Activist Sarabjit Singh’s long fight for compensation after false cases and police torture

Human-rights activist Sarabjit Singh in his office. Sarabjit fought a 29-year-long judicial battle against his illegal detention, torture and fraudulent cases in the hands of the Punjab Police. COURTESY Sarabjit Singh
22 March, 2021

“Now, such kind of situation prevailing in criminal justice system, where the police is acting in a callous, indifferent, autocratic, unconstitutional, arbitrary way throwing fundamental rights to the winds, caring little about the directions of constitutional organs of the State, would be nothing short of anarchy and lawlessness.” With this sentence, an Amritsar civil court judge ended his judgment granting Rs 10 lakh compensation for Sarabjit Singh, a human-rights activist who was illegally detained by the Punjab Police, framed in two false cases and spent 88 days in jail. The judgment was pronounced in January 2013, six years after he was acquitted in the false cases, in a separate case by Sarabjit seeking compensation. But eight years later, Sarabjit is yet to receive it, and was compelled to move the court once again. On 15 March this year, another Amritsar judge directed the state government to pay Sarabjit the full amount, including an interest of six percent per annum on it, now amounting to Rs 14.8 lakh.

Sarabjit’s struggle has been a long one. He was first illegally detained by the Punjab Police in January 1992, subjected to torture for 11 days, and then falsely implicated in a case that branded him a terrorist and member of an armed separatist organisation. In 1998, he was illegally detained by the police again, and framed for another terrorism-related case. In this case, the police also disregarded the recommendation of the Punjab State Human Rights Commission to quash the proceedings, and even violated an order by the Punjab and Haryana High Court to do so. In both cases, the police showed scant regard for evidence, and instead went on to give press conferences congratulating themselves for stopping terrorists. Sarabjit was acquitted in both cases by 2007, but not before spending a fortune on legal fees and seeing both his enterprising business career and his educational opportunities suffer. Alongside this the Punjab Police also frequently tried to tarnish his image by adding him onto a public list of “Bad Characters,” forcing him to routinely present himself at the police station and continue to insinuate that he was linked to criminal activities.

Sarabjit told me that his inclusion in the list was an attempt to humiliate him and assassinate his character. He believed that the police wanted to do this because, as a human-rights lawyer, Sarabjit frequently defended individuals whom the Punjab Police had arrested under fraudulent charges. Sarabjit claimed compensation both for the physical violence he faced, as well as for the damage the Punjab Police’s claims made to his reputation. He said the state’s inaction in compensating him as directed by the court stemmed from this reason, and that he was prepared to continue his long judicial battle to be finally paid in full. “This was an era of fake encounters and unclaimed bodies in Punjab,” Sarabjit told me. “Though India is a member of the United Nations, it routinely violated UN declarations. Punjab has a rampant history of fake encounters and illegal detention.”

In 1984, amidst the anti-Sikh pogrom, Sarabjit’s family migrated from Bihar to Amritsar. He completed an undergraduate degree in commerce from Khalsa College in Amritsar in 1987. Soon after, he joined a charted accountancy course in Amritsar. “During that period, due to Akali government in Punjab, the law-and-order situation was severely deteriorating and so many innocents were brutally killed,” the 2013 court order quotes Sarabjit as saying. Sarabjit told me the story of his arrest mirrors those of many Sikh youth who were framed by the Punjab police in the decade before and after 1984.

On the morning of 30 January 1992, the Punjab Police’s Criminal Investigation Agency detained Sarabjit without showing him an arrest warrant or informing him about the particulars of any case against him. He was 22 years old at the time. The 2013 judgment points out that his parents and relatives sent telegrams to various senior officials the next day complaining that Sarabjit had been illegally detained by the police. Following one such representation, on 1 February, the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, who was also named Sarabjit Singh, wrote a letter to A Shukla, the district’s senior superintendent of police. On the same day, the family moved an application before a local magistrate in Amritsar regarding Sarabjit’s illegal custody. “And despite all this, Sarabjit’s parents remained clueless of his whereabouts,” the 2013 judgement notes.

Indian criminal procedure unequivocally prohibits the police from detaining anyone for more than 24 hours without producing them before a magistrate. When Sarabjit was finally produced before a magistrate—on 10 February, 11 days after the Amritsar Police illegally detained him—he learnt that the police had registered a false case against him under the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1985. He stood accused of attempt to murder, rioting armed with a deadly weapon and unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object, among others.

During his eleven days in custody, the Punjab Police subjected Sarabjit to severe torture—a fact discussed in detail by the Amritsar court in its 2013 judgment awarding him compensation. Parminder Singh Rai, the judge who presided over the case, noted that Sarabjit was brutally tortured and interrogated with third degree methods. “The plaintiff was illegally not only detained and involved but was brutally interrogated, beaten and tortured by the police, thereby badly causing not only physical torture to the plaintiff but was also mentally tortured by the police and plaintiff suffered great mental pain, agony and was much depressed and in this way,” Rai wrote.

Sarabjit told me that the physical, mental and emotional scars of those 11 days have still not healed. The judgment, too, stated, “Due to excessive torture and interrogation, plaintiff suffered much internal injuries on his body and as such, he was also kept in the jail hospital … Plaintiff has not become normal so far inspite of various treatments taken by him from time to time till date in this respect and his body is not normal, smooth and firm and till date, he is feeling body shake up.”

Rai’s judgement also outlined several inconsistencies in the case against Sarabjit. According to the first information report registered against him, the police had caught Sarabjit while “foiling a major plan by Khalistan National Army to carry out series of bomb explosions in New Delhi.” It claimed that Sarabjit was a kingpin of the KNA—a separatist organisation fighting for an independent state of Khalistan. The FIR stated that on 10 February, Sarabjit and four others were driving in a car at Amritsar’s Bhai Manj Singh road, when Ravinder Kumar, a sub-inspector had signalled for the car to stop. It claimed that Sarabjit along with five others then opened fire on the police, who fired back in self-defence. The police said that during the shoot out, they were able to capture Sarabjit and three others, Kulwinder Singh, Gurbax Singh and Daljit Singh, and that two individuals got away.

Rai highlighted the lack of evidence and procedural violations in the police case. “No recovery of weapons or the explosive substance, detonators or stick bombs was ever affected from the accused persons,” the judgement noted. “No independent witness nor even the B.S.F. personnel who are stated to have participated in the counter have been examined by the prosecution. No recovery memo was got attested form them to show their presence. The case property namely the double barrel gun and the revolver allegedly recovered from the accused persons or the explosive substance were not sealed into parcels. These were not test fired.” It also noted that despite the police claiming that several rounds were fired by all parties, not a single person involved was wounded and no empty bullet casing were recovered from the scene of the alleged encounter. The 2013 judgement noted that the police accounts of the incident were all full of inaccuracies.

Given these circumstances, it is surprising that Sarabjit spent over five months in jail before he was released on bail. “I was granted bail on 24 April 1992 and was released on 7 May 1992 from the central jail in Amritsar,” Sarabjit told me. “Thereafter the prosecution started delaying the trial and took various adjournments from the court on frivolous grounds. However, I used to appear personally in the court for all proceedings and even engaged various counsels also time to time and spent a huge amount of money for defending the said false case.”

The 2013 judgement noted that Sarabjit had even moved the court seeking “a speedy trial of this case allegedly being delayed on false grounds by prosecution/police.” In August 1999, the high court ordered that the case be expedited and completed before April 2000. On 23 May 2000, Sarabjit was finally acquitted of all charges by Varinder Kumar, an additional sessions judge in the Amritsar district court. The 2013 judgment noted that the acquittal held that “no encounter, as alleged by the prosecution, ever took place.”

The 2013 judgement notes that equally damaging was the false allegation that Sarabjit was a terrorist and the kingpin of the KNA. A Shukla, the superintendent of police in Amritsar, had announced these allegations in a press conference in January 1992. The judgement noted that these allegations were then published in various newspapers.

Referring to press conference and the following court hearings, the judgment noted, “In that Incident, plaintiff was brought to the court in hand-cuffs and also taken by police from one place to another during that period in hand cuffs and during that acts, various respectable, prominent persons and public at large met the plaintiff and watched the entire proceedings.” It added that Sarabjit was “mentally tortured by the police and plaintiff suffered great mental pain, agony and was much depressed and in this way, the reputation, prestige and status of plaintiff was badly effected and lowered in the eyes of his relatives, friends, society as well as public in general.”

Just prior to his arrest Sarabjit had applied for a masters’ in business administration at Western International University in the United States. “But I could not prepare due to this case and as such, could not get admission in the said course,” Sarabjit told me. “This act of police ruined my future in terms of a better income and status in life due to that course.” The 2013 judgment also referred to how the cases halted Sarabjit’s education.

On 15 July 1998, the Punjab Police picked up Sarabjit again and repeated the media spectacle. The 2013 judgement noted, “Again on 16.7.1998 the then D.G.P., Punjab P.C. Dogra in a press conference claimed that the police has unearthed a major plan to revive militancy and they claimed that they arrested the members of ‘Tigers of Sikhland’.” The 2013 judgement said that this press conference was also widely publicised in newspaper reports. This time, he was illegally detained for nine days, and the police produced him before a court only on 24 July, despite registering an FIR against him on 16 July. Once again, he was brought before a magistrate only after his family sent telegrams to various authorities and moved the local magistrate.

The new FIR charged him with preparation of dacoity, declaring war against the country and attempted murder, among other charges. The police claimed that Sarabjit and others were “planning to kidnap and killing migrant labourers and migrant Rickshaw puller with the intention of generating communal tensions and terrorise the migrant labour to leave Punjab, kidnapping of top businessman and professionals for collecting huge ransom, targeting of prominent persons associated with educational institutions and running private clinics, sensational robberies in banks, financial institutions and forgery etc.”

In May 1999, the Punjab State Human Rights Commission submitted a report stating that the second FIR against Sarabjit “was concocted by the Senior police officials.” The PSHRC was then led by assistant director general of police, AP Bhatnagar. The PSHRC report recommended quashing the FIR, registering a case against the guilty police officials for lodging a false case against Sarabjit and handing over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The state government ignored the PSHRC’s recommendations and continued to try Sarabjit in a trial court.

The PSHRC then moved the High Court which stayed the trial court proceedings. “Despite stay of the proceedings by the High Court, the trial court continued with its proceedings and during this period Sarabjit attended almost 93 hearings in the local court in the trial of the second FIR No.53/1998,” the 2013 judgement stated. “Once again, he had to spend a fortune in hiring a counsel to defend his case.” On 1 March 2007, Sarabjit was acquitted in the second case.

Sarabjit told me that during the course of both cases, the police frequently tried to besmirch his name. In 1992, the Punjab Police declared him a “Bad Character.” A “Bad Character” is an Indian legal and policing term for habitual offenders. Being added to the list also meant that he was called every weak to the police station. Sarabjit told me that his name, particulars and photo were displayed in several police stations as a “Bad Character.” He explained that according to the Rules 27 and 29 of the Punjab Police Rules, only individuals who had been convicted twice or more could be added to Register Number 10—the register of all Bad Characters in the state. On 21 December 2001, in a petition by Sarabjit, the high court directed the Punjab Police to delete Sarabjit’s name from the Register Number 10. But according to the 2013 judgement, the police did not delete his name.

Sarabjit told me that the “Bad Character” tag had very real consequences for him. “As if subjecting me to the mental agony, expenses and stress was not enough, police objected to my passport application, which was my constitutional right,” he told me. “Once again, I had to file another writ petition before the high court in 2005 for getting the passport issued in my name, which was decided in 2006. The writ petition was accepted by the high court, which directed the passport authorities to issue the passport to me.”

Sarabjit told me that the cases took a heavy toll on him and his family. “I suffered much monetary loss by engaging counsels and also personally attending the court hearings,” he said. “My family and I suffered mental torture, stress and depression during the pendency of these cases and the police harassment. For years, our life was not normal, and we barely paid attention to our business and amidst sleepless nights, hardly ever had proper meals.” Sarabjit has kept a careful note of the days the Punjab Police have taken from him. “I spent 88 days in jail, attended 62 hearings at the time of filing this compensation petition and the case was pending in the trial court for eight years,” he told me. “I attended more than 100 hearings at Chandigarh before the High Court and the PSHRC, including at least 32 hearings before the latter.”

In 2008, Sarabjit moved the Amritsar Civil Court demanding that the Punjab Police compensate him for the physical, mental and economic costs he incurred as a result of the false cases. While Sarabjit brought seven witnesses to attest for what he had suffered, the defendants—the Punjab state government, the Punjab Police and Amritsar’s SSP—had only one witness, Manvinder Singh, Amritsar’s deputy superintendent of police. The judgement stated that in his cross examination, Manvider stated that at the time both the FIRs were lodged, he was not posted at any police station in Amritsar. He further stated that he had no knowledge of those cases and that he had never gone through the two previous judgments. Manvinder stated that only the investigating officers of these cases could provide the court with the information they needed.

Rai’s judgement said that the failure of the state and police to provide these witnesses suggested that Sarabjit’s case was legitimate. “That is precisely view of the court that in order to prove the factum that the plaintiff was not falsely implicated at any point of time and was not illegally detained at any point of time, it would only be the Investigating Officers of those cases or their high-ups, who corroborated their versions and authenticated the same by holding huge press conferences damaging the repute of the plaintiff in public by labelling him as terrorist and dacoit were required to be examined,” the judgement said. “Further, none of those witnesses ever dared to step in the witness box to testify in support of the case of State and to face cross examination of the plaintiff. What that would mean, would be the only single irresistible conclusion that the case of the defendant has virtually been without any evidence to support its case and to rebut the evidence of the plaintiff.”

Rai’s judgment argued that the Punjab Police’s actions were a direct violation of the Indian Constitution’s right to life and right to liberty. “The State can be taken to be Saviour and protector of the Fundamental Rights of its citizens and not to itself infringe upon them,” the judgment notes. “Now it is this principle which justifies the award of compensation for contravention of Fundamental Right guaranteed by the Constitution, and it would then be the only practical mode of redress available.” The court specified that the amount of compensation should be Rs 10 lakh, with an interest of six percent for every year it is not paid.

On 16 April 2018, Sarabjit filed another petition before an Amritsar civil court because the state had not compensated him yet. The state government repeatedly tried to delay the compensation over several hearings in the case. On 17 February 2021, Baljinder Singh, the additional civil judge (senior division) at Amritsar directed the state government to pay a sum of Rs.14,85,000—the original ten lakh along with six percent compound interest since 2013—to Sarabjit from the Amritsar deputy commissioner’s account. The judge further ordered the state government to prepare a voucher for the same immediately and submit a compliance report regarding it on 1 March.

On 1 March, Shivraj Singh Sran, the government pleader, argued that the deputy commissioner was not authorised to release funds and that the account did not have any available funds. The court then ordered the district treasury officer to transfer the compensation amount to Sarabjit immediately. “In case the order is not complied with in letter and spirit, the District Treasury Officer shall appear in person in the Court to explain why necessary action against him as per the provisions of Order 21 of the Code of Civil Procedure be not taken. Compliance report from concerned quarter be awaited for 15.03.2021,” the 1 March order said. On 15 March, Manjeet Kaur, the district treasury officer told the court that the amount could not be released without a bill generated by the deputy commissioner. The court ordered that the state government send a letter to Gurpreet Singh Khaira, Amritsar’s deputy commissioner, and that he presents a compliance report to the court on 31 March showing that the amount was deposited in Sarabjit’s account. Sarabjit has not been compensated at the time of the publishing of this story.

Sarabjit was 22 years old when the Punjab Police first picked him up in 1992. He is now 51 years old. He told me that both his memory as well as his ability to walk had been patchy for years. The cases he fought had cost him lakhs. Despite this, when I met him, he looked energetic and hopeful. In his long fight through judicial red tape, he studied law and now works as a lawyer for others who were framed by the Punjab Police.

In 1998, he joined the Punjab Human Rights Organisation, one of the few organisations that consistently investigated human rights abuses in the state at the height of the insurgency, founded by Ajit Singh Bains, a retired high court judge. Sarabjit’s office was stacked high with files from the various cases he had worked on. These included some of the biggest investigations of corruption and human-rights abuses in the last two decades. Sarabjit had certainly made a fair share of enemies across the breadth the state’s bureaucracy. It seemed ironic, that his own case for compensation seemed to never make it out of the judicial doldrums.

When I asked him how much of a struggle the past 30 years had been, he told me that he had been relatively lucky. “When I was arrested, international organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and even the British parliament spoke out asking the Indian government to withdraw the cases,” he told me. “Most people in Punjab framed in false terrorism cases like this haven’t been acquitted yet, others were encountered.”