Punjab – Dark Clouds of State Repression

Arunjeev Singh Walia*

Even after 50 years of India’s independence, the people of Punjab still suffer the wrath of police brutality and the indifference of the state machinery towards the economic and political development of the state. What began as a struggle for self-determination and political freedom, took an ugly turn. It resulted in the killing of thousands of people in armed violence and state terrorism, which can justifiably be called mass genocide of Sikhs by the Indian Government. The government gave the Punjab police excessive powers. So much so that they became a law unto themselves. The continuing excesses of security forces in Punjab have broken the backbone of the once peaceful and prosperous state.

Killing fields of Punjab

Many human rights lawyers and activists paid with their lives for treading the path of political justice. While the official figures put the total number of people killed in Punjab during the period of 1984 to 1996 at 15,000, more than 25,000 people have been killed by the Punjab police according to various investigating agencies and human rights groups. This includes persons ‘missing’ from their homes, killed in ‘encounters,’ cremated as ‘unidentified’ and ‘escaped from police custody.’ This will haunt the mind of every Punjabi and be remembered as the most sordid era in the history of the state.

The Congress Government, under Chief Minister Beant Singh, created a situation where even subordinate police officers became the judge, jury and executioner, and killed innocent people. Sikh boys were picked up from their houses or fields and taken blindfolded to isolated places and asked to run. A burst of AK-47 rifle-fire ended their lives. Such was the terror that nobody dared ask why not even a single member of the police force was not hit in the cross-fire. Many members of the police force in Punjab got out-of-turn promotions, gallantry awards and monetary rewards for killing ‘militants.’

Response of the judiciary

Sadly, the state machinery and the Judiciary remained mute spectators to the dastardly acts. Even the High Court of Punjab and Haryana dismissed hundreds of Habeas Corpus petitions filed by the parents of the ‘missing’ youths after receiving the police report that the detainee was killed in an encounter or that the detainee was not in their custody. A writ petition, filed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association, Chandigarh, in the High Court, seeking an independent inquiry into the killing of a lawyer and human rights activist, Kulwant Singh of Ropar, his wife and two-year-old child at the hands of the Punjab police, met the same fate. The Petition was dismissed by a five Judge bench with objectionable remarks against the lawyers for observing long strikes to protest the killing of the lawyer. Later, the Supreme Court passed unprecedented strictures on the highhandedness of the High Court, and ordered a CBI inquiry into the killings. The CBI in its report submitted to the Supreme Court found the Ropar police responsible for the heinous crime of killing the lawyer and his family. This resulted in the trial of one DSP and four police inspectors of the Punjab police. According to latest reports, more than 15 prosecution witnesses have turned hostile due to police pressure.

Role of the state government

The Punjab police’s role in eliminating a particular religious community – Sikhs in this case – in their own homeland, is unheard of. The manner in which the Punjab police acted beyond the pale of the law has put civilization to shame. But the State Government was on a long vacation of sorts, with its eyes and ears closed to the unending woes of the victims. On the one hand, police excesses and administrative failures have broken the backbone of the state. On the other hand, the poor condition of the farmers due to the discriminatory policies of the State Government in ignoring their demands of adequate water and cheap fertilizers, have added to the state’s problems. The assassination of the Chief Minister, Beant Singh on October 31, 1995 brought a halt to the corrupt and anti-people rule in the state.

The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bhartiya Janata Party alliance which came into power promised to end the ‘Police Raj,’ and assured justice to the victims of state repression. Besides, they also promised to release all the innocent people arrested under TADA and lodged in different jails in Punjab. But to date, not a single police officer responsible for human rights violations has been hauled up for his / her acts of commission and omission.

There is no change in the situation. No doubt, the number of casualties have come down. But the Punjab police even today tortures people in illegal custody, kills them in fake encounters, maintains private goons, patronizes criminals, grabs land belonging to the poor and the weak, and generally uses muscle to crush opposition.

What is more humiliating for the citizens of the state is that the loud promises by the Chief Minister of the state – to uphold the rule of law and give opportunities to the released militants to rehabilitate themselves – have remained empty and unfulfilled. This is not to say that crimes should not be checked. But when the basic human right to life and liberty is eroded on a mass scale by the state’s forces, no words of sympathy can heal. Even lawyers, human rights activists and media people are being attacked and falsely implicated on the alleged grounds that ‘most human rights bodies are funded by militant organizations abroad.’ The Chief Minister of the state had declared on October 2, 1997 that the cases of all those prisoners who were languishing in jails under TADA and other offences, would be considered, and that they would be released within a short period. But the promise was forgotten, and many people who had nothing to do with militant activities are still languishing in jails.

It becomes the onerous duty of every human rights activist to strive to establish the rule of the law, and prosecute policemen guilty of human rights violations in the state. The state needs a new type of police force, one that would protect the citizens against crime, and ensure that their rights are not violated. The people of the state should take a fresh decision and strive for a tomorrow without any police brutality and an administration that is free of corruption.

Guardians of Democracy

The judiciary in India often forgets its crucial role as a guardian of democracy. Here, however, is a case to the contrary – one where the judge raps the state administration and its watchdog, the police, for their callous policy of encounters – murders.

This is an excerpt from the judgement by M.Katju and O. Bhatt J of the Allahabad High Court in Criminal Writ Petition No. 1980 of 2001 delivered on April 9, 2001.

The Petitioner is presently posted as S.O. Police Station Pachokhara, district Firozabad. The incident in question occurred on 12/13.10.1993, when a Sikh person Harjeet Singh was killed in a police encounter by a police party and an FIR was lodged on 13.10.1993, being case crime No. 327 of 1993 at police station Puwayan, district Shahjahanpur. It is alleged in paragraph 5 of the writ petition that after investigation, the police submitted a final report before the Magistrate concerned and the same was accepted on 29.5.1995, vide Annexure 2 to the petition.

2. It appears that a writ petition was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court by the father of deceased Harjeet Singh, asserting that his son had been picked up by the Punjab police, which handed him over to the UP police and thereafter he was killed in Shahjahanpur in UP in a false encounter… The Punjab High Court directed an investigation by the CBI to enquire and investigate the circumstances leading to the killing of Harjeet Singh and to submit a report before the High Court within a period of six months. The States of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh were also directed to render all necessary assistance in the investigation. Thereafter on 1.8.1998 an FIR was lodged, copy of which is Annexure 4 to the writ petition. The petitioner’s name was not in the FIR, but he was asked to appear before the CBI Admittedly the petitioner was one of the police party which is said to have killed Harjeet Singh in Shahjahanpur vide paragraph 12 of the petition. The petitioner was asked to appear before the CBI for a lie detection test, but he refused alleging that his statement under Section 161 Cr.P.C. had already been recorded…

3. The Special Judicial Magistrate CBI, Patiala issued a notice dated 14.5.2000 to the petitioner to appear on 25.5.2000… Since the petitioner did not appear a warrant of arrest has been issued by Special Judicial Magistrate, CBI, Patiala with a direction to produce the petitioner on 30.3.2001, as he stands charged for offences under section 120-B read with section 364, and 302 IPC…

7 … We are not inclined to exercise our discretion under Article 226 in this case. Moreover writ jurisdiction is discretionary jurisdiction and this Court is not inclined to exercise its jurisdiction in such matter where there is allegation of gross violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.

8. We are pained to say that the police in this country often behaves in an illegal manner. While not commenting on the facts of the present case, we would certainly like to say that often, innocent persons are murdered by the police in the name of encounter. These so called encounters are nothing but murder by the police, and the police have no right to commit murder. A large number of cases have been coming to this court where the allegations are that the police are indulging in committing dacoity, theft, forcible extraction of money (vasuli), rape, blackmail and even murder in the name of false encounters.

9. If crimes are committed by ordinary people, no doubt ordinary punishment should be given, but if the offence is committed by the police, much harsher punishment should be given to them because they are doing an act contrary to their duties.

10. The police is supposed to protect the people and uphold the law, but if they themselves become criminals then that is the end of civilized society. As the Bible says ‘If the salt has lost its flavour, wherewith shall it be salted,’ or as the ancient Romans used to say, ‘Who will guard the Praetorian guards.’ No doubt there are some good policemen in the police force but they appear to be in the minority.

11. We are of the view that in case where false encounter is found to be proved against police in a trial, they must be given death sentence treating it as rarest of the rare cases.

12. We also warn all police personnel in the country that they will not be excused for committing murder in the name of encounter on the pretext that they were carrying out orders of superior officers or politicians, however high. In the Nuremberg Trials, the Nazi war criminals took the defence of ‘orders are orders,’ nevertheless they were hanged. In our opinion if a policemen is given an illegal order by a superior to do an ‘encounter,’ it is his duty to refuse to carry out such an illegal order, otherwise he will be charged for murder, and if found guilty, sentenced to death. The ‘encounter’ philosophy is a criminal philosophy, and all policemen must know this. Trigger-happy policemen who think they can kill innocent people in the name of ‘encounters,’ and get away with it should know that the gallows await them.

13. There is no force in this petition. It is dismissed.

Let a copy of this order be sent to the Director General of Police, UP forthwith and the Director General will send copy of this judgement to all IGs, DIGs, SSP and SPs in the State, with the stern direction to comply with this judgement.

*Arunjeev Singh Walia is a practising lawyer of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh. He is also the General Secretary of Lawyers For Human Rights International and is the author of the book Genesis of State Terrorism in Punjab, released on July 14, 2001.