Delhi Police arrests two Dalit Sikh youth for conspiracy to murder Sushil Pandit, families contest claims

Sushil Pandit is a campaigner for the repatriation of Kashimiri Pandits and is known to be close to the Bharatiya Janata Party. On 26 February, the Delhi Police arrested two Dalit youth from Punjab, claiming that they had conspired to murder Pandit.
Elections 2024
06 March, 2021

On 26 February, the Delhi Police arrested 25-year-old Sukhwinder Singh and 21-year-old Lakhan Rajput, two Dalit youth from Punjab, claiming that they had conspired to murder Sushil Pandit. Pandit is a campaigner for the repatriation of Kashimiri Pandits and is known to be close to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Delhi Police later anonymously claimed to the media that Sukhwinder and Lakhan could have been involved with Pakistan’s intelligence agency. However, the first-information report registered by the police and public statements by the deputy commissioner of police who overlooked their arrest shows little to substantiate this claim apart from undisclosed information provided by an anonymous informant.

The Delhi Police claimed that the two individuals were following the instructions of one Prince Kumar—a gangster who has been in Punjab’s Faridkot jail in November. Yet, by the Delhi Police’s own admission, they did not inform or consult the Punjab Police. Sukhwinder and Lakhan’s family told me that the cases foisted against them were false and baseless, and that the duo have no prior criminal record. In Punjab recently a number of Dalit Sikhs have been arrested under terror charges, and after long periods of incarceration the cases against them were dropped due to a complete lack of evidence.

The RK Puram police station in Delhi registered the FIR against Sukhwinder and Lakhan on 26 February. The charges against them include Sections 115 and 120B of Indian Penal Code, which pertain to being party to a criminal conspiracy and abetment of an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life, as well as offences under the Arms Act of 1959. Several aspects of the FIR clash with the accounts of Sukhwinder and Lakhan’s family. The FIR claims that the Delhi Police were getting information for several days that some inmates in a Punjab jail were hatching a plot to kill Pandit, and that there is a possibility of their links with foreign powers. It claims that “foreign powers” were interested in the murder of Pandit because “he was creating awareness among people in favour of abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution”—which safeguarded Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy. The FIR reads, “Thus he is on target of some people in and out of the country.”

According to the FIR, an informant told the RK Puram police on the evening of 26 February that two youth aiming to murder Pandit would arrive at Venkateshwar Marg, in Sector 3 of RK Puram, at around 8 or 9 pm. “At around 8.40 pm, two youth with bags over their shoulders boarded down from a DTC bus and started walking towards Sector 1, red light,” the FIR states. Raju Kaur, Sukhwinder’s sister, told me that he had left home without any bag that day. The FIR continues, “The informer gestured and confirmed their identity. Following this, the entire staff was alerted, and the youth nabbed.” The FIR notes that the police could not get any private witnesses for the arrest because the sub-inspector “asked a few passers-by to be involved in the activity, but they excused themselves pleading genuine reasons that they did not want to get entangled in police case and left the spot without telling their names and addresses. Nobody could be given a notice due to shortage of time.”

The FIR claims that Sukhwinder and Lakhan had four guns, two of which were country pistols and the other two of foreign make, as well ammunition in their bags. It adds that during their interrogation after the arrest, both of them confessed that they had been hired by Tuti to murder Pandit. They also purportedly told the police that they were searching for a place to hide for the past few days and were roaming around Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kutub Hotel. Raj Kumar, Lakhan’s father, told me that his son had been staying in Delhi for five years now and already had a rented accommodation. It is unclear, then, why Sukhwinder and Lakhan would search for multiple days for a place to stay.

A senior officer of the Punjab Police, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that the Punjab Police had not been informed of the arrests prior to it, and should have as a matter of procedure. “Tuti was absconding from Punjab following a murder he had committed during a marriage in Faridkot,” the officer told me. “He was caught by the Delhi Police and lodged at Tihar jail in Delhi. However, Tuti was brought on a production warrant to Faridkot jail in November 2020.”

On 1 March, Swarandeep Singh, the senior superintendent of police at Faridkot, said he was informed of the arrests but was not a part of them. When asked if Tuti could have masterminded a murder, given weapons and been in constant contact over the phone with Lakhan and Sukhwinder, Swarandeep said, “I cannot comment on this because it is a part of the investigations. You can ask the jail authorities regarding the same.” On 3 March, Tuti was taken into Delhi Police custody. Ingit Pratap Singh, the deputy commissioner of police for Delhi’s South West district, who has jurisdiction over the RK Puram police station, told me that the Delhi Police are not bound to inform the state police prior to taking such actions.

Pandit’s LinkedIn account describes himself as the owner of a company called Hive Communication (India). He has previously helped organise the BJP’s electoral campaign in 1999 and 2009. However, the mainstay of Pandit’s work has been campaigning to repatriate Hindus to the Kashmir valley. In 2018, the Jammu and Kashmir Police booked Pandit himself for tweeting about an attack against paramilitary personnel in Kashmir that never happened.

Republic TV, on whose panel shows Pandit is a frequent guest, reported on 27 February, “As per sources, the conspirators had allegedly taken offence to the ‘pro-establishment’ speeches given by Sushil Pandit at the Jawarhal Nehru University recently where he had also highlighted the plight of the 3.50 lakh Kashmiri pandits.” The channel did not clarify who these sources were or even how they were in possession of this information. In subsequent statements to the media, the Delhi Police have mentioned a gun that was of Pakistani make and a record of calls and messages between Lakhan and Sukhwinder and a contact of theirs in Dubai. The details of these have not yet been released to the public.

Both Sukhwinder and Lakhan were the primary bread winners of their impoverished families and both had to migrate often to feed them. Sukhwinder’s family lives in a dilapidated house in Faridkot district’s Kot Kapura city. Raju Kaur, Sukhwinder’s sister, told me she is working as a domestic help, which is a common occupation for women of the Mazhabi Sikh community. Dalits who converted to Sikhism and are now categorised as Mazhabi Sikhs, and face many of the forms of exploitation and discrimination as Dalit communities categorised under other religions.

Sarabjeet Kaur, Sukhwinder’s mother, who used to previously work as a domestic help, said that she is unable to do so because her health was deteriorating and she had joint pains. “Ghare khand vei nahin haigi”—There is not even sugar in the house, Sarabjeet told me. “My other son, Sukhwinder’s brother Mehak, had to drop out of school when he was just 15 because we didn’t have any money,” she said. “He started working in a shop and earns only a paltry sum between Rs 2,000 and 4,000.”

“Sukhwinder worked as a waiter here and was working as a plumber and in orchards while in Malaysia,” she continued. “We have no doors or windows installed in our house since we did not have money. Despite returning loans to relatives taken during the construction of this house, we still owe them Rs 3 lakh.” Sarabjeet also said that her husband is an alcoholic and the entire family depended on Sukhwinder’s wages.

Raju Kaur told me that despite him being only 25, he had to migrate to places, including Malaysia, where he faced traumatic experiences. “While working in Malaysia, Sukhwinder was kidnapped, and subjected to electric shocks while his passport and other documents were also snatched,” she said. “He has had severe mental health issues and high blood pressure ever since, which only worsened when he and his wife separated.” Sukhwinder had returned to India only a year and a half ago after his family rescued him and got him another passport.

She was worried that his experience in Malaysia would make it even more dangerous if he were tortured again by the police. “Uhnun bijlian lagdian si. Jekar usnu kuteya, te oh aapna nuuksan kar sakda,”—He was given electric currents at one point of time, he can harm himself if tortured—Raju Kaur told me.

“He left for Vaishno Devi on 7 February along with a friend called Gora,” Sarabjeet said. “He liked visiting his maternal grandparents’ house in Moga district, and going to religious shrines like Chintpurni. He said he would be back in a day or two, but we haven’t heard from him since.” Sarabjeet said Gora had returned days before Sukhwinder’s arrest but did not tell the family that anything untoward had happened.

On 1 March, Sarabjeet told me, “We were not aware that he had been arrested by Delhi police till day before yesterday evening when Pehalwan”—a local policewoman—“came and told us. She told us that he was involved in some crime and was arrested for talking to someone in Dubai.” Sukhwinder’s wife, who is now separated from him, had at one point travelled to Dubai. Beyond that, Sarabjeet told me that the family had no link to anyone in Dubai or Pakistan.

“Nobody is telling us anything,” Rekha Rani, another of Sukhwinder’s sisters, told me. “When are they going to bring him here? They don’t even let him talk to us over the phone.” Raju Kaur said that they had no idea what to do to press for Sukhwinder’s release. “He was not carrying any extra clothes with himself and said he would be back in a day or two and since then the family never heard from him, not even now after his arrest,” she said. “Our family is so poor that I don’t think we can even afford to hire a lawyer to represent him.”

Raju Kaur received a call from the Delhi Police on her phone on 3 March. “The police person asked me if we had a lawyer and if we could come to Delhi for the case,” Kaur told me. “I told them our family did not have money to travel or get a lawyer, and that my mother was too sick to leave home. The police then let me talk to Sukhwinder for two minutes and he was crying throughout. He told me that he was eating but then the police cut us off. They told me I could speak with my brother more if I came to Delhi, but there is no way we can afford to go. We have no men in the family who can go either.”

On 1 March, I spoke to Raj Kumar, Lakhan’s father, who earns a living by operating burger stalls during social functions in Kot Kapura. He told me that Lakhan who is only 21-years-old had left to Delhi five years ago. “He was running a fast-food canteen in a media company in Delhi while my elder son was adopted by my in-laws long time back,” Kumar said. “One of my daughters is mentally challenged while the other one is working in a hospital. Lakhan was crucial to pay the bills at home.”

Kumar told me that he was from the Banjara community, which is classified as a Scheduled Caste in Punjab. “I was initially told Lakhan was missing for the past 15 days or so,” Kumar said. He told me he had found out about the arrest only recently from Lakhan’s brother, who lives in Delhi. Kumar told me that because Lakhan was in Delhi, he did not know whom his son had spoken to or whom he met. “But I have never heard him get in touch with any gangster here. I can’t even fight for his release in Delhi because I have to fend for my daughter here.”