As prominent trials against policemen and Khalistan militants move towards culmination, the acrimony between the Punjab police and the judiciary is increasing

In 1997, K.P.S. Gill stunned the nation when, in a letter to the then Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, he wrote, “The conduct of the judiciary throughout the years of terror in Punjab has completely escaped examination …. What is to be said of judges who failed to administer justice according to the laws of the land for over a decade in terrorist related cases?”

He was writing in anguish after attending the funeral of Ajith Singh Sandhu, Taran Taran’s Senior Superintendent of police, who, frustrated with a case of extrajudicial killing against him and his colleagues, that caused him to spend several ignominious days in jail, committed suicide by throwing himself before a train.

More than a decade later, the acrimony between the Punjab police and judiciary has not lessened, because many prominent trials against policemen and the Khalistan militants are culminating in the courts only now. And, with each acquittal or dismissal of appeal, that deepens the adversarial divide, the role of the judges is coming under scrutiny. As is that of the top brass of the police, feeding into a gaining perception that old scores are being settled.

The issue came into focus a few days ago, when a 2009 letter written by a Justice Tirath Singh Thakur, the then Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court was leaked (The Hindu, “Leak of probe letter sparks furore in Punjab and Haryana HC, Nov.19, 2012), which suggested that Sumedh Singh Saini, Punjab’s Director General of Police had fabricated evidence of corruption against some judges. The “suspect material,” as Justice Thakur described Saini’s investigation, was used to recommend the transfer of Justice Mehtab Singh Gill (retd.) of the high court.

The same judge had in 2007, presided on the bench that ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into suspected extrajudicial killings against Mr. Saini. The police officer went to the SC with the plea that there was a judicial bias against him from the bench because, he had, in 2002, conduced an inquiry against the presiding judge (in a cash-for-jobs scandal) on the direction of the Chief Justice of the High Court. The apex court not only found merit in the argument, but honed in on more material to castigate the judge.

Last December, as it quashed the CBI inquiry against Mr. Saini, the Supreme Court put down in writing, for the first time what was till then an unstated accusation left hanging for years in Punjab’s courts. “The path charted by the High Court inevitably reflects a biased approach. It was a misplaced sympathy for a cause that can be termed as being inconsistent to the legal framework,” the Supreme Court said, going on to say: “The High Court was swayed away by considerations that are legally impermissible and unsustainable.”

“This is a strong indictment,” said a dismayed lawyer associated with the Khalistan lobby even as many in the police received it with satisfaction.

“In the light of the SC strictures, against a judge of the High Court, I would request the SC to reopen many of these cases where terrorists have been acquitted and their sentences commuted. Sections of the Punjab judiciary were always sympathetic to the cause,” Mr. Gill told The Hindu recently.

Heightening the hurt

There have been several judgments in the last couple of years that have heightened the sense of hurt within the khaki fraternity. In 2010, the High Court declined to confirm the death sentence of Jagtar Singh Hawara and commuted it to life imprisonment instead. Hawara and Balwant Singh Rajoana were awarded a death sentence by a trial court in Chandigarh for the sensational bomb blast outside the civil secretariat in Chandigarh in August 1995, in which Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh and 17 others were killed. Letting off Hawara from the gallows sent a wave of anger in the Punjab police.

“Now that peace has been restored and the judiciary is not fearful anymore,” said an officer who was involved in nabbing Hawara, “we find that judges seem to be interpreting the law too strictly without appreciating the special circumstances under which those actions took place. In so many cases they have thrown out the protection of Section 197 of CrPc that provides immunity from legal action to public servants, for actions taken while discharging duty.”

As many as 1,700 policemen died while fighting terrorism in Punjab and scores of cases were registered for human rights violations against them. Twenty of them are still in jail for various offences. Among them are DSP Jaspal Singh and ASI Amarjit Singh, convicted for kidnapping and eliminating human rights activist, Jaswant Singh Khalra in 1995. Their conviction is a very sore point with the police because it is the same case in which SSP Ajit Pal Sandhu was an accused along with them. Their appeals against life imprisonment were finally dismissed by the Supreme Court in November last year.

Each new setback in the courts makes it harder for officers like Saini, who feel helpless to save their men from the wheels of the legal justice system. He himself faces two cases of kidnapping and abduction from those days.

Rational opinion within the higher ranks of the Punjab police has always acknowledged that the force did indeed resort to undemocratic methods to save democracy in that tumultuous decade. When terrorism ebbed in Punjab, the police were accused of using the same unorthodox methods that they honed against terrorists to deal with ordinary criminals or to settle scores with civilians over petty rivalries. The current episode leading from the leak of Justice Thakur’s letter has brought upfront the same question once again. These are saner times but the finger pointing is just as vicious.

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