15th June 1997


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Playing politics with civilians

Both the LTTE and Government troops are
to blame for civilian casualties, an NGO
spokesman active in the north and east
said. Wishing to remain anonymous he
said heavy shelling and artillery fire from
both sides has caused casualties that are
“hushed up” for political reasons.
By Frederica Jansz

Deputy Defence Minis ter Anuruddha Ratwatte claims some 60 civilians have been killed in the latest LTTE attack at Thandikulam, Nochchimodai area last week.

General Ratwatte has condemned the rebel attack on defenceless men, women and children. Independent sources, however, could not confirm where exactly this civilian population was, as the attack was targeted in an area which is widely known as no-man’s land.

Social workers active in the north however say a significant number of civilians had congregated west of Thandikulam on either side of the road where a few villages had sprung up. At the time of the attack some 1,200 civilians had been crossing over from Thandikulam to Vavuniya and could not return to their homes. The GA for Vavuniya later housed some of those who escaped injury at schools and welfare centres. Independent reports from the north place the civilian death toll after Tuesday’s attack at five. But some reports said nearly 40 civilians were injured as a result of the assault.

ICRC Deputy Chief Marco Weil says it is difficult to ascertain the exact casualties as contradictory reports keep coming in and the situation with regard to civilians remains unclear. It is believed that more dead could be lying in the area of Thandikulam though relief workers have been unable to reach the dead and dying.

Human rights activists claim some 19 civilians were injured of whom five later died when government troops allegedly shelled Mankulam on Sunday.

Both the LTTE and Government troops are to blame for civilian casualties, an NGO spokesman active in the north and east said. Wishing to remain anonymous he said heavy shelling and artillery fire from both sides has caused casualties that are “hushed up” for political reasons. Yet, civilians caught in cross-fire in times of war are a hazard any fighting force need to deal with. Both the Government and the LTTE constantly reiterate their pledge to safeguard human life but fall short of this promise, through no apparent fault of their own, says a retired military spokesman. “These are the obvious hazards of war,” he said.

Government officials, meanwhile, claim thousands of refugees continue to flee the Wanni region to government controlled territory.

NGOs operating in the north assert large numbers of civilians are moving within the Wanni. Some 30,000 newly displaced persons are desperately seeking solace within the Wanni, they said and a major movement of displaced persons has been observed. The LTTE, independent sources say, does not appear to be forcing people to stay in rebel territory, as a result some 60,000 persons moved out of the Wanni into Jaffna and other areas from October ’96 to March ’97.

Since March this year the influx of displaced persons into government held territory remains “a mere trickle”, independent sources say, adding however the number of newly displaced persons in the Wanni grows at an alarming rate. People attempting to enter Mannar from the uncleared areas are allowed through only on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Not more than 750 persons are allowed through each day, while entry into Madhu is also restricted for security reasons.

Statistics released by the Government Agent Vavuniya say, only about one third of the persons displaced are housed in welfare centres while the government has taken all steps to supply meals and dry rations to all the displaced people irrespective of the fact they are residing in welfare centres or not. However social workers in the north say there has been a 57% cut on the supply of dry rations to newly displaced persons in the north. The Government in May this year said a large part of the dry rations to the north was falling into the “wrong hands” and so initiated the food withdrawal.

A Government target of sending 50 lorries a day with foodstuff cannot be met due to various logistical and other problems, workers in the north said. The ICRC, meanwhile, has been instrumental in providing bedding and temporary roofing material so that shelters can be set up for the newly displaced in the Wanni.

NGO workers say the humanitarian situation in the north is reaching desperate levels as systems are fast being eroded, while both parties to the conflict play politics with the issue. The recent 57% cut on dry rations to uncleared areas could be due to the fact that a “squeeze is on to flush out civilians from the jungles of Wanni,” says a social worker.

It is not clear if the thousands displaced in the Wanni are newly displaced or those who were already displaced. Social workers say it becomes increasingly difficult to assess and gather accurate statistics on the level of displaced as access to uncleared areas even for NGOs remains restricted.

However with or without the permission of the LTTE, people even in small numbers are fleeing rebel ground and according to sources a few hundred have already crossed over to India.

Former High Commissioner for India, Bernard Tillekeratne, said the question of so many Indian boats encroaching on Sri Lankan waters will always lend rise to a situation whereby these boats will possibly carry contraband and human cargo.

Mr. Tillekeratne says Sri Lanka should “carry India,” along with any negotiated solution to settle the bloody ethnic conflict which continues to claim hundreds of lives. While India continues to insist it will not meddle with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka feel it should take notice of the crisis situation. This may be why Sri Lanka’s Tamil refugees are being pushed across the Palk Straits to South India.

Mr. Tillekeratne says it is important in any future resolution of the ethnic conflict, that Sri Lanka should not ignore the Indian factor. With the kind of close proximity Sri Lanka shares with India it is important, Mr. Tillekeratne asserted that at the very least South India be taken into account for any resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

The Sunday Times goes interactive

As information technology revolutionises mass media, The Sunday Times has taken measures to grab the oppoortunities and advantages it offers for the benefit of its readers.

As we celebrate our 10th anniversay this year, our Internet edition, which is the most popular on-line Sri Lankan newspaper, will launch the interactive section soon

The Sunday Times on-line Interactive will allow you to talk to our journalists, columnists and photographers as it will, we believe, help you clear doubts, ask questions and seek more details. As you know, space does not permit us to publish all what we have.

For instance, our Situation Report may tackle Operation Jaya Sikurui but it may not contain some less important incidents that took place during that week somewhere else on the war front. So the interactive column is the ideal means through which you can get and share information, recommend improvements and help us expose corruption in society and wheeler dealers.

Readers could interact with us through letters, faxes or on e-mail.

We also plan to introduce politicians and newsmakers in our on-line interactive column so that readers could ask questions or take them to task.

Await more details soon!

Haunted by ghost of counter-terror: a Sri Lanka parallel

By Mudliyar

Ajit Singh Sandhu, Senior Superintendent of Police of the State of Punjab, its most decorated officer, who had on more than one occasion been awarded the Indian President’s medal for gallantry, and had been awarded police honours on many occasions for counter terrorist activities, committed suicide, by placing himself before an oncoming train. (see story on the opposite page). His mutilated body was later picked up by the police. He left a suicide note “Death is better than ongoing humiliation”. He was hounded by human rights activists who claimed that he committed excesses in trying to liberate Punjab from the deadly clutches of terrorists.

In the dark days of terror, where the law of the kangaroos ruled the roost, the Sikh separatist terrorists in Punjab which is the richest state in India waged a war for an independent sovereign state called Khalistan. The Sikh terrorists, trained in foreign climes in terror tactics, were able to unleash a reign of terror unknown to the Sikhs of Punjab. Anyone even remotely opposing this movement was a traitor. He had to be killed, however unimportant or inconsequential his opposition was for the movement. During their sway, which lasted more than 10 years, the Sikh separatists killed some 25,000 civilians, raped and molested countless numbers of women and maimed and injured permanently more than 50,000 civilians.

The situation was similar to the situation that existed in Sri Lanka between 1989 and 1993 which most people now remember as the period when the government in power killed many young innocent youths. The tyre pyre was a common sight and the politicians frequently through the media reminded the people of the regimented horror perpetrated on the people of this country. The Police officers and officers in the Army were constantly hauled before commissions and courts for the alleged atrocities they were said to have committed. To buttress the media campaign unleashed by the government there were the Sinhala tabloids which gave the people graphic descriptions of abduction and the disappearances of youth.

When the regular police in Punjab failed to counter the terrorist onslaught, the politicians, including the representatives of the central government were wilting under the pressure of the terror campaign. The politicians were assassinated at will. The normal methods adopted by the local police were found to be wanting. The police were unable to understand or counter the activism of the separatists. Others were made to believe the highest act of patriotism was to support the movement for a separate state.

The Sikhs were warriors, the British used their proclivity for war and gave them important positions in the British Army. The ordinary Indian policeman or soldier was quite incapable of fighting them.

The politicians and members of the forces decided to recruit the most trusted and brave men into a unit to counter the terror. It was decided that the state must be rid of terrorists, and the democratic government should be installed and everything must be done to overpower the menace of terrorism at what ever cost and by what ever means. So to combat this virulent brand of terrorism, the Punjab government in consultation with the central government appointed the counter subversive unit.

Mr. Sandhu was one of its Senior Superintendents. His name spelt terror among the terrorists. The Counter Terrorist Agency was very clear that they had a job to do, which they did when every other organ of the state, particularly the judiciary, chose to look the other way. The question often posed by the police was “How many terrorists did they convict,” and lamented that the judges used to go on leave when they went to seek a remand.”

In Punjab another very senior officer told the weekly magazine Week, that a sessions judge whose relative had been murdered by terrorists; was himself trying the case. He told the relatives that he could not help them directly, but wrote a DO (despatch order) to the SSP to take care of the matter. “We killed the terrorist. The DO is still in our files. The judge is in our service. So is the police officer,” said a police officer.

When asked a police officer what was their success story in curbing or completely wiping out terror, the answer was simple. We killed them. About 75 percent of the encounters where the terrorist got killed were genuine, but there were other instances where there was a fake encounter. We conducted raids and instead of killing terrorists immediately, we killed them a couple of hours later after interrogating them. The similarity or the dissimilarity of the situation in Punjab and Sri Lanka would be quite evident to any discerning reader.

After ten years at the helm of anti-terrorist activity, India proudly boasted that the State of Punjab was the only place on earth that wiped out terrorism completely. They forgot that long before they did it Sri Lankan armed forces and the police wiped out the southern terrorism.

After the annihilation of the terrorists, and, the return of normalcy to Punjab, the human rights pundits got activated and there were petition after petition to the Supreme Court. In Punjab there was a widespread feeling among even ordinary citizens that those who are championing human rights had become a money spinning industry. The human rights lawyers claimed that they appeared for the petitioners free, and allegedly were paid by foreign funded NGOs who in the guise of protecting the freedoms of the individual, were actually promoting the destabilisation of the State of Punjab.

The wheel of fortune for the police officers who were heroes in the eyes of the public turned, and they became the villains of human rights activists. The Week magazine claims that the system and the Indian Judicial system made zeroes of heroes. The few activists soon forgot that if not for these brave officers, there would not have been a state of Punjab as a partner in the union of India. It would have been a distinct entity posing a threat to Mother India, and the democratic secular traditions would have evaporated into thin air.

The question that looms large with these continuous prosecutions of officers who fought to re-establish democracy for the people and the population, was what was the alternative available for them. Are the normal laws of the country applied to a bunch of terror mongers who flouted all the laws of land. Their philosophy was that political power flows from the barrel of a gun. The suicide of the patriot Sandhu has created such an uproar in India and specially in the sate of Punjab, that even the respected Supreme Court has been subjected to much criticism.

The Advocate General Grewal has favoured special laws to deal with cases pertaining to the era in which terrorism was the order of the day. “If something happens in 1985 they should not be weighed in the scale of 1997. We need a cut off date and there should be some protection to the Police. Large scale prosecution of police officers will be as counter productive as the large scale excesses committed by them. If excesses led to huge recruitment in the militant ranks a fear physic will deprive them of initiative and result lawlessness”.

A Senior Police Officer from Punjab Police also had to make this comment, “When we were in the thick of the war with terrorists, any number of us gave our names in connection with encounters. Even if I was two kilometres away my name figured in that case. We thought we would get medals, but what we have got is penal postings, suspension orders, jail terms, charge sheets and countless cases before a hostile judiciary.

This account of what is happening in Punjab is very similar to the Sri Lankan situation. When we speak of the reign of terror, what comes to our mind are the tyre pyres, and bodies of human beings killed and thrown on roads for the public to see. We have completely forgotten or ignored the reign of terror perpetrated on the entire population by the terrorists. The Northern terrorism has taken such a turn that it has become an internecine war, where the LTTE after having destroyed all opposition, is fighting for a separate state.

In this combat, all Tamil leaders who even remotely opposed the fascist dictatorship of Prabhakaran, were eliminated. A distorted picture of violation of human rights by the forces is given wide publicity in the West. The massacring of Sinhala villagers by the terrorists are videoed by the terrorists, and are shown abroad as massacres done by the Southern forces. In this quagmire there are a large number of human rights activists who are in the hierarchy of the LTTE carrying out a relentless struggle against the Government. Any violation by the Sri Lankan forces is blown out of proportion. Fantastic stories are manufactured and planted in the media. Infiltration by the terrorists is so great that they could keep without being detected their own suicidal bomber in the President’s House.

The foremost terrorist propagandist who worked overtime with the BBC in expounding the cause of the LTTE is brought to Sri Lanka and is made the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation. Not even the reports of the National Intelligence would circumvent the position he held until he was removed. To this gang, leading intellectuals who have very impressive credentials are banded together to carry out the propaganda machine. The LTTE has its agents with leading media people in the West. It also has contacts with politicians in the USA.

For the Government of the USA to realise with whom it is dealing, it had to wait till terrorism came to its door step. With all the money, sophistication and scientific knowledge, top investigators of the USA have failed to find the cause, or who was behind the Boeing 707 that crashed near Manhattan.

In the South, the DJV, held the entire country to ransom by having a government of their own. The shops closed, streets closed, cities closed, and thereafter the entire country ws paralysed on a chit issued by the dreaded DJV. Thousands of supporters of the Government were killed ruthlessly.

No one dared to give them a decent burial. Conditions were imposed on the manner in which “the traitor” was to be buried. The police officers paled into insignificance, the courts were burnt and others were closed. Letters were issued to all and sundry threatening them with death. Thousands were killed without any rhyme or reason.

When the elections were nearing it was well known that the JVP was against the holding of elections. The JVP put up a proposal that the elections to be free and fair, it must be conducted under a temporary Government, under the second most senior Judge of the Supreme Court, who happened to be Justice Raja Wanasundara. Though there was absolutely no provision in the Constitution to hand over the reigns of power to the Supreme Court to conduct the Elections, a large number of intellectuals, professionals and others who had conduits to foreign funding and the NGOs placed large advertisements in the local papers justifying the claims of the JVP. It is impossible to believe that such a collection of intelligent people would lend their support to such a theory which is completely against the Constitution. Like in the North, in the South they became hostages of the terrorist movement. Important leaders who were a threat to the JVP were killed.

When Vijaya Kumaratunga was killed, the JVP issued a statement accepting the killing of Vijaya Kumaratunga. This statement was never denied till to date. But at that time no one except a few courageous members of the SLMP were prepared to condemn such a brutal act. The human rights activists the NGOs, and other organisations did not dare to issue a statement condemning the statement issued by the JVP for taking the responsibility. The silence was so deafening that they even supported the killing for two reasons. One, Vijaya went to Jaffna and pointed a gun given by the terrorist at a dummy of a Sinhala soldier, two, that Vijaya Kumaratunga came over the national television and supported the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord.

There were protests all over the country when the Government or the Forces killed prominent members of the JVP, but not even a murmur when the JVP and DJV openly carried their vendetta against the traditional left. A large number of left leaders had to have extraordinary protection and security to safeguard them.

One of the most vociferous and prominent members of the present Government who is also a lawyer, went about in a van which was covered with armour plates, and he virtually slept in a box when moving from place to place. The box was made from armoured plates preventing even a rocket from piercing it.

The analogy is so similar to what happened in Punjab. All those members of the Armed Forces who won awards of gallantry for fighting the terrorists are now at the receiving end. They are hounded by the Government charging them for various offences they had committed.

Every day we hear on the national TV and the press about the torture camp that is supposed to have existed at Batalanda. A commission is now inquiring to find out whether such a camp existed, but we have conveniently forgotten that during the reign of terror unleashed by the terrorists the entire country was a torture camp though it was not confined to the four walls of a particular house. Millions of citizens got death threats and letters from the JVP/DJV. They were living in fear. Either they left their places of abode or slept under the beds, virtually dying every second that they lived. Death loomed large everywhere. The only crime they had committed was that they were either supporters of a particular party or had uttered something which would have hurt the feelings of the JVP.

Posters and banners appeared in every nook and corner of the country confessing and admitting their mistakes and requesting the JVP to pardon them. The country was saved from this terror due to one fatal mistake the JVP made. Till then their strategy was perfect, they were not confronting the Police or the Armed Forces. When posters appeared right round the country some police officers sympathised with the JVP and helped them to paste posters when the curfew was on. The JVP fought a Government ruling for number of years.

In any government ruling for a number of years one could always find mistakes and misuse of power. There were allegations of corruption against MPs and officials. The propaganda unleashed by the JVP and pamphlets issued by it of misdeeds of the Government were generally acceptable to the people.

The police officers remained silent and did not investigate when the JVP robbed, killed and looted. The Indian Peace Keeping Force was an affront to the independence of the country. According to the propaganda of the JVP, the Government was trying to give one third of the land area and two thirds of the coastal belt to the LTTE. The Police remained noncommittal, except a few officers who were beholden to the Government in power. Like all terrorist movements, the JVP was bound to make mistakes in its strategy. It decreed that all members of the Armed Forces and the Police should resign from employment or members of their families would be killed. This happened immediately after the JVP threw a bomb at the Kataragama Esala Perahera.

We are still fighting the war in the North. We have been able to crush the terrorism in the South, largely due to the work of the Police and the Armed Forces. Even in Punjab there were serious allegations of abuse of power, killing innocent people for graft and taking contracts to kill on behalf of political parties which have to be condemned by all right thinking people.

But before we condemn them we must go back to the time to the period of terror and horror, where we were on the throes of Pol Potists taking over the command of the country. Pol Pot did not have any compromise formula of his fundamental Marxist theories. In the killing fields of Kampuchia, nearly two million people died.

If the Armed Forces were not successful in crushing the insurrection, the insurgents would have killed an equal number of people like in Kampuchia. Only a foreign intervention would have saved this country. When we think of excesses we must not forget that the present freedom we enjoy had come to us by the heroic struggle of our Armed Forces of liberating us from a veritable hell hole wherein all freedoms would have been crushed by a Pol Potist fascist regime.

In the near future if our Armed Forces tame the LTTE terrorists, it would not be improbable to imagine that a large number of cases filed in courts would be those who claim that the Armed Forces have committed excesses in the North. These contentions may be true or may be false. But the question that every one must not forget, is whether the normal laws of the country would be correctly applied to extraordinary situations that prevailed in the North. Very soon everyone will forget that there was a terrorist movement called the LTTE.

Making zeroes out of heroes

Police challenge the ugly side of human rights

By Vijaya Pushkarna

“The ISI didn’t scare us, the bullets and bombs of terrorists didn’t frighten us. But the champions of human rights have demoralised us. They are killing us. Sandhu has gone, we don’t know whose turn will be next.” That was how a police officer, who has survived seven attempts on his life, summed up his feelings a day after Sandhu’s body was cremated.

This surrender speech came after an angry outburst at the judicial system that is widely believed to have made zeroes of heroes who fought terrorists in the only place on earth where they have been wiped out: the fields of Punjab.

Virtually all the officers of the Punjab Police feel similarly affronted — angry as much with the lawyers-turned-human rights activists as with judges who announce compensations without investigation or inquiry.

Their anger is over the manner in which the judges are applying laws of normal times in dealing with cases that occurred in abnormal times, when every other organ of the state had collapsed in Punjab.

The courts have admitted thousands of petitions alleging police excesses and want the police to produce witnesses. An impossible task, said the then Director-General of Police K.P.S. Gill.

“I have gone to places where encounters had been held minutes earlier but there was no way one could prove the fact of an encounter having taken place,” said Gill. “It was impossible to find witnesses, such was the fear. Now after ten or twelve years, where do you go for witnesses?” He recalled how, despite then Governor Nirmal Mukherjee’s wishes, magistrates found excuses not to accompany police parties during operations.

Several police officers felt that this impossible requirement — of producing witnesses — largely contributed to their being prejudged. Said one of them: “When a father was killed, the mother or son, who had seen it, would say they had gone out and had no idea of what had happened. Most of the FIRs have been lodged by our own men, saying, ‘I have been told by an informer...’.”

Another officer revealed that they had actually owned up many killings they had not committed. He narrated the example of a woman, whose security they are still committed to, who had been forced to shelter a terrorist for one night. “He returned the next night with two friends and raped her young daughter-in-law; her son had gone out for a few days.

“The old woman was helpless as the terrorists returned night after night. Finally, one day she met a constable she knew and got a gun from him. The police also kept a watch on the house. When a terrorist visited her house next, she barged into her daughter-in-law’s room as planned and shot him from point-blank range. She then handed over the gun to the police and asked them to do whatever they felt like doing.

“In the records we changed the name of the place and showed the killing as an encounter. So far no petition has come up in that case. But when it does, do you think I can hand over that old lady (she is now in her 60s) as a witness? We will still stand by our encounter story,” he asserted.

“Do we all look like butchers to you?” asked an angry officer. “Most of us are very highly educated and belong to excellent families. Many don’t even belong to Punjab.”

To those who believed that the policemen indulged in excesses to fleece the public, he asked: “If I tell someone that I will give him Rs. 10 lakh to go and face the bullet or bombs, will he do it?” Terrorists, he said, would kill an innocent civilian and place a bomb under the body so that the policemen who go to recover it get blown off. Cremation grounds too were heavily mined for the same reason.

Yet another officer pointed out that if the idea was just to go on a killing spree against civilians, the Punjab Police would not have lost 1,700 men and over 2,000 members of their families. “About 75 per cent of the encounters were genuine, that is why our men too have got killed.”

“What was a fake encounter? We conducted raids and instead of killing the terrorists immediately we killed them a couple of hours later, after interrogating them,” said one officer. “Our job was to get their weapons and know the whereabouts of other terrorists.” He dared the human rights groups to name just four instances when innocent people were deliberately killed by the police.

The Police were very clear that they had a job to do, which they did when every other organ of the state, particularly the judiciary, chose to look the other way. “How many terrorists did the courts convict? Judges used to go on leave when we went to seek remand,” recalled an SSP.

According to a district police chief, most often the judges would say, “Why do you bring them to us, take care of them yourselves.” “At that time “take care”, “sort out”, etc., meant only one thing: liquidate them,” he said.

Many are bitter over the changed behaviour of the judges because the freedom of the judiciary was restored only with the return of peace made possible by the security forces.

“Are there no human rights for those who are not terrorists?” asked an officer. The officers have a string of cases to substantiate their charge that the judiciary has been biased and is painting them the villains of the piece.

There is a widespread feeling, even beyond the police force, that championing human rights and claiming compensation had become a money-spinning industry. The ‘human rights’ lawyers claim to fight the case free of charge, but allegedly keep back a substantial part of the compensation as fees.

The police have support from none other than Gurdarshan Singh Grewal, Advocate-General of Punjab, who, however, does not see the police officers as saints.

Grewal was perhaps the only human rights activist till he became advocate-general in November 1986. He recalled that there would be four or five cases of police excesses then, and judges did not give much relief as the general psyche was against militancy; judges too used to get threats from militants.

“A few years down the line there were four or five human rights activists. Now there are scores of them. There are reports that human rights activists are going to the villages and asking people if they have cases. They are promising compensation for a cut, according to these reports,” said Grewal.

The advocate-general feels that the activists’ numbers have increased out of proportion because the courts are granting compensation on very little material without trial, and without proof of killing. “The stage of trial proper has not come, but the High Court is granting compensation on suspicion because the police are not able to explain. That is true of about 1,000 cases.”

Many Police officers felt that by simply granting compensation without trial the Supreme Court was prejudging the case and influencing the lower courts to give a guilty verdict against the officers. “Sandhu was denied a fair trial,” said a colleague of the late SSP. “Can the High Court be blamed for following in the steps of the Supreme Court?”

Many of them felt that retired Justice Kuldip Singh had particularly gone out of his way to harass them, and cited his handling of the Khalra case.

It pertains to the alleged taking away of Akali Dal human rights wing leader Jaswant Singh Khalra, who remains untraced by the Tarn Taran police. The CBI, which investigated the case on the direction of the Supreme Court, challaned nine police personnel for direct involvement as well as conspiracy.

Some of those challaned told the CBI that when Khalra disappeared, they had been busy with raids on an opium smuggler. Their alibi was the conviction after trial of the opium smuggler by the sessions court concerned.

The CBI dubbed the case fabricated and assailed the verdict. Rather than pull up the CBI for contempt of court Justice Kuldip Singh directed the superintendent of the jail where the opium smuggler was being kept, to appeal against the conviction. Even lawyers were aghast at the retired judge’s attitude.

Said Chandigarh-based lawyer and legal columnist Anupam Gupta: The CBl’s apprisal of the opium case verdict amounts to a blatant interference in the judicial process. To allow the CBI to sit in judgment over concluded trials, in which it had no role to play, will set a very dangerous precedent. The only authority competent to judge the verdict is the court. By acting upon the CBI report as it did, the Supreme Court raised a big question mark over the way in which it handled the Khalra case, and its reasons for doing so.”

“Justice Kuldip Singh’s handling of the Khalra case, the mass cremations case and other human rights cases,” said Gupta, “gives the impression that he was crusading against the Punjab Police.”

Sandhu was on long leave in connection with his daughter’s wedding and another officer, roped in as conspirator, was trekking in the Himalayas when Khalra disappeared. But they were challaned nevertheless.

The CBI came in for flak from the officers for “hardly ever conducting an impartial inquiry”. Above all their grievance is with CBI Director Joginder Singh. He was IG, CRPF, Punjab, from 1988-90, “and every act of ours has his knowledge, blessings, directions and orders. Today the CBI is on a persecution spree,” commented one officer.

They questioned the sense of fairness of the court, too. “A few days after Sandhu was attacked in jail the court granted protection to his assailant. Has anyone spoken against it?” asked one officer. He pointed out that when police nabbed the five accused in the bomb explosion that killed Beant Singh, the lawyers did not take much time to band together to protect them. “No one volunteered to fight for Beant Singh and the 18 others who were killed.”

“The judges often scare away our lawyers,” the officer said and alleged that defending human rights had become a lucrative business with the legal profession. According to him, the witnesses cited in many petitions are fake. The police have written to the courts pointing it out, but have not got any reply so far.

The government’s ‘support’ to these police officers has been limited to shelling out the money for their litigation, till they are prosecuted. Thereafter if the officers are exonerated they will be reimbursed the cost of litigation. But the support the officers are seeking is exactly what Gill has spoken about: to treat the charges against the police as a residual problem of terrorism, and frame separate laws to deal with it.

Going along with Gill’s suggestion, advocate-general Grewal favoured a special law to deal with cases pertaining to the proxy-war period. “If some things happened in 1985, they should not be weighed in the scale of 1997. We need a cut-off date, and there should be some protection to the police,” he said.

The force today is the same that fought militancy, there have been no fresh recruitments. More than 100 police personnel, including officers, have gone to jail. About 1,100 petitions are pending in the High Court, and their numbers are increasing daily.

“Large scale prosecution of police officials will ultimately be as counterproductive as the large scale excesses committed by them. If excesses led to huge recruitments in the militant ranks, a fear psyche in the police will deprive them of initiative and result in lawlessness,” said Grewal.

Privately some judges are believed to be having second thoughts on the propriety of judicial activism when applied to anti-terrorist operations by the Punjab Police.

The Akali leadership is not likely to condole Sandhu’s death, especially when three or four bus loads of people go from Amritsar to Delhi every time the case of the unidentified bodies comes up. And with hardliner SGPC president G.S. Tohra on one side and the Akal Takht on the other, Chief Minister Badal may not be able to mourn Sandhu’s death.

But sources close to Badal said he was very conscious of the demoralisation that had set in in the forces, for quite some time. He had considered certain steps they could implement pending the enactment of laws for that period: not be influenced by the human rights lobby, not deny promotions on the basis of rumours and not punish them on the basis of flimsy allegations. On the positive side, the chief minister had thought of rewarding good work. But that may not even be too little too late for the Punjab Police.

Yet there is hope that Sandhu’s death will serve as a catalyst. As one of them put it: “Things will either precipitate, or boil. It can work either way. Right now we are in the middle.” – The Week

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