Recent revelations about the Indian police liquidating suspects and political dissidents in fake shootouts should not come as a surprise.
It's nothing new to those who've been following extra-judicial killings in that country by the police and armed forces.
India's Central Bureau of Investigation recently charged seven police officers in the Indian state of Gujarat with killing Ishrat Jehan, a Muslim girl, and three others in a fake encounter in 2004. Police had claimed that those killed were Islamist militants who were planning the assassination of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Modi has been linked to an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002.
As this was not enough, a Punjab police sub-inspector, Surjit Singh, came forward with information that he had participated in the murders of over 80 people. These allegedly occurred in the state at the peak of a Sikh militancy, when fundamentalists were seeking a separate independent nation.
Singh told Straight in a phone interview from India that his life is in danger for telling the truth. Widely known as an "Encounter Specialist", a title often given to cops who are expert in faking shootouts, Singh said that he acted at the behest of senior officers and was given an out-of-turn promotion for carrying out these illegal orders.
He decided to open his mouth after so many years passed because of an internal dispute with fellow policemen and due to mental pressure. This came after witnessing some colleagues committing suicide for carrying a sense of guilt.
It is pertinent to mention that a prominent Sikh militant leader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was also killed in a fake encounter in 1992. He was the alleged mastermind in the Air India tragedy, the worst terror attack in the history of Canada
Parmar, who was a Canadian citizen, was widely known as the ringleader of the group involved in two Air India bombings on June 23, 1985 that left 331 people dead. He had sneaked into India, only to be killed by the Punjab police. His killing led to the failure of the Air India investigation that resulted in only one conviction.
Jaswant Singh Khalra, a prominent human-rights activist from Punjab, was investigating these extra-judicial killings when was himself abducted by the Punjab police in 1995. This came after his return from Canada, and he was never seen after that. Although he is believed to have been murdered, his body was never found.
Such atrocities are not confined to just one or two communities or any one particular region of India. One can always debate if there is a pattern behind the killings of suspects belonging to minority groups. However, such practices also continue in central India, where security forces are engaged in an armed battle with ultra-leftist rebels.
In July 1970, 23 years after India had gained independence after a British occupation, a participant in the freedom movement, Bujha Singh, was also killed in a staged encounter.
What can be more shameful for the Indian establishment than the police murdering the former organizer of the Argentina branch of the Ghadar Party, a group of armed revolutionaries that sought freedom from foreign rule? A freedom fighter who deserved honour and respect was killed in a cold-blooded murder for joining an ultra-leftist movement at the age of 82. His nephew, Sohan Singh Maan, lives in the Lower Mainland.
Today when the Indian government is celebrating the Ghadar Party centenary, its officials should actually take a moment to do some soul searching as to what such celebrations mean when the Indian police have the blood of Bujha Singh on their hands? Notably, Khalra's grandfather was also associated with the Ghadar Party which was established in 1913 by Indian immigrants in North America. The party not only believed in an armed rebellion against the British Empire, but it had resolved to establish a just and fair democratic republican structure in post-independent India. The party later spread its wings across countries where Indian immigrants lived.
Like other radical immigrants, Bujha Singh, too, became an active supporter of the party and organized its branch in Argentina.
Many Ghadar activists returned to India to either face the gallows or life imprisonment. Many continued their struggle for social justice and served jail time as political prisoners even after independence in 1947. Those like Bujha Singh joined the Communist movement.
The late 1960s saw the emergence of an uprising by the tillers and landless farmers against the ruling elite. Bujha Singh broke ranks with the mainstream Communist parties to join this ultra-leftist movement. Instead of having a dialogue with him, Indian authorities chose to eliminate him—and that attitude against political dissidents continues to prevail.
If the Indian state really cares about the values of the Ghadar Party, then it must stop repression and official terrorism. To win a war against terror or rebellion, the Indian government should talk to its opponents and take political initiatives, instead of taking their lives through killers in uniforms and honouring these murderers with promotions and bravery awards.
The Punjab police at present is led by Sumedh Singh Saini, an officer blamed for human-rights violations in the state. This is despite the fact that the Akali Dal, a mainstream Sikh political party that promised to punish the cops responsible for the killings of Sikh militants, is in power. Most of the killings took place either during the Congress party rule or when Punjab was under the president’s rule due to disturbances. Incidentally, Bujha Singh was killed under the Akali Dal regime.
Likewise, Ankit Garg, a senior police officer from Chhattisgarh, was given a president’s medal for gallantry, despite being instrumental in a brutal torture of Soni Sori, a tribal female teacher.
Amit Shah, the former home minister of Gujarat under whose command the fake encounters took place, was recently given responsibility for handling social media during the election campaign of the Hindu nationalist BJP.
Political opportunism apart, the film industry and the media also lack sensitivity and has frequently justified such acts directly or indirectly by glorifying state violence and brutal cops as "Encounter Specialists" or as defenders of the "national interest". What one should always remember is that a nation is not just a piece of land; rather, it’s the composition of people and their culture.
Any government that worries too much about its national interest should first learn to serve the interests of its citizens rather than the selective interests of the rich and powerful. What terrorists do is certainly not pardonable, but a responsible government cannot be allowed to behave like terrorists.
Where is a difference between a state and the terrorists when the police act at will and kill people in the name of a war on terror? For a country that is known as world’s largest democracy, such human hunting is completely unacceptable.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.