I am very sad. This is the letter which Late KPS Gill wrote to the then Prime Minister, IK Gujral in response to the suicide of AS Sandhu, an SSP during the peak of Khalistani Movement, who committed suicide after a vicious witchhunt in the name of human rights. And whatever he raised in 1997, every single point is still pertinent today and we haven’t got an answer for even one of the points raised today.
30th May, 1997
The Hon’ble Prime Minister,
Government of India,
Dear Prime Minister,
1.1 I am writing to you on my return to Delhi from the funeral of SSP A.S. Sandhu. I have maintained a silence on events in Punjab for over two years in the hope that the leadership of the nation will do justice, now that peace has returned to the state, to those brave men and women who made this peace possible.
1.2 Recent events, however, force me to speak out now; a continued silence on my part would be a betrayal of trust, an abdication of responsibility. I cannot remain silent when the memory of the men who sacrificed their lives under my command is denigrated; and when those who have survived the greatest of dangers and made immeasurable sacrifices in campaigns during a virulent proxy war are subjected to an unprecedented and unprincipled inquisition.
1.3 Men in the uniformed services are bound by a rigid discipline that imposes a code of silence on them, even when they are subjected to the greatest injustices. It is a measure of their commitment that, despite the deepest despair among the rank and file of the Punjab police, brought into dramatic focus by A.S. Sandhu’s suicide, no voice has been raised in protest.
1.4 I owe these men a debt of gratitude, as I believe this entire nation does. I therefore wish to draw your attention, and through you, the attention of the Minister for Home Affairs, the Indian Legislature and Judiciary, to urgent and distressing realities of the Punjab situation.
2.1 You have most perceptively observed, on your recent visit to the state, that the battle in Punjab was the nation’s battle, and that, consequently, the entire nation must share its costs. But what about those who were at the vanguard of this battle? Having served the national cause, are they now simply to be forgotten? Or worse, to be persecuted with impunity?
2.2 You are known to appreciate the finer nuances of Urdu poetry. Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’s’ lines can perhaps best express the sentiments of the ordinary policeman of Punjab today:
Ham bhi bach sakte the ghar pe reh kar,
Ham ko bhi maan baap ne paala tha dukh seh seh kar.
2.3 For over a decade, to wear a police uniform in the Punjab was to proclaim yourself a wilful target for preferential terrorist attack. Yet thousands of men in uniform stood as a bulwark of democracy against the unconstrained depredations of the extremists. Thousands sacrificed their lives. Thousands of others witnessed the murder of their parents, their brothers and sisters, their wives and their children.
2.4 At this time, the actions – or the failure to act – of every other branch of Government demonstrated their abject surrender before terrorism. But officers from these services are today enjoying the fruits of peace in Punjab.
2.5 This is an old story. Those who do nothing, those who risk nothing, not only ensure their survival; they equally ensure that they will return to positions of power and pelf, their “honour” intact. But the best of men, who put their lives on the line, having survived the guns of the terrorists, find themselves targets of a sustained and vicious campaign of calumny, of institutional hostility and State indifference.
2.6 The ultimate irony is that the instruments and institutions of democracy are, today, arrayed against the very people who made democracy possible in Punjab. For those who were comprehensively defeated in the battle for ‘Khalistan’, ‘public interest’ litigation has become the most convenient strategy for vendetta.
2.7 The ‘targets’ of this vendetta are being denied even the basic minimum of an impartial investigation and competent defence; even the uniform and equitable application of peacetime laws and processes. Simultaneously, they are subjected to a sustained process of ‘trial by the Press’ in which utter falsehoods are reported as truths without qualification, even though the matters that are written of are sub judice.
2.8 At the same time, the doctrine of equality before law is invoked to incarcerate police officers with the very terrorists they fought and protected the nation from. No thought is given and no provision made for their security. These officers are assaulted in jail, and no visible action is taken against their attackers. The State’s mechanism for investigation and litigation is disproportionately focused against the police even as many of the terrorist leaders who inspired and participated in some of the most heinous crimes walk free.
2.9 It appears almost as if the State is discriminating between terrorists and policemen in favour of the former.
3.1 The question repeatedly asked in this context is, ‘Were they any police excesses?’ Only a liar or a fool would deny that random excesses occurred in a campaign of the magnitude and duration of the struggle in Punjab. Wherever such excesses were detected, action was inevitably taken. The real question is whether a strategy of State Terrorism was adopted by the police; and the answer is unequivocally in the negative.
3.2 The evidence is visible everywhere in the Punjab. The victory over terrorism was not merely a military victory, it was a moral victory. Nowhere in the world has State Terrorism, irrespective of how many people it killed or tortured, ever been able to extinguish an ideology as completely as the idea of Khalistan has been extinguished in Punjab. An idea can never be destroyed by violence. Blood fuels revolution. Each police excess creates new enemies for the force and for the State it represents. Police excesses of the magnitude being alleged would have created an ever-widening base of support for terrorism. Instead, it was the support of the people in Punjab that made the decisive win over the militants a possibility. Sickened by the extremists’ acts of senseless violence, it was the people who opened the floodgates of information to the police. The victory over the venomous advocates of Khalistan was a people’s victory. That is why there is such a mood of celebration and freedom in Punjab today. Were this not so, terrorism would still be an overwhelming reality in the state.
3.3 The police strategy against terrorists gave the latter four options. The first three were conventional measures of response: the possibilities of arrest, flight, or armed engagement. The fourth option was offered in the later phases of the campaign. The terrorists were told that, if they chose surrender, they would be welcomed and embraced with warmth. At first all surrenders took place in my presence and in some cases in the presence of the then Chief Minister. But after a while the deluge became difficult to handle, and SSPs were authorised to accept surrenders. The largest number of surrenders were before SSP A.S. Sandhu. And yet, he was a “blood thirsty man”!
3.4 It must, nonetheless, be recognised that the situation that prevailed in Punjab for over a decade was a state of war – a proxy war, perhaps; “low intensity conflict” as others prefer to term it – but war, nonetheless. The Punjab Police and various central forces were engaged, not in simple law enforcement activities, but a battle to retain control over large areas of the sovereign territory of the Indian Union, against an utterly unscrupulous and heavily armed enemy who recognised no constraints.
4.1 It is for your government and for the nation’s Parliament to debate on, and define, the appropriate criteria to judge the actions of those who fought this war on behalf of the Indian State and people. What you decide will have far-reaching consequences for other theatres of current conflict. A great urgency must attach to these initiatives, if future tragedies are to be averted. A delay in addressing these issues will affect the destiny of India far more than any other single decision your government may currently be contemplating.
4.2 Low intensity wars are presently being fought by our forces in Kashmir, in Assam, in Manipur in Nagaland, and in Tripura. India, in fact, is being subjected to a systematic and sustained strategy of destabilisation from within and without, a strategy that preys on every incidence of local disaffection; it is imperative that we should define a systematic and proactive strategic response to this challenge.
4.3 The low intensity war that took place in Punjab, and those occurring in other areas of the country today reflect a pattern that can only be expected to grow in the future. Unfortunately, these are still dismissed by the national leadership as ‘non-military threats’ and an ill equipped Home Ministry is required to deal with them. The result is that the Army is repeatedly called out in these conflicts to ‘aid civil authority’. The fact is that neither the police nor the army, by virtue of their basic orientation and training, are properly equipped to handle these crises.
5.1 There is another vital issue that I would like to raise here. In a democracy, the conduct of every arm of government, every wing of the State, must be subject to review. And yet, the conduct of the judiciary throughout the years of terror in Punjab has completely escaped examination.
5.2 What is to be said of judges who failed to consider overwhelming evidence of the most heinous crimes? Who failed to administer justice according to the laws of the land for over a decade in terrorist related cases? Even in a case as fully documented as Operation Black Thunder, where the entire action was carried out in full view of the media, not a single conviction was pronounced.
6. I urge upon your government to take up these issues urgently and seriously and to take necessary steps, in combination and co-ordination with all other arms of India’s democratic polity, to ensure necessary action on the following:
6.1.1 In view of the future threat potential of low intensity wars, it is crucial that a radical reformation of internal security forces be initiated, creating the skills, knowledge, attitudes and infrastructure necessary to confront this danger, and possibly raising entirely new forces to grapple with this specific hazard.
6.1.2 The parameters within which each agency of government must respond to such challenges should also be debated in detail by your government and by the legislature. The powers, the range of extraordinary actions permitted in these situations, and the applicable legal criteria and context of evaluation of these actions – whether these are the same as those applicable in peacetime or are to be akin to articles of war, or are to be redefined in terms of the new category of “low intensity wars” – should be clearly determined and suitably legislated.
6.1.3 Until the necessary criteria are sufficiently debated, defined and legislated, immediate steps should be taken to ensure that the pattern of humiliation through litigation and trial by the media is prevented forthwith. This trend of ‘punishment before trial’ must cease immediately.
6.1.4 Police personnel who may be facing charges should be assured a fair investigation and a fair trial. To this end, the State must create a fund to ensure that the best legal assistance, advice and representation are made available to them.
6.1.5 Police personnel under investigation or trial should be incarcerated only if there are sufficient grounds to believe they are attempting to coerce witnesses, destroy evidence, or in any other way to distort the processes of justice. In every such case due care must be taken to ensure their safety in jail so that the unforgivable incidents of the past are not repeated.
6.2 Lest any of this be misinterpreted or misrepresented as a plea for ‘immunity’, let me state explicitly that I am not asking for immunity, either for any member of the Punjab Police, or for myself. But let the investigations and trials be according to the laws of the land, and let the special circumstances that prevailed in Punjab be taken into consideration by the statutes applied. Investigations and trials should not proceed according to the processes that are being improvised from day to day to implicate the police in Punjab.
6.3 A Constitutional Commission should be set up to examine the records of judicial processes and judgments during the years of terrorism in Punjab; to identify the judicial officers who failed to discharge their Constitutional obligations, and to honour their oath to dispense justice without fear or favour; to determine their accountability; and to take suitable action to ensure that the judicial and criminal justice system does not collapse or fail ever again in the face of lawlessness.
6.4 As a corollary to the preceding point, a Commission also needs to be appointed to identify officers in all branches of Government and Administration who were guilty of wilful and gross dereliction of duty during this period, in order to ensure a system in which acts of cravenness are punished rather than, as is the present case, rewarded.
These steps demand the active involvement and participation of the judicial and legislative wings of the State. I am, therefore, taking the liberty of sending copies of this letter to the Chief Justice of India, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.
K P S Gill