Missing Sikh Prisoners
Sardar Inderjit Singh Jaijee
A number of black laws were enacted to detain citizens in custody for long periods without trial. The key Black Laws were the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, (TADA), the National Security Act, the J & K Public Safety Act, the Armed Forces (Punjab & Chandigarh) Special Powers Act; and the Disturbed Area Act. The more draconian of these Black Laws was the TADA.
Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act. (TADA)
TADA was drawn up in 1985 and withdrawn in 1995. This was drawn up especially for Punjab and its primary purpose was to deny right to judicial review, deny bail and give the police an opportunity to interrogate prisoners endlessly. TADA is a form of police remand and even where a person has been kept in jail under judicial custody, he could again be taken away by the police for interrogation. The onus of proving innocence is shifted to the prisoner and confession before a police officer becomes admissible evidence. The identity of the witness can be withheld. The advantage of registering TADA cases against prisoners in different states was to make it impossible for them to muster evidence in their favour. But even after the withdrawal of the TADA in 1995, prisoners continue to be held in detention under TADA.
In response to a starred question in the Parliament, the government gave a figure of 52,268 persons detained under TADA, as on 10th March, 1993 out of which 14,457 were in Punjab and 14094 in Gujarat, a relatively peaceful State. Obviously there were a number of Sikh TADA prisoners held in Gujarat jails.
It was well known that cases against Sikhs, arrested in Punjab were also registered in other State i.e. Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi etc. In November 1994, 42 employees of the Pilibhit district jail and PAC were found guilty of clubbing to death 6 Sikh prisoners and seriously wounding 22 others. They were TADA prisoners. Uttar Pradesh later admitted the presence of around 5000 Sikh TADA prisoners. Another press report in 1993 mentioned beating of striking prisoners held in jail at Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Nearly 500 of these prisoners belonged to Punjab and were held under TADA.
In 1994 Jagmeet Singh Brar, M.P. cited the Union Home Minister's figure, provided to the Parliament, of 14,873 prisoners held under TADA in Punjab. In July 1994, in the State Assembly, the Chief Minister countered Brar by saying that there were “only 3 to 4 held under TADA.” (Corrected by K.P. S. Gill, stating “No. 700”) but within days, on August 8, 1994, to be precise, a report was published in the Times of India which quoted National Human Rights Commission Chairman Ranganath Mishra as saying that by July, 1994, the number of TADA prisoners had risen to 46,000 in just 3 states. He mentioned 17,000 in Punjab, 19,000 in Gujarat and 10,000 in J & K.
At the rate of killings claimed daily in Punjab by the Police it was possible that Beant Singh and KPS Gill were nearer the truth about the actual number of TADA prisoners physically left with them. It is on record that on 28th August, 1993 Punjab Civil Magistracy had sent a memorandum to the Governor of Punjab saying, “… if we add up the figures of the last few years the number of innocent persons killed would run into lakhs.”
In April 1995, the National Human Rights Commission passed on to the Punjab Human Rights Commission a copy of the information on TADA prisoners which the Government of Punjab had supplied to it. The Punjab Government averred: “Since the promulgation of TADA in 1984, upto July 31, 1994, 17529 cases were registered under TADA in which 15289 persons were arrested and 4402 bailed out, 2788 persons were discharged; 7408 persons were acquitted. 399 persons are in jails.”
The government has not explained what happened to the balance 292(15289 - 14997 = 292). Nor is it very clear whether bailed out, discharged and acquitted prisoners were alive. It may be recalled that suspected militants had been approaching the Courts, not to bail them out or acquit them, as it was a common practice with the Police to re-arrest and eliminate them. In some cases bail application, on behalf of the prisoners, were moved by persons unknown to them.
It had become a standard police practice to re-arrest suspected militants acquitted by the courts or released on bail at the jail gate and that too without bothering to file fresh charges. According to a Tribune report of 5th September 1991. “Although the Police is openly resorting to the illegal arrest of released militants neither the Punjab and Haryana High Court nor the Session's Judge has power to direct the Police to stop this.” In letters to the Advisor Security, the Home Secretary and I.G. Prisons, the Police had complained that Senior Jail Officers were releasing men who had been acquitted by the courts or released on bail in such manner that the Police parties waiting at the jail gate were unable to arrest them. Eventually, the jail authorities succumbed before the police pressure.
Neither the Central government nor the state governments have disclosed the list of those, held under TADA or other Black Laws, who were bailed out, discharged or acquitted. The governments, however, admitted that those acquitted had subsequently been charged under other provisions of law. Who are these prisoners, where are they. Are they dead or alive, and if dead, how did they die? The public does not know; the courts do not know and the government does not tell. In reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on March 15, 2001 the Minister of State for Home Affairs Mr. Vidya Sagar Rao said, “The Centre does not maintain information on the number of persons detained under the TADA and other Acts in connection with the Punjab problem.”
Mr. G.S. Grewal, Advocate General Punjab immediately proceeding Operation ‘Black Thunder’, made the startling disclosure to the press (copy enclosed). “Under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) not a single known militant had been convicted in Punjab during operation Black Thunder. More than 250 militants hiding in the Golden Temple Complex were arrested and the whole scene was viewed by millions of people all over the world on television. They were booked under TADA. Within a few months, they had to be released from jails at the instance of the police because of insufficient evidence. The prosecution made the request and the court discharged them. Mr. K.P.S. Gill was confronted with this episode at a Rotary Club (mid town) meeting and he replied that the investigating agency had become corrupt. When he was asked how and why none of the persons discharged was alive, he preferred to duck the question."
Legal and illegal Detentions
A Veteran CPI leader Satpal Dang, generally supportive of the police, was constrained to aver in an article written in 1992 and included in his book “Terrorism in Punjab” published by Gain Publishing House; "The fact not widely known as yet, is that policemen have been told that they can extort as much money as they like from militants and extortionists. And many are doing this in a big way ……. it is also suspected that police officers of a particular level have been given the authority to order liquidation of anti-social elements if in their opinion he is incorrigible even though not a killer.” In our letter to the Prime Minister dated 15-01-1992 we had pointed out. “Elimination lists are said to have been prepared by the government. Fake encounters and disappearances fit into this scheme of things. Thousands of Sikh young men have disappeared since 1984.”
Cordon and Search Operation were jointly conducted by the Indian Army and the Police. Army would surround a village, kill or capture escaping villagers and hand over the dead bodies or arrested villagers to the police or para military force in Punjab. It did not disclose the number or identity of those killed or handed over to the police.
DGP Chaman Lal, who served in Punjab during this period, while delivering the 17th Jai Prakash Narayan Memorial Lecture said, “Ruthlessly conducted search and cordon operations, large scale indiscriminate arrests, unauthorised detentions in unit lines, senseless torture of mostly innocent persons, leading at times to death in custody and secret disposal of the bodies with police help became the routine feature of the working of the security forces.”
Estimated break - down of Sikh prisoners, 1993 - 94
|TADA prisoners in Punjab
|TADA prisoners outside Punjab
|Detained under other Black Laws
|In prison (Punjab)
|Under illegal detention at the 400 police stations, in
Punjab, Army and Para Force Unit lines, detention
camps and Interrogation centres within and out side
The figures of TADA Prisoners are for the period 1985 to 1995. Those arrested in other categories are for the year 1993-1994 only.
Estimated break - down of Sikh prisoners, 1984 - 95
The total number of persons taken as prisoners during the militancy period 1984 -1995 would range from 3,00,000 to 5,00,000.
In 1991 the Movement Against State Repression (MASR), People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Punjab and the Punjab Human Rights Organisaion (PHRO) wrote to the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao to call his attention to the proliferation of detention camps and interrogation centres both within and outside Punjab. No records were kept of the prisoners held in these camps and centres. They might be detained for years - or one day they might just be “Gone” with no one to ask any question.
Arrests, disappearances and deaths are three subjects that have been kept under wraps ever since 1984, whether they are related to militancy or otherwise, leading to speculation and confusion and erosion in the credibility of both the government and the judicial system. Some official and demi official figures are given below: -
Casualties and Arrests
Operation Blue Star - 1984
Killed / Wounded Killed / Wounded Arrests i Government's White paper 83 248 492 86 592
ii. Mr. Ved Marwaha (ii) - 4712 - 10000
iii Lt. Gen. Hoon 333 - 717 -
iv Rajiv Gandhi 700 - - - -
i) During Operation Blue Star against 83 soldiers killed number of wounded was 248, whereas against 492 Sikhs killed, the number of wounded was only 86. This suggests custodial killings of prisoners and is corroborated by some dead bodies of pilgrims found in Parikarma (Golden Temple Corridor) with their hands tied behind their back.
ii) Ved Marwah was Special Secretary, Ministry of Home, and an analyst on internal security issues. In his book 'Uncivil Wars' published by Harper Collins, he estimated soldier's causalities at 30% in a division level attack.
iii) Lt. Genl. P.N. Hoon in his book ‘Unmasking Secrets of Turbulances’ Manas Publications. Genl. Hoon was then in command of a nearby Corp. His officer Brig. A.K. Dewan had played a key role in this operation.
iv) Rajiv Gandhi quoted by Khushwant Singh and Kuldeep Nayar in their book 'Tragedy of Punjab'.
Militancy Related Action - 1984 to 1995
Killed Arrests Army & Police Civilians Punjab Government 3469 21531 -
Sr. Supreme Court
Before NHRC - 660281 -
States Magistracy - 2000002 -
Election Manifesto 1992 - 410973 -
Akali Dal - 145000 -
(These figures do not include Sikh militants killed or arrested in the adjoining States of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh etc.)
1. Deposing before the NHRC while defending the police officers in 1995 Sr. Supreme Court Lawyer Ramaswamy pleaded “around 55,000 civilians fell victim besides 1700 police personnel.” To this may be added the figure of 1700 army-men and 7628 militants.
2. Memorandum submitted by the States Magistracy to the Governor Punjab dated 28/8/1993.
3. The 1992 Punjab Congress Party's election manifesto gave a figure of 30,000 innocent people killed. To this may be added 1,769 policemen, 1,700 solders and 7,628 militants, making a total of 41,097. In 1992 Congress was in power, both at the Centre and the State and had excess to official records.
The Indian Express dated 15 October, 1984 and some other National English papers had placed the figures of disappearances of Sikh boys from district Gurdaspur alone at about 8000 during operation Wood Rose. Punjabi papers gave much higher figures. Had they fled to Pakistan, were they killed or arrested will never be known as the government blocked enquiry ? Even the names and the number of those held at army detention centres were not disclosed.
The number of people missing in Punjab by 1994 had climbed to between 40000 to 60000. This was the estimate of responsible newspapers like The Hindustan Times, The Pioneer and The Asian Age. Now in retrospect, considering that a very large number of prisoners may not be accounted for, the number of disappearances would be substantially higher.
Disposal of Bodies
Two main methods adopted for disposal of the dead bodies by the security forces were:-
1. Bodies cremated as unidentified.
2. Bodies thrown in canals and rivers.
Bodies Cremated as unidentified
i.) The modus operandi of killing a suspected militant in custody or to dispose his body was to carry a militant to a far off district, shoot him and declare him as unidentified militant killed in encounter. In the year 1991 in Bhatinda district out of 151 militants killed, 87 were declared unidentified (information provided by the government in response to a starred question in the State Assembly).
ii.) Out of 2097 unidentified bodies cremated in Amritsar District at the municipal crematoria of Patti, Tarn Taran and Durgyana(Amritsar) in 1992. 585 bodies were later identified and 247 partially identified by C.B.I. under an enquiry report entrusted to it by the Supreme Court.
iii.) DGP Mr. K.P.S. Gill had full knowledge of bodies cremated as unidentified at these crematoria. They were cremated in the pursuance of his orders. In the ‘Sunday’ magazine of 4th May, 1992 he admits, “We did a study. Many of them were Bangladeshis sneaking into Pakistan killed by their forces or ours. If you still have unidentified bodies that would be of terrorists that we did not return to their families because of the ban we had imposed then on Bhog Ceremony's.” Bodies identified by C.B.I. were not of migrant labour. Who gave Gill the right to deny bodies to the next of kin or by-pass postmortem requirements ?
Bodies Thrown in Canals and Rivers
i. The other method adopted was to kill a person and throw the body in a canal or river. At the time of 1988 floods, while the government’s figure of deaths by drowning was only 700, Pakistan mentioned sighting 1700 bodies that had floated down the river into Pakistan. Even Rajasthan Chief Secretary had sent a spurt of telegram during the militancy period to his counter part in Punjab protesting against a big increase in the number of bodies floating down stream into Rajasthan through Punjab canals.
ii. In 1993 at the urging of MASR, two correspondents of National English News Papers of repute: The Pioneer and The Indian Telegraph visited two distributaries of Sirhind canal and reported that within a distance of 19 Kms, 19 bodies were found in the canal bed at the time of the canal closer. They were of Sikh boys and some had hands tied behind their back. Pioneer discovered that there was a police interrogation centre located a few kilometers up stream of these distributaries.
iii. Punjab has roughly a network of 5000 kilometers of canal system apart from its rivers. One can imagine the number of bodies that may have been disposed of in this manner. The infamous diabolical boast of Late Ajit Singh Sandhu, SSP Ropar and Amritsar Districts respectively is itself revealing: “I never let the fish in the Hussainiwala barrage starve.”
Custodial Killings - Official Authorisation
Senior Superintendent of Police Amritsar, Izhar Alam, at a press conference held at Patti on October 1, 1987 (reported in The Tribune) admitted that “terrorists, who had committed five or more murders were killed by the police after they were caught.” Elaborating on this he said that “the police had to resort to killing terrorists because there was remote possibility of their being punished by law due to lack of evidence.” Mr. Alam then assured the press that “those terrorists with four or less were not killed in fake encounters.” Essentially Azhar Alam was saying that even a man against whom no solid evidence of wrongdoing was found, could be killed ….. simply because the police have no evidence.
In his book Tryst with Terror, Ajanta Publishers, V.N. Narayanan, Chief Editor of the Hindustan Times, quotes a police officer “The judicial process is dead. We kill 70 percent of the terrorists we catch because anyone brought before the court is promptly bailed out. Bail is the rule, jail is the exception.”
Narayanan further quotes a private conversation with K.P.S. Gill in this book.
“Sometime ago two terrorists came out of the Temple and walked into the street. The CRPF men asked their superiors what they should do in such cases. It came to me, I said ‘shoot them.’ It is not just a case of what you can do, you are obliged to shoot them. Carrying an AK47 rifle is a grave offense. The CRPF was clear.’ (Gill was at that time Chief of the CRPF).” According to Punjab police records of confiscated weapons, as per the India Today of September 24, 1997, 2334 AKS rifles were missing from police custody. They were given to favourite politicians, colleagues, in and outside the State, and supportive criminals. Gill also offered it to his favourite actress, Sridevi. Gill was the law interpreter.
On August, 30, 1998, the DGP Police K.P.S. Gill put up "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters that specifically identified 53 people with addresses, against whom awards varying between Rs. 25,000 and Rupees 1 lakh were declared. It read: “Reward for apprehension/liquidation of wanted terrorists/extremists as mentioned against the name are hereby sanctioned.” 12 persons on the wanted list were liquidated before the list was withdrawn. Case was filed in the Supreme Court but it was allowed to be withdrawn when the Solicitor General pleaded “The National Front Government has nothing to do with the earlier circular - this is a very sensitive issue so I request you to withdraw the petition in national interest.” The list was withdrawn without ascertaining how national interest was involved or what happened to the 12 persons missing from the list.
Hindustan Times published a report on May 25, 1995 quoting Senior Officers as saying, “About the policy of ‘bullet for bullet’, it was in the full knowledge of the political high ups that most of the terrorists were already in police custody and they were killed in contrived encounters.”
Police Chief Mr. K.P.S. Gill was compelled to tell the press on 8th December, 1991 :
Human Rights become secondary in conditions when men are more concerned about their own safety and the safety of their property. In the present situation Human Rights take a back seat. No civil servant could have made such a statement unless he had authorization from above. Punjab was under President's Rule & the finger squarely points to the then Home Minister and the Prime Minister.
On March 2,1993 the Punjab Chief Minister admitted six custodial deaths but refused compensation to the next of kin on the ground that “Death at the hands of extremists could not be equated with those in police custody.”
Another document came to light, which showed that the Punjab Police had assumed power to liquidate people long before the infamous “Dead of Alive” circular of August 30, 1989. On August 31, 1987 the Punjab DGP K.P.S. Gill wrote to the CRPF Directorate praising five CRPF men who had “…. done exceptionally well in nabbing and liquidating some of the notorious terrorists”, and asking for their transfer to the Hoshiarpur district so that "their services could be utilised appropriately here.”
That these and similar extrajudicial killings were within the knowledge of the Central government, was reflected in the letter dated December 30, 1991 addressed by Mr. V.G. Vaidya, Special Director (later promoted Director IB) to Punjab DGP K.P.S. Gill (“They (the district officials) should refrain from even implicitly hinting that they indulge, connive or approve of anything which is in violation of the law of the land. Their professional compulsions in executive action should not get reflected in their public utterances.” India Today 5th October,1992)
When the turn around came in 1995 and the Supreme Court judgements censoring and even jailing police officers started poring in, the police panicked and the juniors officers started pointing the fingers at their seniors.
On April 28, 1995, the Indian Express reported that a group of Senior Police Officers including I.G. (Border) D.R. Bhatti, three DIGs and atleast 16 districts SSPs met the Punjab Chief Minister to ask him to approach the Prime Minister with a request that Police should “not be victimised for certain executive actions (a euphemism for non-judicial killings)”. They pointed out that what they had done had been sanctioned at the highest level and had succeeded in restoring normalcy to the state. They said the Court verdicts were demoralizing for the police. The Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana met the Prime Minister a few days later and pleaded immunity for the Policemen. Was this stage-managed ?
A frightened, K.P.S. Gill also pointed his finger upward. In an open letter to the Prime Minister published in The Tribune of June 1, 1997 Gill pleaded, “the real question is whether a strategy of State terrorism was adopted by the police; and the answer is unequivocally in the negative.” Was the strategy then adopted at a higher level and simply passed on to the police ? CPI Leader Satpal Dang supported Gill the same day. In dateline: Tarn Taran (Pioneer, June 1, 1997) Azaz Ashraf and Binder quoted Satpal Dang as saying, "the clearance for fake encounters could have only been given by political leaders."
That the highest authority wanted to put a lid on investigation on these killings and disappearances is evident from the one-year limitation period placed on the National Human Rights Commission in which a case could be brought to its notice.
Legal aid has been provided to the indicted police officers which enables them to hire costliest lawyers in the country. This money is provided both officially and unofficially from unaudited accounts called secret funds. The impoverished kin of the victims are barely able to hire, if at all, low priced sub division level lawyers with little chance of success, when pitted against the pricey lawyers of the country. This was pointed out to the Prime Minister by us vide our letter of June 3, 1997. (Letter enclosed).
Here is what Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta has to say in an article, "Who is to blame for Punjab's past ? Policing the politician" (Indian Express, August, 1996)
“It is easy to say now that the police in Punjab operated pretty much by themselves, killing, looting and burning at will. But then who provided K.P.S. Gill and a select band of the most trusted Intelligence Bureau ‘aces’ with suitcases full of unaudited cash to buy militant loyalties, to build a whole army of cats (militants bought over and used to identify and exterminate others).”
“Who authorized counter-kidnappings of militant leaders’ relatives ? Who cleared lists of militants to be 'liquidated at sight ?” Which internal security minister personally pushed for the import of the universally condemned 'truth serum' to be administered to captured militants. Finally, if the Supreme Court were to discover this, who would go to jail - the minister, or the poor BSF doctor, who was forced to inject it after other doctors threw the Hippocratic oath in North Block's face. The Punjab crisis saw five Prime Ministers and as many internal security ministers. Each one knew precisely what was going on. Some routinely boasted of how ruthlessly they were putting the rebellion down. Why are they hiding now ? Why are they not charged with genocide ?”
Punjab Government's figure of those killed in the State during the Sikh separatist movement (1983 to 1995) was 25,000. But again in 1995, State's lawyers, while pleading before the NHRC, on behalf of the indicted police officers, claimed that 55,000 civilians were killed by the militants during this period, apart from 3,469 security personal and 7,628 militants i.e. a total of 66,097! There is a difference in the two figures provided by the State of 41,097. These were unrecorded deaths and in the absence of any encounter reports, these are assumed to be custodial killings. With 41,097 as the bottom line, the upper number of custodial deaths, may well be over 2,00,000 as computed by the State's Magistracy.
MASR calls upon both the Punjab and the Central governments to provide the names, addresses, dates of arrest, dates & places of release, wherever applicable, of all prisoners held under legal or illegal detention for Sikh militancy related offences in Punjab and other States in public interest and in compliance to the laws of the country.