Former journalist stabbed to death in Punjab, family says police investigation had lapses

On the night of 10 May, Sunpreet Singh Mangat, a 35-year-old farmer and a former journalist, was found dead on a road in Punjab. According to his family, by several if not all indications, the police appeared to have investigated the murder with haste and without due diligence. Courtesy Jatinder Kaur Tur
01 June, 2020

On the night of 10 May, Sunpreet Singh Mangat, a 35-year-old farmer and a former journalist, was found dead in Punjab, on a road connecting SBS Nagar district’s Rahon town to Ludhiana’s Machhiwara town. Sunpreet’s father, Balwant Singh, found his body and the Punjab Police registered a first-information report in the matter within a few hours. The FIR claimed that Balwant said that his son died in an “accident” from an “unknown vehicle” driven by an “unknown driver.” But Balwant, who said he found the body in a bloody condition after Sunpreet had died, denied this. He told me that the police kept trying to convince him that Sunpreet had died in an accident. The next day, a post-mortem revealed that Sunpreet was stabbed at least 13 times and five days later, the police added murder to the offences listed in the FIR. 

The initial FIR was the first among many reasons for Sunpreet’s family to question the police investigation of the murder. In a press release dated 23 May, the police said it had nabbed six young men for murdering Sunpreet who confessed to the crime. The press release claimed that the assailants were armed and inebriated while travelling through the road, looking to rob someone at random. It said that the six men confessed that they stole a silver chain from Sunpreet.

But Balwant said that his son never wore such a chain. Sunpreet’s maternal cousin, who requested anonymity, said that it would be strange for intoxicated men to travel through a main road when a nationwide lockdown was in place to combat the novel coronavirus. The family said that even if the police had arrested the right culprits, it did not seem to have much evidence which could lead to their conviction—according to criminal procedure, a confession to the police is not admissible in court. 

By several if not all indications, the police appeared to have investigated the murder with haste and without due diligence, according to the family. The family said that the police was unnecessarily highlighting cases in which Sunpreet had earlier been falsely implicated, which pertained to the transportation of poppy husk. They claimed that the police was trying to malign him to ease the pressure to solve the murder. The police also appeared to be ignoring that Sunpreet had pursued stories on illegal sand mining as a journalist, the family said—several people who knew of his work said that the police should probe whether it was connected to the murder. Due to these gaps in the investigation, Sunpreet’s maternal cousin said that the family would demand a high-level probe by an independent agency into the murder. 

Sunpreet was the only breadwinner of his family, which comprised his parents, wife and two children. After the news of his death spread, his friends and journalists in SBS Nagar took to social media to mourn Sunpreet’s death. He was a “fearless” reporter, one of them said. Sunpreet’s maternal cousin, too, described him as a reporter “who rubbed many a people up the wrong way.” Two journalists who knew him told me that it was possible that he was murdered because of his sand-mining stories. 

Although everyone I spoke to emphasised that Sunpreet was an honest journalist, he had been sent to prison twice. In April 2017, when he was working with the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, the Punjab Police had charged him under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 for his involvement in transporting 20 kilograms of poppy husk in Machhiwara. “He spent more than a month in jail before his bail,” the maternal cousin said. He was again booked under the NDPS in March 2019, for transporting seven kilograms of poppy husk, for which he spent another month in jail. Sunpreet’s family claimed that he was the only one to be arrested in both the cases, and that it indicated his innocence. Hiscousin said, “The investigations, it seems, started and ended at him.”

After his first stint in jail, Sunpreet quit journalism. A journalist from a Punjabi daily who knew Sunpreet said, “He stopped interacting with us”—referring to fellow journalists—“and just focused on farming. He redirected the same hard work towards his fields for three years.” 

On 10 May, Sunpreet was working on their fields, his father told me. At around 6 am, Balwant and Sunpreet went to their fields at Sekhan Majara village, around five kilometres away from their home. Balwant returned home by 5.30 pm, while his son stayed back to finish work. Sometime that night, Balwant told me, “he answered a phone call from his mother and said that he was just around the corner at Garhi Morh, which is hardly any distance from our house.” The distance between Garhi Morh and their house was around two kilometres. “When he did not reach, we started calling him up, but the calls were unanswered. I took my bike out and reached the farms. I couldn’t find him there,” he said. “On my way back, I spotted his body lying in a pool of blood.” Balwant said this happened around 10 pm. Soon, the police arrived at the scene and he accompanied them to the Rahon Police Station. 

Jasdeep Singh, Sunpreet’s cousin who is based in Machhiwara, said he reached the site of the murder at around 5 am. Sunpreet’s body had been taken away by then. He said the police did not seem keen on probing the site where his body was found. “The police did not even seal the crime spot,” Jasdeep said. In the next few days, he added, he saw some people “grazing their cattle there.”

In the FIR regarding the death, the police charted the course of Sunpreet’s day and attributed the information to Balwant. “The injuries seem to have been caused by an unidentified vehicle loaded with sharp iron rods or strips because of the negligence of an unknown driver,” the police wrote. It invoked Sections 279 and 304-A of the Indian Penal Code which pertain to rash driving and causing death by negligence. Balwant, however, told me that he did not say that his son died due to an accident. In fact, he said, “From the night of 10 May to the next two days, the SHO and other officials tried convincing us with a firm declaration that it was an accident.” 

It is unclear why Subhash Bath, the SHO, would insist upon terming it as an accident. Alka Meena, the senior superintendent of police of SBS Nagar, told me that Bath did not inform her of the death when it happened. She said when she asked Bath about it on 11 May, “he said it was late and that he informed a DSP”—Harneel Singh, the deputy superintendent of police—“of the ‘accident.’” Meena said, “On seeing the photographs and other details after being approached by a few journalists, I concluded that it was more than an accident.”

Meena said she asked a post-mortem board to look into the case. In its report, dated 11 March, the board attributed the injuries to a “sharp weapon.” Sunpreet had sustained 13 stab wounds and one incised wound, and succumbed to his injuries within “few minutes.” The family had applied to get the report on 12 May, but the hospital only gave it to them on the evening of 16 May, Sunpreet’s cousin told me. 

Even before receiving the report, Sunpreet’s family realised that it did not seem like he died in an accident. On 14 May, Balwant wrote in a letter to Meena that when the police was registering the FIR, “I was in shock and it was difficult to compose myself immediately after the death of my only son and breadwinner of the family. Moreover, the police officer who registered the FIR at the police station kept on repeating it is a road accident.”

In the letter, Balwant listed six points that showed that the cause of death was “not a road accident.” These included that there was “no wreckage of collusion or hit by any vehicle or drag” and Sunpreet’s motorcycle “was standing on side stand at the site and no damage is there attributable to collusion with or hit by any vehicle.” 

Balwant wrote the site of the incident is on a straight road fenced by iron girders. “Road accident can only either hit from front coming vehicle or from behind, but the motorcycle does not suggest any such hit/accident.” He added, “The iron fencing on the roadside had blood stains suggesting that the deceased stood there on his feet. The bleeding finger marks on the fence suggests fall.” 

Based on these observations, Balwant wrote, crime scene should be studied by forensic experts, call records and location-tracking mobile data should be made part of the investigation. “The site of the incident falls between two filling stations. The CCTV footage from these filling stations and police barriers on both the sides of the site of incident should be made part of the investigation,” he wrote. He mentioned that people had taken to social media, raising questions on whether the death resulted from an accident. “The social media commentary suggests that there may be involvement of sand mafia he did news reports against or drug mafia which implicated him in a case. This commentary should be made part of the investigation.” He added, “These circumstances suggest some foul play involved in the incident.” 

On 14 May, the Association for Democratic Rights, a Punjab-based human-rights watchdog, released a report on the death that reiterated that Sunpreet’s death could not have been caused by an accident. It was penned by a three-member fact-finding team of the AFDR that had visited the crime scene. Additionally, the AFDR report mentioned, “A bag having tiffin etc. was still clutched in the hands of deceased person. In the case of road accident, his hand grip would had loosened and under such circumstances, clutching of the bag in his hands would not had been possible.” As Sunpreet was an outspoken correspondent, the report said, “The aspect of any linkage with his reporting of mining and drug mafia should have been looked into for knowing the reasons behind his death.” Boota Singh, the press secretary of the AFDR, who was a part of its fact-finding team, told me the reason behind the police’s carelessness should also be investigated. 

When I asked Meena about Balwant’s letter, on 18 May, she said she received it just a couple of days ago. She said she suspended Bath and ordered a departmental enquiry against the DSP. On 17 May, the police had added the offence of murder to the FIR. She added that the case had been transferred to a three-member team of the Punjab Police’s crime-investigation agency.

On 23 May, the district police said in a press release that they had arrested six men who confessed that they murdered Sunpreet. The accused—Jagdeep Singh, Bakhshish Singh, Harsh, Janit Kumar, Harjinder Singh and Kamaljit Singh—are between 18 and 24 years of age. The same day, I spoke to an inspector of the CIA team, Dalbir Singh. He said their bikes and two weapons, including a dagger, had been recovered. “Police has taken a four-day remand of the accused to find more details,” Dalbir said. “The accused confessed to having committed more incidents of snatching, but we are not aware if any cases have been registered in that regard.” They were then sent to judicial custody for this case, he said.

According to the press release, the men were under the influence of alcohol and marijuana on the night of the murder. They were travelling through the Machhiwara–Rahon road on two bikes to find someone to rob. When they saw Sunpreet, they blocked his way and surrounded him. The accused first hit Sunpreet twice while he was on his feet and after he fell off, they kept hitting him to kill him. “During the interrogation, the accused admitted even this that they neither had any past resentment or anger nor any personal animosity against the deceased,” the press release said. They had the “sole aim of loot.” The police wrote in the release that the case had been solved due to their “tireless efforts.” It failed to mention that the initial FIR had dismissed the case as an accident.

Sunpreet’s father pointed out a glaring hole in the press release. The accused men had admitted to stealing Rs 15,000, a silver chain and Sunpreet’s wallet, the press release said—the police did not mention if it had recovered these belongings from the accused. But Balwant told me that a day before the press release was circulated, the police came to their home. “We were told to identity a silver chain recovered by the police from the accused to be one which was worn by Sunpreet. But he never wore any kind of chain.” 

The journalist who works at a Punjabi daily and Sunpreet’s cousins said they doubted the police’s explanation that Sunpreet was killed due to a robbery gone wrong. “What kind of snatchers are these who did not bother to even take his bike or watch and mobile phone?” Jasdeep asked. Sunpreet’s maternal cousin said, “How come there was no patrol party or nakkahs”—police check posts—“amid a lockdown in the area?” SBS Nagar had 84 active cases as of 6 pm on 10 May, according to government data, and was one of the first districts to report cases of the novel coronavirus in Punjab. The cousin said if the accused were roaming around inebriated on the main road during a lockdown, the police should own up that it failed to maintain law and order. 

Even if the police had arrested the right culprits, the family said, it would be difficult for the accused to be convicted now. “How would anybody prove that they were inebriated that day? It has been nearly two weeks. The dagger that the police recovered, if indeed was the one used for the murder, was lying in possession of the accused all these days. The evidence, if any, would have been destroyed and would not stand in the court of law,” he said. “Had the cops not tried to dismiss it as an accident case, the accused who arrested after 13 days would have been nabbed that very day,” the cousin said. 

I asked Meena about the concerns raised by Sunpreet’s cousin, if the police was confident of the motive behind the murder and whether initially labelling the murder as an accident would impact the case. “Everything is crystal clear, no doubt left pls,” she replied via a WhatsApp message.

The family was also dismayed that the police seemed to ignore Sunpreet’s work on sand mining during the investigation, but highlighted the NDPS cases against him. The press release which announced that six men had been arrested also mentioned the NDPS cases against him. “In fact, every time we met the police officials, we were reminded of these cases even though they have no connection with the murder,” his cousin said. “We understand and feel that this is to mar and malign his credentials and divert the attention from the police inaction and lapses that we feel should be looked into.” 

A statement by Sukhwinder Kumar Sukhi, the member of legislative assembly from Banga, also suggested that the police could be biased against Sunpreet. Sukhi mentioned that he spoke to Meena regarding Sunpreet’s case. “She told us that he was a criminal-type man and that even the day he was murdered, he had brought dodde”—poppy husk—“from somewhere,” he said. “If he had poppy husk, where is that now?” Sukhi said this conversation took place on 22 May. But the press release, which was published the next day, did not mention that he possessed poppy husk at the time of the murder. 

“Even if someone is a criminal, does that mean people can punish him on their own, on the road?” Sukhi said. He added that he felt that the death was connected to illegal sand mining. “Even today, mining is being carried out rampantly in our district and there is nobody stopping it.” He said he asked the SSP if this could be a factor in Sunpreet’s death, and she said no. I called and messaged Meena about her statements to Sukhi, but did not receive a response.

The case seems to have the attention of SBS Nagar’s political representatives now. On 19 May, Manish Tewari, the member of parliament Anandpur Sahib, said that he requested the police to investigate the matter in depth. Sukhi said, “There are a lot of unanswered questions regarding this murder. The law and order situation in our district is very bad and our only request is to probe the exact reasons behind this murder.”

Police officers related to the case said that they are thoroughly investigating the murder. Jaskaran Singh, the inspector-general of the Ludhiana Range of police, said, “Anybody coming forward with tip-offs on possible suspects or leads would be welcome. We shall take it to a logical conclusion.” Wazir Singh Khaira, a superintendent, said that every motive was being probed. But the family appears to have little faith in the police now. Sunpreet’s cousin told me, “The cops who disregarded their duty should be brought to book.”

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with more than 25 years of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.