whether their grandfather would return. With an education cut short—Gurmeet studied till class 8 at the Dhan Mata Gujri Ji Trust “where children of martyrs were sent”—he grew up in the shadow of violence, silence and a persistent terror. “Main kisi se nahi baat kar saka. Aap ko toh pata hai ki Sarkar kuch bhi kar sakti hai, sab unhi ke haath mein hai (“I could never speak to anyone about this. You know the state can do anything, everything is in their hands.”)
Nearly three decades later, Gurmeet may be looking at a glimmer of hope. On 20 December last year, the non-profit group Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP) filed a writ in the Punjab and Haryana high court, detailing the “disappearance” and mass cremations of more than 8,000 men by the police between 1984-95, across 1,600 villages in 14 of the state’s 22 districts. Among this number, which hides the trauma of broken families and psychological stress, is the “extrajudicial killing” of Gurmeet’s father, Rattan Singh.
As farmers gather today at the borders of Delhi, demanding a repeal of three new laws they fear will put corporate interests before theirs, a counter-narrative has emerged to discredit the protests. It harks back to this tumultuous phase in Punjab’s history, alleging links between farmer groups and the secessionist movement for Khalistan, ignoring nuance and the barely healed lesions of a decade-long conflict.
“Kisanon ka Khalistan se kya lena dena? Kisan hai toh jahan hai (What have farmers got to do with Khalistan? The world lives on the toil of farmers)” says Jaspal Singh, a 50 year old farmer from Gurdaspur. His younger brother Rashpal, he says, was killed and cremated by the police in 1992. There was no warrant, no trial and no due process. Jaspal has remained silent for over 25 years, but now his brother’s name finds mention in the PDAP petition.
In 2008, the PDAP started a fresh investigation into the human right abuses during the conflict. Over 10 years, it filed queries under the right to information Act, studying 1,400 police FIRs and decades-old records of cremation grounds, analysing archived newspapers and recording testimonies of eyewitnesses and the relatives of those who had disappeared.
“The investigations and records presented to the court show that the Punjab police and security forces would abduct, kill and secretly cremate bodies. Instead of cremating one body at a time, the police often cremated several together in a single pyre and in some cases, up to 18 bodies were cremated in a single day from just a single incident,” says Satnam Singh Bains, a barrister and convener of the PDAP.
The petition includes a call to establish a “Missing Persons Commission” on the lines of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons in Argentina. “…even the Geneva Convention provides that during times of war or inter-country conflict bodies of enemy combatants are to be identified, treated with respect and not defiled, yet these victims were citizens of India, who were accorded less rights than a foreign enemy combatant,” it says.
History of blood and ashes
In 2017, the PDAP organised a People’s Tribunal in Amritsar. Over two days, a composite panel of retired judiciary members, prominent activists and academics from across India heard testimonies of the forgotten survivors whose loved ones had ‘disappeared’. The audience was a sea of bodies—nearly everyone either wiping tears or with fixed gazes, holding frayed photographs and old paper clippings—memories and scraps of news about the dead. For many of these 700 families, this was the first time they told their stories.
The cruel irony of human rights in Punjab was that one of the first to raise this question during the 1990s was also among the last of the victims of state excesses: Jaswant Singh Khalra. A human rights activist, he uncovered disappearances, killings and secret cremations, drawing attention globally to the issue.
“Thousands of mothers await their sons. Even though some may know that the oppressor has not spared their sons’ lives on this earth,” said Khalra in June 1995 in the Canadian Parliament. “But a mother’s heart is such that even if she sees her son’s dead body, she does not accept that her son has left her. So the mothers who have not even seen their children’s dead bodies, they were asking us, at least find out: is our son alive or not?”
Punjab witnessed unprecedented violence between 1978 and the early 1990s. In 1966, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ceded to a demand from Sikhs for their own state and created a separate Punjab state along linguistic lines, separating the Hindi and Haryanvi-speaking parts from East Punjab state (as the part of Punjab province in India after Partition was known), and incorporating other Punjabi-speaking areas. A sense of discrimination and of being a minority persisted, and in 1973, the Shiromani Akali Dal made a list of demands, in its Anandpur Sahib Resolution, for “creation of such an environment where Sikh sentiment can find its full expression”.
Fall outs of the Green Revolution, the Union government’s interventions and an increased communalisation of politics led to a struggle for an independent Sikh state of Khalistan during the 1980s. Operation Blue Star, when the military launched an operation against militants in the Golden Temple, the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and the ensuing violence in Delhi in which more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed, fanned the embers of sectarian violence. In 1988, the 59th Amendment to the Constitution suspended fundamental rights in the state. By 1995, the resistance of the rural Sikh population to both militancy and counterinsurgency put an end to Punjab’s most tumultuous phase after independence.
By then, according to a report in The Tribune, over 21,000 people had been killed in Punjab—over 8,000 were categorised as militants, 11,696 were civilians, and 1,746 were security force personnel (among them, 1,415 Punjab police officials). The militants would abduct people, threaten or kill judges, politicians, media professionals and police officers and their families. In this context, the state was given a free hand. The first DGP sent in at the time, Julio Ribeiro implemented the famed “bullet for bullet” policy and then under Punjab police DGP KPS Gill until 1995, Punjab saw a spate of “fake encounters”, custodial deaths and mass cremations.
“They virtually converted this into an ideological argument: Since things are bad, anything the police does should be accepted,” says Human Rights lawyer and senior advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, who formed the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab in the 1980s along with four others. “The human rights violations in Punjab were horrible. If you reach a place where there is no difference between you and the extremists in your violence, then what is it that we are preserving the state from?”
In the 1990s, Khalra was the director of a cooperative bank in Amritsar when two of his colleagues disappeared. “It all began when he committed himself to helping these families find out what had happened. Sure enough they found the two had been picked up by the police, killed and cremated. The families were not even handed over their remains,” says his wife Paramjit Kaur Khalra.
What started as a quest to find his friends led to the discovery of a number of “unidentified” pyres. The first registers documenting these listed over 300 cremations from the Durgiana Mandir ground in 1992. He obtained similar records of two other crematoria in Amritsar district, and in 1993, filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Chandigarh high court with his findings. “He would receive threats from the police like, ‘we have disappeared 25,000 people, we have no problem if that’s 25,001’,” says Paramjit.
Early on 6 September 1995, Jaswant asked a bewildered Paramjit to promise that she would be able to raise the children alone. “I didn’t understand it, but he obviously knew something was about to happen,” she recalls. Later that morning, after their two children left for school and Paramjit set out for work at the University library in Amritsar, the Punjab police surrounded the colony. Before she could even begin the day’s tasks and just after she had marked attendance, Paramjit got a frantic call from one of her neighbours: The police had taken her husband.
“At this point I had two options, to keep quiet and continue like nothing had happened, or to actually do something about it,” says Paramjit. She filed a habeas corpus petition in the High Court and spent the next 16 years of her life getting justice for her husband, whom she never saw again.
It was only 3 years after the case began that they found a witness.“The gunman of the officer who took Jaswant confessed to the CBI that Jaswant had been eliminated and burnt,” she says.
“It is horrifying to visualise that dead bodies of large number of persons allegedly thousands could be cremated by the police unceremoniously with a label “unidentified,” the Court said in its order in 1996. It also directed the Director, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to appoint a high powered team to investigate the matter, limited to the cremation grounds in Amritsar. Simultaneously, the NHRC awarded monetary relief of upto Rs. 2.5 lakhs to the next of kin of the deceased, however it did not investigate which officers were responsible for these killings.
In 2007, the Punjab and Haryana High Court gave life terms to five police officers, and acquitted a sixth in the case. In November 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions and sentences.
Paramjit’s children were 12 or 13 at the time and found out about their father’s death as teachers and children talked about it in school. She has spent nearly two decades doggedly pursuing justice and has since committed herself to find ways to compensate victim families, to ensure justice, no matter how delayed. In 2019, she contested the Lok Sabha elections from the Khadoor Sahib constituency and came in second. “Neither can we forget this pain, neither can we bare this pain, neither can we forgive this pain,” she says.
Over the years, the position of the Punjab police has been consistent: Its officers were not trained to fight “internationally sponsored terror” and “tactics had to be deployed” to eliminate militancy and “bring Punjab back from the brink”. A CBI court has convicted a number of officers for illegal cremations, judgements that have upset Punjab police, which has argued that policemen “who worked under a reign of fear and terror” should be treated with leniency. The Punjab police DGP and state chief secretary did not respond to Lounge’s requests for interviews over phone, text and email.
“Human rights are for the benefit of the system too, and the collective. To ensure that you don’t go after wrong people,” says Ramakrishnan. “If you summarily kill off a bunch of people and call them militants, then are you really freeing the state of terror? It’s no one’s case that lethal force cannot be used in private defence, but the law is the law—there has to be some accountability.”
For 25 years, Jaspal Singh has been waiting for just that—accountability. The police, he says, picked up the fourth of 6 brothers on 4 June 1992. Rashpal Singh was in his 20s; a singer and composer, “much beloved in their village”. “Bohot yaad aati hai, tamboora le ke raat ko gaana gata tha, toh gaon ke log bolte the raunak laga ditti (we think about him constantly, when he would sing at night everyone would say he added life to the village).”
Once they received word from someone Jaspal says was a “god-fearing police officer”, the bothers co-ordinated efforts along with local leaders to bring him home. They found their way to Chandan di Madi, a cremation ground in Gurdaspur. “Two men were killed and cremated that day, one was our brother and the other man remained unclaimed. We brought home the remains of two brothers that day,” he says.
Missing stories of women
If “accountability” has been missing from the Punjab story of the 1990s, also absent is the story of women during the conflict. As Mallika Kaur, a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the US and south Asia points out, “Within the marginalised Punjab conflict, as is most often the case, gender dynamics have been further marginalized. Or at best described in a very unidimensional and politically expedient way: the turbaned Sikh man as angry and prone to violence, the Sikh woman as the hapless victim.” She adds, “These descriptions caricature human lives and aspirations. And about women’s stories, there are embarrassingly few accounts, especially in English. For Punjab’s conflict narrative, where the aftermath of 1984 ravaged the countryside, women’s bodies are accepted as hidden, silent, receptacles.”
Amreek Kaur, 55, and her husband, Jasbir Singh, were arrested from the same gathering Gurmeet’s father had attended. As we speak, her voice is steady, as if the memory has almost hardened her over the years. “They took me to a separate place and beat me so hard, the SHO ripped my hair so brutally, it still doesn’t grow in that particular spot, to this day.” She then describes what broke her even more than the physical abuse. “They were celebrating and distributing sweets to us in jail, they even handed me some. I was only told later that it was because they had killed those men—one of them being my husband.”
Amreek was finally released and asked to go home with her father and local leaders through the village, instructed not to use the main road by the police. In between, she slips in something, almost in passing. “It was horrible, unhone itni gaaliyan di, andar humein kapde bhi nahi pehnne diye (they hurled such abuse, they didn’t even let us wear our clothes inside).” Was there a lady constable, I ask. Amreek says there was not.
“There are countless stories of rape and sexual and physical violence against women during the violence, “says Mallika. “But these stories have not necessarily been heard with the nuance and sensitivity they deserve. Through the conflict, women persevered as breadwinners after men were taken or killed: they tilled lands, ran businesses; they have been fearless litigants and organisers for justice…they have been the grandmotherly and motherly embrace that added a semblance of normalcy for kids growing up with unspeakable trauma; they have been the storytellers and the repository of our recent history.” Many families of those who “disappeared”, where bodies were cremated as “unclaimed or unidentified”, have not been given death certificates.
The PDAP has documented some of these struggles too. Even as mothers take on full-time jobs to raise their children—some at beauty parlours, others in the fields or as dailywage labourers and teachers, they have had trouble accessing succession and inheritance rights. This is because as families of the ‘disappeared’, where bodies are burned as “unclaimed or unidentified”—many have not been given death certificates.
Amreek raised all 3 of her children with some help from her family. Still, like Gurmeet, her son Vikramjit was young at the time, and the death of his father had long term implications for his professional life. “I tried to join the army in 2003. I cleared all the stages, but when it was time for the inquiry, they wrote that I am a terrorist’s son. That was the end of my dreams.” Only 4 years old at the time, Vikramjit had to cut short his education and help support the family along with his older brother. He started as a dailywage labourer at the age of 8 and would earn between Rs.50-100 per day.
“If we had our parents, we would have at least had some guidance,” says Gurmeet. “But what kind of future do you expect children like us to have? We have had to give up our education, we can’t get good jobs but we have to fend for ourselves, and constantly live in fear. This is all we are.” His voice trails.
Too long a wait
Even as the PDAP’s new petition ignites a fresh hope for justice beyond Amritsar, for some who chose the legal system to hold the state to account have not lived long enough to see it through. For nearly 18 years, the question of sanction to prosecute police officers lay gathering dust with the courts. Eventually, a few months after the Supreme Court dismissed it in 2016, 100 year-old Chaman Lal, who had been fighting a case for his son Gulshan Kumar’s disappearance, died. He was the sole eyewitness in the case.
“There was also the case of a woman who was travelling with her son Balwinder, who was taken by the police and killed—they were looking of a different Balwinder and admitted as much to his mother at her home, where she was asked to make them tea while they told her,” says Bains of the PDAP. “She was pursuing his case, and had been for decades. She died earlier this year.”
Still, after all these years, families young and old are hopeful. For years, Bakshish Singh could not hang the photo of his disappeared son at home—it had the date of his death written neatly on the side—out of fear that he may be picked up or threatened. Eventually, over time, he put it up. His grand daughter was 10 when she first asked him who this man was and what happened to him. The 84 year old has lived out his days now, he says. “But we all have rights don’t we? No court of law says he was a militant. I have lived an honest life. Do I not deserve some dignity?”
While the opinion among the state authorities is that the diaspora has long tried to revive a conversation long dead after all these years, the question that Bakshish Singh asks continues to loom heavy on the forgotten families of Punjab’s ‘disappeared’.
Read the original story here.
When rule of law is replaced by extrajudicial killings and fake encounters, it means democracy has been replaced by anarchy, say human rights lawyers.
Chandigarh: As the country debates the truth of the Uttar Pradesh police’s official narrative of gangster Vikas Dubey’s death – a car accident, an attempted escape and police firing in self-defence – which some feel is an example of a thriving culture of extrajudicial killings masquerading as encounters at the cost of rule of law, hundreds of families in Punjab have been living with the same ordeal for years.
Punjab shows how coercive methods, widely perceived as a necessary evil to end the insurgency that prevailed in the state between the 1980s and the mid-’90s, led to the forced disappearance and alleged killings of apparently thousands of people who no one knows for sure were actually guilty of any crime.
Even though the human loss of what had happened that time is irreparable and the affected families continue to suffer, there has still been no thorough probe into how many actually went missing during those turbulent days.
Whatever is available in the public domain is the result of either a Supreme Court-monitored probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the 1990s which centred on Amritsar, or the claims of different NGOs, one of which recently filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana high court seeking the appointment of a judicial commission to investigate extrajudicial killings all across Punjab.
‘Flagrant violations’ but only partial investigation
The Supreme Court (SC) first took notice of the disappearances in Punjab on November 15, 1995, in the wake of the abduction and murder of Amritsar-based human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra. Before his death that September, Khalra had charged the Punjab police with clandestinely cremating 2,097 dead bodies in Amritsar, Taran Taran and Majitha areas.
The SC directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to inquire into Khalra’s abduction and the facts of Khalra’s claims of secret cremations by the police.
Subsequently, the CBI probe between 1995 and 1998 established several cases of extrajudicial killings and fake encounters. The agency filed charge sheets in 44 cases and also charged nine police personnel with Khalra’s abduction and murder. Six of these people were later given life sentences.
The trial is still pending in most of these cases due to legal loopholes. But a major drawback of the investigation at that time was that the CBI probe did not expand the investigation to other parts of Punjab, even though the apex court in its order on December 11, 1996, acknowledged the matter as a “flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale”.
Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which was brought in by the SC to compensate the affected families in the cases where dead bodies were identified in the CBI probe, did not enlarge its proceedings to a pan-state level.
Several members of civil society asked the NHRC to invite applications from the legal heirs of disappeared cases all across the state. But in its order dated October 16, 1998, the commission held that the scope of its inquiry under the SC directions was limited to only those illegal killings that culminated in the cremation of 2,097 bodies in and around Amritsar that was the subject matter of the CBI inquiry.
On February 15, 2001, a plea was once again raised by the counsel of affected families for the NHRC to seek clarification from the SC about the scope of inquiry, but the commission did not consider it.
In its report to the SC, the CBI indicated that 585 dead bodies that had been secretly cremated were fully identified, 274 partly identified and 1,238 unidentified.
In its detailed November 11, 2004, order on this issue, the NHRC held that the human rights of 109 persons who were admittedly in the custody of the police immediately prior to their deaths stood invaded and infringed when they lost their lives while in the custody of the police, thereby rendering the state vicariously liable.
The order stated:
“There is a great responsibility on the part of the police and other authorities to take reasonable care so that citizens in their custody are safe and not deprived of their right to life. The state of Punjab is therefore accountable and vicariously responsible for the infringement of the infeasible right to life of those 109 deceased persons as it failed to safeguard their lives and persons against the risk of avoidable harm.”
The order ended with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Peace will not come out of a clash of arms but out of justice lived and done.” But several questions still remained unanswered.
NGOs do the investigating
Ensaaf, a US-based non-profit organisation that has been working since 2004 on the issue of police impunity with a special focus on Punjab, has so far claimed on its website that Punjab had 5,302 cases of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
The NGO’s co-founder, Sukhman Dhami, said that they compiled their information based on primary interviews with affected families, exposing the widespread and systematic extent of the abuses that took place at the cost of the victims’ right to life and right to a fair public trial.
“Our aim in compiling this information is so that these things are not repeated and the state fixes accountability on the perpetrators of the crime,” said Dhami. “The total absence of accountability for these atrocities has entrenched a culture of impunity and ‘encounter justice’ all across the country.”
Meanwhile, Chandigarh-based NGO Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP) released a report in December 2017, claiming to have identified 8,257 persons who disappeared from 1980 to 1995 from all across the state and were also cremated as unidentified and unclaimed bodies.
PDAP’s convener, Satnam Singh Bains, told The Wire that their research is basically an extension of the initial exposé by human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, covering alleged extrajudicial executions and illegal cremations beyond Amritsar, over 26 cities and tehsils of the state.
“We collected data from cremation grounds and municipal bodies where dead bodies were burnt as unclaimed and unidentified at that time by the police authorities. We also accessed around 1,200 FIRs of reported encounters out of which 274 FIRs matched exactly with the dates of illegal cremations obtained from cremation grounds,” he said.
Bains pointed out that most of the encounter FIRs tell a strikingly similar story in which police officers were left unscathed during the encounter, while the person in their custody invariably died in the firing.
“Most of those who went missing, we believe, fell prey to the vicious environment prevailing that time where police officers were being incentivised with easy promotions for killings,” said Bains. He added that even if many of them had links with insurgency, they deserved a fair trial under the constitutionally framed criminal justice system.
PIL seeking wider investigation pending in high court
Last November, the PDAP filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Punjab and Haryana high court, asking for an independent judicial commission under a retired Supreme Court or high court judge to investigate secret killings by the police in the entire state and even outside of it. The PIL also asked for compensation and rehabilitation for the families of the victims of secret killings.
The petition placed its reliance on the Supreme Court’s 2017 intervention in the case of the extrajudicial killings and disappearance of 1,528 persons in insurgency-ridden Manipur over two decades, in which it directed the CBI to investigate the matter. It also referred to the SC’s legal proceedings in Jaswant Khalra’s case.
The high court is still exploring the grounds on which the SC ordered the Manipur probe and will next hear the matter in September. Meanwhile, the recent orders pronounced by trial courts in CBI-led investigations are eye-openers.
In its 2018 ruling on the 1992 disappearance case of 16-year-old Harjit Singh from Amritsar district’s village Sultanwind, a special CBI court in Mohali held that the sole purpose of his abduction was to eliminate him.
The court awarded life sentences to two retired sub-inspectors (SI), Narinder Singh Malhi and Gian Singh. It said that all the directions of the Supreme Court were disobeyed before the police arrested the deceased and no explanation of any kind was given even later by the accused as to where Harjit Singh was and what happened to him after his abduction.
“The said child has not seen the light of the day after his abduction. Thereafter what happened to him is not known. Whether he is dead or alive is a mystery his parents try to solve every day. In these circumstances, it is not a fit case where leniency can be shown to the accused,” read the court order.
Another CBI court order in 2018 exposed the 1992 fake encounter of 15-year-old Harpal Singh of village Palla in Amritsar. The FIR registered by Amritsar’s Beas police station on September 18, 1992, claimed that Harpal had been killed in a gun battle after he escaped police custody.
The CBI court, while awarding life imprisonment to Raghbir Singh, the then station house officer (SHO) of Beas police station, and Dara Singh, a then sub-inspector, held that the police party’s claim to have fired 217 bullets during the encounter was fabricated as the empty cartridges had not been recovered or seized during the encounter.
The order said it was strange that the boy’s body was cremated as unclaimed when his identity was well established by the police and there was no record to show that his family members had refused to accept his body. Also, none of the bullets alleged to have been fired by the deceased is stated to have hit any of the police members or their vehicles, although it was claimed in a police report that the firing was started by the deceased.
“From the given facts, it is clearly proved that the encounter in which the deceased is stated to have been killed is not genuine. The accused tried to prove that the deceased was a terrorist but nothing has been produced to show that he was involved in any criminal activities,” the order stated.
The court observed that it might have believed the police version had the police shown that even a single bullet had hit any of the police vehicles or police officials. It added that the police version might also have been believed if the empty cartridges had been recovered. “In absence of it, it can’t be held by stretch of any imagination that the deceased was killed in encounter by the police,” the court order said.
Another CBI court order in 2019 awarded life sentences to a retired DSP, Harjinder Pal Singh, the then SHO of Ropar (Sadar), in the fake encounter of two men, Kuldeep Singh and Gurmail Singh.
An FIR registered on February 1, 1993, stated that the accused policeman was taking Kuldeep and Gurmail to recover arms when they were ambushed by unidentified persons near Bhadal village in Ropar. The policeman claimed then that in the crossfire between the police and the attackers, both Kuldeep and Gumail were killed. The police even cremated them, declaring their bodies unidentified.
The court ruled that the action of the accused policeman cast serious doubt about his version. Had the encounter happened as alleged, the accused policeman would have certainly taken into possession the empty cartridges of bullets fired by the police party.
The court also held that dead bodies were not handed over to family members, but cremated as unidentified though the police had identified them. The post mortem report had mentioned the names of the deceased. Similarly, the FIR also had their names and addresses.
“It is duly proved that both the deceased were in custody of SI Harjinder Pal Singh. The story put forth by him is false and thus it is held that the deceased were tortured and killed by him. Therefore he committed the offence under section 302 and 218 IPC,” stated the order
Former DGP booked in 1991 disappearance case
On May 6, in the middle of the nationwide lockdown, the Punjab police booked Sumedh Singh Saini who had served as a director general of police between 2012 and 2015 in the 29-year-old case of the disappearance of a Chandigarh youth, a son of a then serving IAS officer.
The FIR against Saini was filed in Mohali by Palwinder Singh Multani, regarding the alleged abduction and disappearance of his brother, Balwant Singh Multani, in December 1991.
Saini was charged in multiple crimes including kidnapping or abducting in order to murder; wrongful confinement; and voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession. He initially got out on anticipatory bail on May 9, but when his case was transferred to another court this month, his bail was cancelled on July 10.
Saini’s counsel told the media that he was being targeted for his anti-corruption drive when he was the head of the state’s Vigilance Bureau. Meanwhile, the police’s next course of action is awaited.
The case against Saini may prompt people to think that justice is finally catching up with big shots who may have been involved in dubious activities. But senior journalist Jagtar Singh does not believe this. He said the root cause of the entire problem is that the state never acknowledged constitutional wrongdoings during the insurgency. Quite a few police officers were allowed to confront militancy with whatever means they could possibly use in return for immunity and promotions, he added.
In a 2013 report, Christof Heyns, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee that recorded the situation in Punjab, said officers involved in human rights violations were promoted rather than held accountable.
He also said that delays in judicial proceedings constituted one of India’s most serious challenges and has clear implications for accountability.
Jagtar said that the investigation against Saini may reach a logical conclusion, but he is concerned about the pace of the legal proceedings. In such cases, he said, proceedings often move at a snail’s pace.
For instance, he added, in the 1990s when the SC acknowledged human rights violations in Punjab, people began to hope for the best. But things did not move forward as expected. “Although there are families who are still fighting the system, many have compromised with the situation whether under police threat or because of the indifferent attitude of the system,” said Jagtar Singh.
The fight is not over for people like Dalbir Kaur from Gurdaspur district. Dalbir lost her husband Sukhpal Singh in a 1994 police encounter, in which Inspector General of Police Paramraj Singh Umranangal, who was recently suspended in another case, is alleged to have been involved.
The case of Sukhpal Singh’s disappearance was registered in 2016, after Dalbir pleaded before the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2013 that the police team stage-managed an encounter with her husband to show that the dreaded terrorist Gurman Singh Bandala had been killed.
The high court appointed a special investigating team (SIT) led by DGP (Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd) Sidharth Chattopadhyaya, who filed an affidavit in the high court this March, stating that Bandala is alive and had been arrested in 1998 in some other case.
The SIT stated that it appeared that Bandala’s fake encounter registered in Ropar district and Sukhpal Singh’s disappearance from Gurdaspur are intricately linked, although the investigation is not over as yet.
Pardeep Virk, counsel for Dalbir Kaur, said she has been fighting a lone battle ever since her husband died. No effort was made by the state to identify who was the person killed if it was not Bandala. The SIT’s latest finding has given Dalbir new hope for justice.
Why it is important to uphold the rule of law
Punjab saw large scale human rights violations during the insurgency, but it is still widely believed that the state’s actions, whether wrong or right, restored normalcy to the region, making it a good thing overall.
Elsewhere in India, we have seen people cheering for police action, such as when the four accused in the infamous Hyderabad rape case last year were killed in a police encounter. The same people are now cheering the elimination of gangster Vikas Dubey.
Human rights lawyer Navkiran Singh told The Wire that the reason behind such thinking is the country’s tardy judicial system. It takes an average of 8 to 10 years, maybe even more, to get a case decided at a trial court.
“One must ask who is responsible for it,” said Navkiran Singh. “It is the government. It doesn’t appoint enough judges. It doesn’t ensure an effective witness protection programme. It creates monsters and then kills them for public sympathy.”
Despite the limitations of the system, the rule of law must be upheld at any cost, because if a country is not governed under the rule of law, there will be anarchy, added Navkiran. A person could be killed on the street if she is even suspected of committing a crime. No rule of law signifies an immature democracy.
If fake encounters and extrajudicial killings are to be stopped, said Navkiran, first of all, people should stop rejoicing in such killings. He argued that extrajudicial killings tend to happen when the government wants to distract people from the root causes of crime; when the state itself is in the dock.
According to advocate Arjun Sheoran, a counsel in several human rights cases in Punjab, the people who control the system are the ones who have created problems in the police, judicial and investigation departments. He added that the whole ecosystem of Bollywood masala movies, for instance, makes people believe that extrajudicial killings are fine.
Change will only come to the Punjab police when the Prakash Singh Committee report on police reforms is implemented, said Sheoran. “When we reform the police, we must ensure an adequate number of policemen and then separate departments for investigation,” he said.
The number of judges must also be increased, so that the judicial system works effectively and there must be proper compliance with the Supreme Court guidelines on encounter killings, he added. “Only the courts can declare an accused guilty or innocent,” said Sheoran. “This is the fundamental principle of our criminal justice system.”
Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has worked for several news outlets including The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune.
Read the original story here.
We the undersigned are united in our condemnation of the Punjab Government reported decision to recommend to the central government the premature release of Punjab police officers whose names have not been disclosed but have been convicted of heinous crimes during the insurgency and counter-insurgency period, is unlawful, arbitrary and unconstitutional. The CBI Special Court has convicted a number of Punjab police personnel for offences including murder, abduction with intent to murder, kidnapping, extorting money, preparing fake records, fabricating evidence and secretly and illegally cremating dead bodies as “unclaimed and unidentified”.
With the CBI special Court in Mohali, having recently convicted 9 police officers in 4 separate trials, any attempt to release those already serving sentences make a mockery of the law and undermines efforts to secure justice in remaining 40 cases which are pending in the CBI Court Mohali or the Punjab and Haryana High Court. In all these cases the victims were found to be innocent and the police officers were found to have killed in cold blood or had abducted and enforced disappeared the victims.
We strongly oppose any external attempts by the Punjab or Central Government, or Punjab Police to interfere with the judicial process and prosecutions which were undertaken by the CBI over two decades ago and are now resulting in convictions of police officers who have evaded the law for the last two and half decades.
We take serious issue, with the contention that a “sympathetic view” or leniency should be shown towards those convicted of these heinous criminal offences, which are aggravated by the perpetrators doing so in police uniform. Whilst the majority of the accused in these cases have never been dismissed from service and have enjoyed all the perks, salaries, in many cases pensions throughout their entire career and have been supported by a secret fund even as convicted criminals. Whereas, the victim families have suffered in abject poverty, with the main breadwinner of their family having been murdered in cold blood and have waited endlessly over 26 years for these trials to commence and conclude, which have been delayed by the manipulation of legal procedures by certain accused police officers and arbitrary stays imposed.
The names approved and/or recommended for release should be disclosed immediately so that the victim’s kin can challenge why this move is arbitrary, illegal and unlawful.
We remind the Chief Minister of Punjab, his public commitments to the victims of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances that his government would punish and prosecute offenders and that these killers in uniform do not remain above the law. We have every expectation that justice will be done and those serving life sentence, will remain behind bars.
Punjab Human Rights Organisation (PHRO): -Chairman Justice Ajit Singh Bains, Advocate Rajwinder Singh Bains, Advocate Sarbjit Singh Verka, Punjab Documentation & Advocacy Project (PDAP): Satnam Singh Bains, Barrister, Advocate Jagjit Singh Bajwa, Jaswant Kaur, Advocate Pushpinder Singh Natt, Baljinder Singh Khalra Mission Organisation (KMO):, Mrs Paramjit Kaur Khalra. Lawyers for Human Rights International (LFHI):– Advocate Navkiran Singh, Advocate, Amar Singh Chahal, Advocate Barjinder Singh Sodhi, Advocate Amar Singh Chahal. Advocate Jaspal Singh Manjpur. People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) – Arjun Sheoran Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP):– Sardar Gurtej Singh IAS, Advocate Harshinder Singh. Human Rights Law Network (HRLN)– Senior Supreme Court Advocate Colin Gonsalves and Advocate Veena
The Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court seeking probe into alleged mass killings during the counter-insurgency period in Punjab has been withdrawn with liberty to move the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
The petition filed by an NGO named Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project (PDAP) and some individuals sought constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) or an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the alleged killings.
The matter was listed before the bench of Justices Arun Mishra and M R Shah on September 2.
The petition sought justice for 6732 deceased who were stated to be victims of encounter killings, custodial deaths and illegal cremations by the Punjab police in 26 districts of Punjab during the insurgency period 1984-85, starting from Operation Blue Star and leading up to after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The petitioners stated that the deceased persons were killed in fake encounters or were abducted, kept in illegal custody, tortured and enforced disappeared by the Punjab police and security forces under the guise of security operations. Thereafter, those killed were secretly cremated the dead bodies as being “unclaimed and unidentified”.
PDAP also claimed to have evidence and detailed accounts of the same, supported by crucial eye witness testimony. It stated to have identified the dead bodies by carefully matching the date of disappearance, coinciding with the date of FIR and both of them coinciding with the date of unceremonious cremation. 19 of such case studies have also been set out in the petition as a representative sample.
It was also clarified at the outset that the petition sought investigation into extrajudicial executions of persons apart from those that took place in the three crematoriums at Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Majitha as the proceedings for those three crematoriums were dealt by the Supreme Court in Prithpal Singh & Ors. v. State of Punjab, (2012) 1 SCC 10.
Breach of Fundamental and Statutory Rights of Victims and their Families
1. The breakdown of law and order in Punjab at the alleged time led to crimes against humanity in the guise of fake encounters, enforced disappearances and custodial killings by the Punjab police officials, costing lives of over 8000 persons. This amounted to violation of the Right to life and personal liberty guaranteed to all citizens under Article 21 of the Constitution.
2. The families of the victims were unequivocally entitled to the Right to Justice, Right to Truth, Right to Reparation and the Right to Non-Reoccurrence through Constitutional and Institutional safeguards.
3. There has not been any acknowledgement, investigation or inquiry into cases of these persons who went missing through abductions and fake encounters and they remain unaccounted for till date. Resultantly, death certificates have not been issued to the families of these victims who, by dint of the same, face difficulties in matters of inheritance, succession and are denied employment on compassionate grounds, statutory entitlements and dues, pensions and government subsidies.
4. The cremation for unclaimed and unidentified took place from year 1984 to 1995 during insurgency operation. However, by 1995 when the militant movement was crushed, the corresponding numbers of cremations reduced considerably proving that these cremations were linked with Police disappearances.
5. The Punjab police claim that they never had any of the disappeared persons in their custody at any time while the data collected from cremation grounds and the Municipal Corporations indicate that those persons were taken to cremation grounds by the police in most cases and clandestinely burnt.
6. The dates of killings and abductions of some 274 persons from the Gurdaspur district matched with the date of FIRs, date of receipt books for the purchase of firewood and cloth for cremation, the dates of cremations and numbers of bodies brought for cremation. However, the records are merely “the tip of the iceberg” and if CBI investigates the matter, then a significant number of such cases will be identified.
7. In many of the cases, the FIR flatly contradicted that the deceased person was unidentified as his particulars, were either disclosed in the FIR itself or information containing their identity was contained in the police file. Thus, the Police party was aware of the identities of the deceased victims and yet they were cremated as unclaimed and unidentified.
8. The mandatory procedure to be adopted for cremating unidentified and unclaimed dead bodies is governed by the provisions of Punjab Police Rules, 1934. However, the same was not followed in any case and the cremation was effected in illegal, unconstitutional and arbitrary procedure.
9. The need for a through and independent Judicial probe is crucial because many police officers implicated in these killings are also implicated in a number of other crimes, which form a nexus between certain police officers from this period and the destructive drug trade in Punjab, corruption and unlawful acquiring property and sexual offences.
10. Many officers accused of serious human rights violations during this period have been awarded for bravery or have been promoted to the high ranks. This has exemplified the immunity and impunity such police personnel enjoy.
11. A former officer of the Punjab police, Gurmeet Singh Pinky had publicly confessed that the Punjab police had formed death squads, during the 1980s to mid-1990s, who had tracked and killed Sikhs in Punjab and other states, with impunity, with the close cooperation and collusion of regional police forces.
Failure of State Govt.
12. The State of Punjab not only failed in maintaining the rule of law in the state but also allowed its own officials to commit human right violations by breaching standard legal procedure to be followed by the Police, for the detention, arrest and interrogation of suspects.
13. The Punjab Police officers commonly threaten families of the victims so that they don’t approach any authority or the judiciary against the unlawful acts committed by the officers during their tenure of service.
14. The Supreme Court in “Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association v. Union of India & Anr.”, had intervened in the Manipur case of extra-judicial killings and disappearance of 1528 persons and ordered an independent investigation by the CBI for effective remedy which later concluded that the “encounters were not genuine and that the use of force of the State agencies was excessive”. A similar probe was required herein.
15. The Supreme Court had transferred the investigation related to the three crematoriums in the Prithpal Singh case to the CBI which aided a fair investigation and lead to convictions of a number of Punjab police officers.
16. The Supreme Court had noted the impartiality of the Punjab Police in the Prithpal Singh case in as much as it said “In spite of transfer of the investigation of the case to the CBI, the Punjab police officials did not cooperate with the CBI and were not lending proper support in conducting the investigation. The police officials of Punjab united in an unholy alliance, as their colleagues were involved as the case was going to tarnish the image of Punjab Police…”
17. In a landmark case in UK, “R. v. Sawoniuk, Court of Appeal”, (Criminal Division)  EWCA Crim 9, the court had rejected the defence’s argument that a fair trial could not be conducted given the passage of time (some 58 years). It was held that the defence “needs to show on a balance of probabilities that owing to the delay he will suffer serious prejudice to the extent that no fair trial can be held”. The same principle was followed by the Supreme Court in “CBI v. Sajjan Kumar & Ors.”, Crl. A. 1099/2013.
18. In “Rubabbuddin Sheikh v. State of Gujarat”, (2011) 1 SCC (Cri) 1109, the Supreme Court identified the inherent difficulties in gathering evidence in such cases and the need to punish guilty officers, who malign and tarnish otherwise upright police personally.
19. The petition raises issues of constitutional importance in as much as there is an absence of domestic laws viz. criminalization of genocide, enforced disappearances and crimes against humanity. Thus, there is a positive constitutional obligation on this Hon’ble Court to develop the appropriate mechanisms for redressal and non-re-occurrence.
20. India is a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance which expects its signatory nations to investigate acts of enforced disappearance and bring those responsible to justice; to ensure that enforced disappearance constitutes an offence under its criminal law; and to ensure that victims of enforced disappearance or those directly affected by it have a right to obtain reparation and compensation.
21.Police’s actions were in violation of the Geneva Convention which provides that dead bodies of enemy combatants are to be identified, treated with respect and not defiled. However, the victims herein who were citizens of India were accorded less rights than a foreign enemy combatant.
22. As per the law laid down in “Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights”, the allegations of excessive force resulting in death of a victim by the armed forces or police must be thoroughly looked into.
23. The Special UN Rapporteur on Extra Judicial killings, Mr Christof Heynes, released a UN commission report which identified that the immunity and impunity of certain police officers in India lead to gross human rights violations particularly extra judicial killings.
Apart from an independent probe by an SIT or CBI, the Petitioner has prayed appropriate directions for:
(i) reparation and rehabilitation of the families of the victims;
(ii) institution of disciplinary proceedings against the officers engaging in criminality;
(iii) issuance of death certificates for the deceased; and
(iv) develop apposite infrastructure to rehabilitate the kin of the victims who have suffered for more than two decades.
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The Supreme Court is to hear on Monday a PIL seeking a direction to set up an SIT or a ‘Truth Commission’ to uncover the “cold-blooded execution and killing of as many as 25,000 victims” in Punjab and in other parts of India during 1984 to 1995.
The petition filed by the ‘Punjab Documentation & Advocacy Project’, a human rights organisation, and victim families relied upon “investigations” which it claimed, “uncovered secret mass cremation of dead bodies of over 8,527 victims between 1984-95.
The petition is to come up before a bench of Justices Arun Mishra and M R Shah on Monday, September 2.
It alleged there were “enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and mass cremations” in Punjab during the period of militancy and counter-insurgency after 1984.
The petitioner claimed to have carried on investigations and collected information in some 26 districts and sub-districts of Punjab in 1,600 villages, 1,200 police FIRs and 150 RTI applications resulting in the discovery of 8257 victims and data of 6,224 cremations from several cremation grounds between 1984-95.
The petition, to be argued by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves and advocate Satnam Singh Bains, sought a direction to the Centre and state to investigate mass state crimes, prosecute perpetrators and rehabilitate victim, citing examples in the Supreme Court such as the Manipur Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association vs Union of India case as well as international examples of truth commissions, and commissions to identify missing persons in post-conflict situations.
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