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

22 March 2021
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
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

“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.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: Punjab Punjab police Illegal Detentions torture Khalistan