The Jessica Lal murder case provoked a public outcry against miscarriage of justice that impelled authorities to reopen the case. The distortion in the case was so brazen that even worms turned. Middle class empathy with the murdered victim finally aroused public opinion. But it would be facile to conclude that India is on the way to reform of its criminal justice system. This is just the first half step.
A rude reminder of how India compares with the rest of the democratic world was provided by the recent death in prison of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. His death was as controversial as his life. His critics complained Milosevic's death cheated justice. His admirers alleged he had been killed to prevent embarrassing truths coming out in his trial. The Hague Tribunal's case against him was not so open and shut as generally believed. Verified facts differed vastly from earlier propaganda. NATO had claimed that 100, 000 to 500,000 Albanian civilians had been massacred by Yugoslav forces. Milosevic got compared to Hitler and Pol Pot. The vast number of civilians allegedly killed was used to justify NATO's bombing of Serbia which was legally questionable.
In November 1999 the Hague Tribunal prosecutors revealed to the press that after seven months of forensic investigations they had found just 2108 bodies. This smaller number didn't exonerate Milosevic. But it should persuade Indians to ponder.
In just Amritsar district of Punjab, 2097 civilians were killed by the Punjab police and secretly cremated. This was done ostensibly to wipe out terrorism. But many of those cremated and listed as disappeared were found after investigation to have had no links to terrorism. So was it done for personal vendetta, or for extorting money, as claimed by many relatives of the victims' A recent event revived memories of the Punjab police role which was swept under the carpet. Those bearing constructive responsibility for police crimes were hailed as national heroes.
During last month's Budget session of the Punjab assembly a fierce debate took place after the re-emergence of a so-called slain terrorist. The man deemed dead was enjoying a comfortable life with the connivance of the police. Punjab DGP SS Virk defended the police action "taken in the interest of the country in general and Punjab in particular." Not surprisingly, former DGP KPS Gill supported Mr Virk.
The defence put up by Mr Gill and Mr Virk appears exceedingly weak -- in the context of gallantry awards and financial rewards collected by police officers responsible for the "slain" terrorists. Terrorists who are in fact leading comfortable lives! Would Mr Virk like to enlighten us also on whether these awards were in the national interest' Media identified half a dozen glaring cases of slain terrorists whose comfortable lifestyles embarrass the police.
Justifying the police role, Mr KPS Gill recently wrote to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh: "Certain practices have emerged and become established in combating and eradicating terrorism. The use of surrendered terrorists and the provision of alternative identities to protect them are integral anti-terrorist and anti-organized crime campaigns across the world." This may well be. But, much earlier, Mr Gill's predecessor, Mr JF Ribeiro, had disclosed in a press conference that the police had recruited agents to infiltrate the ranks of the terrorists to gather intelligence. He confessed that this had complicated matters because some of them had gone astray. In The Tribune last Sunday week its correspondent Mr Prabhjot Singh quoted Mr Gill to write that "trusted" police officers had built "their own armies of cats -- of men drawn from the fold of terrorists -- besides a team of ruthless and tough officers for all anti-terrorist operations in their respective areas". According to The Tribune report, these officers earned the wrath of human rights organizations and sections of the media for transgressing laws.
Did not this policy create the danger of the police-terrorist nexus developing into an autonomous mafia that could extort money and spread mayhem' And if financial gain accrued from this arrangement, did it not create a strong vested interest among sections of the police to perpetuate terrorism instead of combating it' These questions need to be faced squarely in the light of what the Jaswant Singh Khalra episode exposed.
Mr Khalra headed the human rights cell of the Shiromani Akali Dal. His investigations led him to allege in 1994 that security forces had abducted, illegally executed, and secretly cremated thousands of Sikhs in Punjab from 1984 to 1994. He exposed over 2,000 such secret cremations in Amritsar district.
After Mr. Khalra made this disclosure through the media he was abducted by the Punjab police in September 1995. He never resurfaced. Responding to a petition (Paramjit Kaur v. State of Punjab) the Supreme Court in November 1995 ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to inquire into Mr Khalra's abduction and allegations of mass cremations. The CBI report in December 1996 confirmed 2,097 illegal mass cremations in Amritsar of which 582 were identified, 278 partially identified and the rest unidentified. However the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP), an apex body of human rights organizations in Punjab with no foreign funding, documented after extensive research the identities of 1700 police victims, their families and the circumstances which led to their arrests, custodial deaths and cremations. Many victims were innocents with no link to terrorism. In some cases their relatives were harassed by extortion demands and driven to suicide or insanity.
On December 12, 1996, the Supreme Court said the findings of the CBI inquiry revealed a "flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale". The Court ordered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to adjudicate these mass crimes and "determine all the issues". The NHRC limited its investigation of illegal cremations to only Amritsar district, ignoring the 16 remaining districts in the state. NHRC received 3,500 claims of illegal cremation in Amritsar.
Action taken by NHRC was pitifully inadequate. Instead of investigating these secret cremations as murders the Commission focused on the narrow issue of whether the victims' bodies were cremated according to police rules! In almost nine years NHRC did not hear testimony in a single case, nor held a single security official or agency responsible for human rights violations. On November 1, 2005 the international Human Rights Watch complained to NHRC over its lapses. The letter said: "The NHRC has earned a well-deserved reputation for taking on powerful forces in India, which makes the Commission's decisions in the Punjab cases even more puzzling."
Several police officers were charged in the Khalra case. The key accused was the Tarn Taran district police chief, Mr Ajit Singh Sandhu. During investigations Mr Sandhu died under a train on the railway track. The police described it as suicide. The victim's mother expressed surprise that he should have chosen this messy way to commit suicide when he had a weapon in the house. A relative of Shaheed Bhagat Singh gave a sworn affidavit stating that Mr Sandhu had told him shortly before his death that his seniors were involved and he would expose them. The media reported Mr Kuldip Singh, a Special Police Officer, alleging that Mr Khalra was kidnapped, tortured to death and his body was thrown into a river at the instance of Mr Ajit Singh Sandhu and Mr KPS Gill. The truth in this case perhaps will never be known.
During the decade when NHRC handled this case Chief Justice JS Verma and Chief Justice AS Anand headed the Commission. The Khalra disappearance and the mass cremations occurred when Mr KPS Gill was the Punjab DGP. Justice Verma, Justice Anand and Mr Gill are distinguished and respected celebrities. They should ask themselves whether in this case they displayed zero tolerance towards violation of law or chose expediency. If India seeks systemic reform in the criminal justice system, its leaders must start speaking the truth regardless of officials getting exposed. Without pain there is seldom cure.
Rajinder Puri can be reached at email@example.com