Human Rights

Punjab Police - A Law Unto Itself

Ramesh Vinayak. India Today

Last year, when the National Human Rights Commission visited Punjab, it exposed an ugly truth. During its three-day stay there, the commission was flooded with over 400 petitions against the Punjab Police, prompting its chairman, Justice (retd) Ranganath Mishra, to remark that even though normalcy had returned to the state, the police’s conduct was still far from normal. Not much has changed since.

“Complaints against the police are pouring in,” admitted the former Chief Secretary A.S. Chatha. “Peace has encouraged people to express themselves boldly.” That boldness has not been reciprocated by the Government which has instead chosen to gloss over most complaints or dismiss them as political propaganda. Not surprisingly, the impression that the Punjab Police, armed as it was with draconian powers under acts like the TADA, is accountable to none is getting reinforced with each passing day. Says veteran CPI leader Satpal Dang: “Beant Singh has no control over the police, which is calling the shots.”

That the all-powerful Punjab Police has become a law unto itself is reinforced by the scores of habeas corpus petitions moved in the Punjab and Haryana high courts and the Supreme Court in recent months. This apart, the state police was facing at least half a dozen CBI inquiries directed by the courts during the past eighteen months - an unbelievable record for any state police force.

Not unexpectedly, while passing strictures against the Punjab Police, the courts are now calling for compensation to be paid to victims of police excesses. In the tattooing case, the Punjab High Court directed the state Government to pay Rs. 50,000 to each of the four victims. In another case, the same court, in a judgement in 1994, ordered a compensation of Rs. 1.5 lakh for Joginder Kaur, whose husband, Santokh Singh, died of police torture. Earlier, a magisterial inquiry had rejected the police version that the cause of Singh’s death was snake bite.

The Punjab Police hasn’t done much to merit credibility. Having tamed the terrorist menace in the state, certain elements in the force have been allegedly engaged in everything from kidnappings and illegal detentions for extracting ransoms, to forcibly settling land disputes. Graphically illustrating this trend was the case of 24-year old Ranjit Singh and his sister-in-law, Jaspal Kaur, of Raillon village in Fatehgarh district, who were allegedly picked up by the police in June in 1994. Without registering a case against the two, the police reportedly used pressure and torture in a bid to make them own up to the death of Ranjit Singh’s wife. “They told us we could either pay the money or face murder charges,” says Ranjit. Finally, based on a habeas corpus petition, a warrant officer deputed by the high court rescued Ranjit from the Bassi Pathana police station on June 25, 1994. The whereabout of Jaspal Kaur are still unknown. Ranjit says she was still in police custody, a charge the police deny.

In another case of extortion, a businessman, Sanjay Kumar, of Gidderbaha, was abducted at gun point by policemen in uniform. Fortunately, a crowd caught some of the abductors and forced the local police to recover Kumar from their Bhatinda counterparts within an hour.

What seems to have made matters worse is the involvement of Punjab politicians in some of the charges of police excesses. One such case involves Jaswinder Kaur, a young graduate of Kauri village in the Khanna police district. A frail orphan, Jaswinder had filed three writ petitions in the high court challenging appointments made by the Punjab Excise and Taxation Minister, Shamsher Singh Dullo. Dullo eventually had to revoke the appointments when it transpired that they had been made without any written test or interview, and the Supreme Court quashed the Excise Inspectors’ appointments in Haryana. Jaswinder and her family are now being targeted by the police, allegedly at the behest of the minister.

Deposing before the judges in February, Jaswinder had submitted that she be allowed to withdraw her petition in view of the police harassment. The court converted her petition into a public-interest litigation, but that did not end her family’s ordeal. Dozens of raids by the police had forced her uncle, Labh Singh, a boxing coach with the Sports Authority of India, to remain underground for several months.

In early 1994, the police informed the high court that Labh Singh was not wanted in any case, but it didn’t let up on its raids. The reason : Jaswinder filed another petition demanding that Dullo be punished for allegedly making fraudulent appointments and wasting Rs. 3.6 crores of public money. “Our refusal to give up the fight offended Dullo, who got false cases registered against my uncle,” says Jaswinder. Dullo and the police deny her charge. Meanwhile, Labh Singh lives in perpetual fear of being eliminated in a fake encounter.

Piara Singh Kanoke had a similar horror story to tell. He ended up being booked for theft and hatching a conspiracy after he got into a dispute with a local Congress(I) leader. “The Congress(I) is crushing its political opponents by terror tactics,” charged Satnam Kainth, BSP leader in the state Assembly. And that seems to include party dissidents as well. Bir Devinder Singh, a senior Congress(I) leader and former chief whip of the party, incurred police displeasure for calling the Patiala police chief “a small fry.” A die-hard critic of Beant Singh, Devinder Singh was booked on charges, ranging from corruption to murder, on the basis of as many as 15 affidavits that the police claimed to have received in less than a week. “It’s the height of political vendetta unleashed through the police,” said a Congress(I) MP, Jagmeet Singh Brar, who was refused permission to call on Devinder Singh in jail.

Political patronage, in fact, is only increasing the spate of charges about police high-handedness and excesses. In June 1994, Baldev Singh Sahota, a Punjab Civil Medical Services (PCMS) doctor, was beaten up at Sunam by gunmen accompanying a Congress(I) MLA when he refused to vacate his seat in a restaurant. Later, Sahota was again assaulted, this time by policemen who allegedly forced liquor into his mouth and registered a case against him. The incident triggered an agitation by PCMS doctors, forcing the MLA to tender an apology.

Elsewhere, police harassment, allegedly at the instance of the local Congress(I)-backed sarpanch, is keeping Dalit families of Dehlon village in Ludhiana district in a state of fear. Their nightmare started in July 1994, when a Dalit youth, Bhagwan Singh, was reported tortured by the police acting on a complaint by a local tough. According to reports, the next day, a police party, accompanied by the hoodlum, again raided Singh’s house and beat up his family members, not sparing even the women. As a result, a four-month pregnant Gurmeet Kaur suffered a miscarriage from being kicked by an inebriated Home Guard constable. He allegedly tried to molest 55-year old Mohinder Kaur also. Following a public outcry, the police dismissed the constable in question. Meanwhile, the SSP, Jagraon, was asked to look into the case, although the police deny the charges.

Evidently, Punjab Police personnel, hardened by their long-drawn-out battle with terrorists, have yet to recover the peacetime bearings. They are applying the same tactics to deal with ordinary criminals and even innocent citizens as they did with the militants. On June 28, a widow, Harbans Kaur, filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court appealing for an inquiry into the death of her son, Gurbax Singh, and the release of two other sons. While Gurbax allegedly died of police torture, the other two were kept in illegal custody until the apex court issued a show-case notice to the police. Cases of robbery had been registered against them by the police and they were then thrown into jail. All to pre-empt the court’s order to produce them on specified date.

The Ludhiana police chief, Hardip Dhillon, claimed that all three brothers were involved in major robberies, and that victims were pressing for recovery claims. The police, he asserted, were pressuring the family to sell off their house to settle the claims. Whatever the truth, the police raids eventually forced the family to abandon the house. “I don’t want to suffer more by speaking against the police,” says Rajinder Kaur, the widow of Gurbax, now living with her parents.

With the credibility of the state police plummeting, allegations against senior police officials have begun to stick. For instance, in Khamano town in Fatehgarh, 55-year-old Jeewan Lata had alleged in the presence of a minister that she was raped by the DSP, Kashmira Singh Gill, who, she further alleged, had tried to molest her minor grand-daughter Mausami. On July 16 1994, four days before the high court was to hear a public-interest suit in this regard, Jeewan Lata withdrew her allegation. “I did so under tremendous pressure”, she says. “Can anyone live by offending the police?” The DSP, of course, stoutly denied the rape charge.

Ordinary citizens were not the only ones feeling the heat of police excesses. Having brought the state back from the brink, the Punjab police still enjoy a large-than-life image - and a dominance over the civil magistracy. Indeed, attempts to rein in the law enforcers at the administrative level have time and again drawn a blank. Predictably, police-magisterial relations in the state were far from cordial. The simmering confrontation between the two boiled over in 1993 when Punjab Civil Services officers went on a strike in protest against the police’s booking of two of their colleagues in a corruption case.

Undeterred, the Punjab Police continues to treat the civil magistracy with a mixture of apathy and disdain, opposing any move to make them accountable to the second-rung of the state’s bureaucracy. Magisterial inquiries into cases of police excesses are barely moving, or are getting grounded, a fall-out of police non-cooperation. A case in point: an inquiry into the infamous Latala incident, in which a woman died and her husband disappeared, allegedly while in police custody, couldn’t make any headway in two years, thanks to police indifference. Now a judicial probe is on.

In spite of the wealth of evidence pointing to how his state’s police has grown into a veritable Frankenstein’s monster, Chief Minister Beant Singh chooses to turn a blind eye to the issue. The reason is combination of political compulsion and lack of administrative teeth. Admittedly, Punjab Director-General of Police K.P.S. Gill did make efforts to refurbish his force’s image, then under fire from international human-rights bodies and even US President Bill Clinton. The police organised seminars on human rights and drew up a social-action plant to “sensitise” the rank and file in order to give it a civil face. But the top-dressing came off in mid ’94 when Gill’s security personnel beat up two journalists in New Delhi.

Although Gill followed it up with an apology, the assault reinforced the impression that the Punjab “supercop” doesn’t have the time, even less the inclination, to bring about drastic changes in his force’s style of functioning. Says Dang : “A war-time hero cannot be a peace-time hero as well.” The human rights lobby is more strident in its criticism. “Gill has outlived his welcome stay in Punjab,” says Inderjit Singh Jaijee, convenor of the Movement Against State Repression.

Given the widespread opprobrium it has incurred, is there any way the Punjab Police can be put on a leash - or, even better, humanised? Much of the excesses can be attributed to the force’s lopsided training, which suffered heavily because of its preoccupation with terrorism. Recently, courses in human relations have been incorporated into the state police’s training curriculum, but an ambitious experiment in officer-oriented policing, involving only officers of ASI rank, to improve relations with the public was yet to take off.

Ultimately, all such efforts may not be enough to rein in Gill’s forces if the political will and leadership continue to be lacking. “It’s high time the extra powers given to the Punjab Police for tackling terrorism were withdrawn,” says Akali leader Captain Kanwaljit Singh. “Otherwise the future of the state police is bleak.” Not to mention the future of the ordinary people of Punjab.

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