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Dark clouds of state repression: Police excesses have broken Punjab

Arunleev Singh Walia, General Secretary, Lawyers for Human Rights International8/15/02

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 that can justifiably be called the 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.

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 from 1984 to 1996 at 15,000, according to various investigating agencies and human rights groups more than 25,000 people have been killed by the Punjab police. 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 of innocent people. Sikh boys were picked up from their houses or fields and taken blindfolded to isolated places and told 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 hit in crossfire. Many members of the police force in Punjab got out-of-turn promotions, gallantry awards and monetary rewards for killing "militants".

Sadly, the state machinery and the judiciary remained mute spectators to these 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 a police report that the detainee was killed in an encounter or that the detainee was not in their custody. A writ petition was filed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association, Chandigarh, 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. It met the same fate, 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 [Central Bureau of Investigation] 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 [Deputy Superintendent of Police] and four police inspectors of the Punjab police. According to latest reports, more than 15 prosecution witnesses have turned hostile due to police pressure.

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 broke 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 for adequate water and cheap fertilizers added to the state's problems.

The assassination of the Chief Minister Beant Singh on 31 October 1995 brought a halt to the corrupt and anti-people rule in the state. The Shiromani Akali Dal-Bhartiya Janata Party alliance that came into power promised to end the 'Police Raj,' and assured justice to the victims of state repression. They also promised to release all the innocent people arrested and lodged in different jails in Punjab under TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act].*  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 has come down. But the Punjab police even today torture people in illegal custody, kills them in fake encounters, maintain private goons, patronize criminals, grab land belonging to the poor and the weak, and generally use 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 declared on 2 October 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 law, and prosecute policemen guilty of human rights violations in the state. The state needs a new type of police force, one that will protect the citizens against crime, and ensure that human 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.

This is edited text of an article originally published in Combat Law: Human Rights Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1, April-May 2002.

End Note

* The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987, had a period of enforceability fixed as five years. Since it expired in 1992, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 1995, intended to replace TADA, was pending the consideration of Parliament. Since the government felt that it was not likely to be cleared, it promulgated the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance on 24 October 2001. During the winter session of Parliament in December 2001 steps were taken for the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, 2001. However, the Bill could not be introduced and considered since the Parliament adjourned sine dine on 19 December 2001. Due to the terrorist attack on Parliament House on 13 December 2001, the President promulgated the Prevention of Terrorism (Second) Ordinance 2001, which has been highly criticized by human rights activists in India and abroad.

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