Presumed guilty till proven innocent
Since the death of Ajit Singh Sandhu, there is one question that has troubled me incessantly. What could have driven such a man to take his own life? Suicide itself is not such a rarity in our world; but there is a class of men to whom such an act is not merely morally reprehensible, it is virtually unthinkable. Sandhu had spent a lifetime fighting. A man who rose from the ranks to lead, and decisively win the nation's battle against terrorists in their very heartland; a man whose sense of duty held him, unflinching, to his task when many officers simply fled responsibility, a man, moreover, who I knew to be courageous in the extreme; what could have made him pitch himself under a train?
I have been looking for an answer to this question for close to three weeks now; and the answer, in all its perversity, gradually emerged as I discovered the convoluted pattern imposed on his life in its final, ravaged year. At the end of Franz Kafka's classic, The Trial, we see his protagonist, 'K', virtually run, along with his executioners, to the place of his execution; eagerly embracing a death that would free him from the nightmare he had been subjected to by a vast, sinister, impersonal system, which he intuitively knew to be evil. It is in this image and in the trial of 'K', that I find an uncanny parallel to Sandhu's experience, and to his tragic end.
Let me trace out the contours of his final nightmare. The details of the past two years are not available to me; nor would it be possible, in this limited space, to analyse them. So I restrict myself to what I have learnt about the final 142 days of his life – in the year 1997.
The New Year dawned for Sandhu in the Amritsar Jail, where he had already spent a fortnight. His incarceration itself could rightly be interpreted by him as being extremely unfair, and must certainly have been bewildering. The Randev Commission looked into the allegations against him in the Kuljit Singh Dhat case. The Defence argued that Dhat had escaped from police custody. The prosecution asserted that he had been tortured and killed. The Commission concluded that the evidence submitted on the allegations was "highly improbable". Despite this, the Commission proceeded to invent another category, well outside the scope of legal parlance and precedent, as it stated that if "Kuljit Singh had not escaped from police custody, he was expected to remain in their custody… the respondents case is that he is no more in their custody. In this situation, there is nothing improbable if he might have died in police custody." What does this category "nothing improbable if…" mean? Either evidence exists, or it does not. And the Commission had already rejected the evidence as "highly improbable".
The Supreme Court ordered Sandhu’s arrest in this case. To make matters worse, though he was confined in a high security area in jail, the terrorist Nishan Singh Kalanaur was provided access to this area, and criminally assaulted Sandhu, inflicting grievous injuries on him. This ordeal ended on January 30. But another commenced immediately thereafter – far more insidious, much more corrosive to the spirit. Of the last 112 days before he died, when he was on bail, 16 were Sundays. There will have been a few more during which the Courts and investigative agencies did not work. Of the remaining 90 odd days, there was only a rare day on which Sandhu was not either appearing in a Court, traveling to appear in a Court, or being examined by one or another investigative agency or commission.
The occasional break provided no respite; it was spent in urgent consultation with his lawyers, as he struggled to cope with this unrestrained flood of litigation. His appearances before the Courts and other agencies required him to travel incessantly between Chandigarh, Patiala, Dasuya, Amritsar, and Hoshiarpur.
But this is not all. Kafka’s Trial documented a process that was as interminable as it was futile. A process which could be prolonged into infinity; one that could only end with the death of ‘K’.
So it was with Sandhu’s trials. In his endless trek from court to court during this period, nothing ever happened. No witnesses were examined. No statements were recorded. And Sandhu was never heard. He waited for hours outside courtrooms, only to be called in at the end of the day to be told that another date had been fixed for his ‘hearing’. In court after court after court.
Sandhu had already been exonerated in seven cases (though this is seldom projected by the media, even as the completely fabricated nature of evidence in these is studiously ignored).
Not a single conviction had ever been pronounced against him (recall that the first case against him dated back to 1989). But this was poor comfort. Every time a court ruled in his favour, dozens of new affidavits, new "public interest" litigations were initiated. The process would never end. Except with death. The intention of this process was not justice. It was the continuance of an old war by "other means".
This pattern of court appearances, interrogation, inquiries – one may say, inquisition – backed by continuous public denigration, even punishment, through the media, did not simply emerge spontaneously out of chaos. It represents a clear and premeditated design. This relentless pursuit of lies is a strategy intended to disparage and weaken the organs of the state; to invent new martyrs; to create a mythology of oppression that will eventually fuel a new terrorism.
Far from countering this strategy, the state has been party to it. Sandhu had a right to fair representation, to competent legal advice, to support by the department that commanded his loyalty and his every act in its battle against the terrorists; he had a right to the procedural guarantees and processes that protect every citizen in this country against arbitrariness and malicious prosecution; he had a right to the sacrosanct principle of a presumption of innocence until his guilt had been established.
He was, instead, refused legal aid, and was abandoned entirely to his own devices in the face of an onslaught that he was neither trained not equipped to confront. He was treated as a pariah by the very leaders whose lives he had protected; and in whose return to power he was instrumental. He confronted hostility both in the Courts and in the media. The man who risked everything to defend democracy was transformed into her greatest villain – inequitably, without evidence, without trial, without justice.
Edmund Burke once remarked, "It is a general error to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare." We must take heed of this warning and distinguish between those who fight for justice and those who exploit the institutions and processes of democracy for their own cynical ends. There is clear evidence today that the defeated leaders of Punjab’s militancy – in their safe havens across the border –have now decided that this is the most effective immediate strategy to keep their cause alive.
Men like Sandhu defended India’s integrity against the Kalashnikovs and the bombs. But they have no defence against this new and treacherous assault. Sandhu, of course, is dead. But if the guns and the bombs come back, let us hope others like him will have survived these stratagems.
(Published in The Pioneer, June 14, 1997)