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Man in Uniform Demands Justice

I cannot imagine any other country in the world where this would be possible. One of the most notorious terrorists in Punjab, with a criminal career that spanned the entire course of terrorism in the State, from the earliest killings under Bhindranwale’s malign leadership to the last gasps of the Pakistan-based proxy campaigns in the early 1990s, simply walks back into the killing fields where he operated, and negotiates his ‘arrest’ with a compliant state. Five years hence (possibly earlier), I am confident, the multiplicity of cases against him will simply have withered away in the intricacies of what is probably among the most obtuse legal systems in the world; and Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, one of Bhindranwale’s favourite hit men and later the head of his own gang of murderers, will walk into a prominent career in the murky politics of Punjab.

Soon after Zaffarwal’s ‘arrest’, his long-time patron, Jagit Singh Chauhan, one of the chief architects, propagandists and fundraisers of the virulent Khalistan movement, was told that the Indian state has no case against him, and hence no grounds to deny him entry into the country. Chauhan proceeded immediately to inform the world that he would return to Punjab and pursue his separatist goals through ‘democratic processes’. Many learned commentaries have been written on these events by experts who have presumably studied the conflict in Punjab from a considerable distance and in considerable safety, and we are told that this will – through processes that remain a mystery to me – "help Punjab get over its decade of terror."

This is the Indian State’s – and intelligentsia’s – response to its most committed enemies. In the meanwhile, the institutions of democracy in Punjab are today inexorably arrayed against the very people who made democracy possible in that State. For many of those who risked their lives in the defence of the State, the State today offers nothing more than a humiliating process of prosecution in a multiplicity of cases that were intentionally and maliciously lodged in the ‘public interest,’ as a strategy of vendetta by the front organizations of the defeated terrorist movement.

Worse still, even the basic minimum of an impartial investigation and the uniform and equitable application of laws and procedural safeguards has been denied to the policemen accused in these cases. Sadly, the CBI, which was responsible for the investigation of many of these cases, operated under, and succumbed to, the enormous pressure that was exerted on it by powerful political lobbies and by sections of the superior judiciary. Cases were concocted and sent up to court, where there were substantially pre-judged. There has been at least one instance in which a judicial commission of inquiry insisted – against all conceivable norms and precedents – that the defence should lead the evidence. Convictions have been secured in many of these cases on evidence that no self-respecting prosecutor would even consider putting up before a court in any other circumstances. Indeed, if the evidentiary norms and processes that are being applied in cases where policemen are accused of ‘human rights violations’, were employed even by the TADA special courts at the height of terrorism, there is no doubt in my mind that not a single terrorist accused would have escaped conviction. But terrorists, in India, have many sacred and inalienable rights; men in uniform have none.

The issue here is not of the rights of a handful of policemen in Punjab, but goes to the very roots of national security. I am sure this same farce of ‘justice’ will be played out in other current theatres of terrorist strife, once peace has been restored – substantially by the force of arms – and the security men who are risking their lives today will be the victims of judicial vengeance tomorrow. On the other hand, with nearly 27,000 killed in well over a decade of terrorist strife in J&K, we discover that the Courts have found ‘sufficient evidence’ for conviction in only four cases involving the relatively minor offences of illegal border crossing and possession of arms. The record of convictions for terrorist crimes in other theatres is no better.

There is certainly an urgent need to review a system of justice that abdicates all responsibility in moments of risk and crisis, only to assume the mantle of moral authority after the danger is past, and to use its punitive force selectively against the very men who risked their lives in the defence of the state, and for the restoration of peace and civil governance.

There can be no justification for the violation of human rights by men in uniform. But neither can there be any justification for the violation of their rights to fair and impartial investigation and trial, and to credible defence. The state’s mechanisms for investigation and prosecution, today, are disproportionately and prejudicially, focused against the police, even as most terrorist leaders, who inspired and participated in some of the most heinous crimes, walk free. Tragically, it is manifestly the case that the state is discriminating between the terrorist and the policeman in favour of the former.

How long will men continue to fight and to die – and yes, to kill – for India, if no one in the country speaks for the men in uniform? Can the power of the state survive the erosion of the confidence and authority of those who protect it?

Eight long years have passed since the restoration of peace in Punjab. It is now time to review what has happened since, and to re-establish a measure of sanity and balance in the state’s processes against the police. The least that needs to be done is to appoint an independent Commission, comprising more than one retired Justice of the Supreme Court, to go into the nature of evidence and of judicial processes that are being employed to secure convictions in cases against policemen in Punjab. I am certain that – as long as it does not include any judges who were themselves party to the decisions that initiated these legal processes (and at least one of whom subsequently accepted public office from a convicted murderer associated with the cause for Khalistan) – such a Commission would find that the evidence in a majority of these cases is entirely unsustainable.

(Published in Hindustan Times, June 8, 2001)





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