Neither sacrilege nor Khalistan connection in Gurdaspur lynching case: Punjab Police

On the intervening night between 30 June and 1 July, Deepak Singh, a 39-year-old GREF employee, was lynched on the premises of a gurudwara in Gudaspur, Punjab. Soon after his death, social media was awash with rumours from right-wing accounts—both Sikh and Hindu. Courtesy Deepak Mala
10 July, 2021

Had a bus driver not gotten confused between “Kahnuwan” and “Kanwan,” leading him to drop 39-year-old Deepak Singh at Kahnuwan Chowk late in the evening, the latter might not have not been lynched in a nearby gurudwara, on the Gurdaspur-Pathankot highway, in Punjab. On the intervening night between 30 June and 1 July, Deepak, an employee of the General Reserve Engineering Force, was headed home to Lahri Sarmo village in Gurdaspur district, after six months on duty in Arunachal Pradesh. According to his father, Onkar Singh, after being dropped off at the wrong location, Deepak headed to the nearest gurudwara to spend the night, as is common custom in Punjab. By morning, he was dead—a group of locals, suspicious of his reasons for entering the gurudwara, beat him severely. He did not survive the injuries.

Neither the subsequent police investigation nor the family’s accounts yielded any ideological motivation behind the crime. But this did not stop right-wing social-media users from claiming so. On the one hand, Sikh radicals, or those connected to them, defended the accused, alleging that Deepak had committed “beadabi”—sacrilege. On the other, Hindu right-wing social-media accounts and websites such as OpIndia claimed that Khalistanis, or Sikh separatist extremists, were behind the killing, making the incident out to be an anti-Hindu attack.

The police officers investigating the case said that any connection to Khalistan is unfounded, as are claims of sacrilege. “This is neither a religious hate crime nor has any kind of sacrilege taken place,” Nanak Singh, the senior superintendent of police for Gurdaspur, told me. “There was no damage to the holy Guru Granth Sahib”—the holy book of the Sikhs—“and there was no entry by the victim into the sanctum sanctorum. The accused had an apprehension that Deepak was drunk and had entered the Gurdwara with malafide intention to commit sacrilege.” Nanak said that six people were involved, who then beat up Deepak. He died before being reaching the hospital. Police officials also told local media that members of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prab

Deepak’s post-mortem report listed seven external injuries, including abrasions on his arm, shoulder, back, side and buttocks. The report also listed one injury above his eye, and noted that there were foreign particles lodged in his larynx and trachea. It did not specify a cause of death, stating that this would be confirmed once chemical examinations of samples from the body were complete.

At the time of publishing, the Gurdaspur police had arrested six accused: local residents Gurjeet Singh Saini and Daljit Singh, Gurjeet’s wife Harjeet Kaur, the gurudwara’s reader Jaspinder Singh, and two minors. Both Gurjeet and Daljit had been remanded to judicial custody for a few days.

Deepak Mala and Onkar—the deceased’s wife and father, respectively—relayed the sequence of events. Mala said that she last spoke to her husband at about 9.15 pm on 30 June. He had landed in Amritsar a short while earlier and was collecting his ticket for the Gurdaspur-bound bus. “He was waiting eagerly to come home after six months,” she said. The family spoke to Deepak again a few hours later, Onkar said. Deepak informed them that he had been dropped off at Kahnuwan and was headed to a gurudwara. “What safer place for seeking shelter or water in the middle of the night than a gurudwara?” Onkar said.

At around midnight, Deepak’s mother called him. He was telling her that he would look for a bus to take him home, when someone in the vicinity appeared to have hit her son. Onkar said she heard Deepak say, “Yaar, thappad kyon maar rehan hain?”—Why are you hitting me?

“When my wife asked him about his whereabouts, he said, ‘Don’t worry,’” Onkar continued. “I again called him at 12.27 am and he said there was nothing to worry about, and that he would reach home. Once again, I called him at 12.47 am and could hear loud noises in the background as he was talking. Suddenly, his phone went dead.”

Onkar was not able to contact his son after that. “At about 7 or 8 am in the morning, cops came to my place and asked me to accompany them to the city police station. They informed me that my son was dead,” he said.

According to Nanak Singh, the Gurdaspur SSP, the scuffle and the subsequent assault took place in the wee hours of the morning. Nanak said that Jaspinder Singh—the pathi, or the reader of the holy book—arrived at the gurudwara at about 5.15 am. He found that the lock was broken. The SSP said that the pathi informed Saini and Daljitabout Deepak’s presence inside the gurudwara premises. “Gurjeet reached the place along with his wife and his son,” Nanak said. “His time of arrival and that of the other accused has been ascertained from the CCTV footage procured from a nearby church.”

Nanak said that Deepak had initially left the premises by the time Gurjeet and his family arrived. “Gurjeet told us that they smelled liquor from him and got agitated about him having entered the gurudwara in this state,” the SSP continued. The accused began to doubt Deepak’s intention for entering the gurudwara, Nanak said. “Jaspinder Singh and Saini’s son went on a bike and brought him back. All this happened between 5.45 am and 6.30 am,” the SSP told me. “There were six people who beat him up during their questioning aimed at eliciting the confession to the possible sacrilege angle along with any other conspirators to trespassing.”

In a video circulating on social media, Deepak can be seen being questioned by a group of people asking him why he did so. He replies that he was sleeping inside. A woman can be heard saying that she saw him and another man breaking the locks. To this, Deepak replies by asking the identity of this second man. It is unclear when this video was recorded. At the time of publishing, Nanak said that the police were working to ascertain the events that took place around midnight, when Deepak last spoke to his family.

Onkar, Deepak’s father, said that the family was not well off. “Deepak has a small daughter of 9 years and a wife, teaching in a private school for very little money. I do not know what will happen to them after me,” he said, adding that the family only had a small piece of land as their asset. When I spoke Onkar on 5 July, he was waiting to collect Deepak’s death certificate and the post-mortem report from the Civil Hospital in Gurdaspur. The doctor who was supposed to sign the report was apparently not in the hospital. “He is not taking calls and I have been told that he will come tomorrow at 8 pm. It’s a thirty-kilometre distance for me,” Onkar said. “I am 69, I cannot take this pain of losing my son at this age.”

Both Onkar and Mala—Deepak’s wife—said that Deepak was an open-minded man who respected Sikhism. “He had immense faith in god and took me specially to see the Darbar Sahib,” Mala said, referring to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. She added that Deepak was a soft-spoken man. “His entire salary was primarily used in helping others or donating for the marriages of girls. He was very liberal, given the fact that he hailed from the so-called orthodox Rajput clan,” Mala said. “This can be judged from the fact that we have only one girl child despite staying in a village. We never went for a second child since he used to consider and address our daughter as putt”—son. “With him donating so much money, my father-in-law had to pitch in often, financially.” Mala said that all the family wanted now was for the culprits to be punished.  

In a letter dated 5 July, Lieutenant Colonel Sandeep Singh Raut, the commanding officer of the 1069 Field Workshop of the GREF, the unit in which Deepak was posted, wrote to the deputy commissioner and the SSP of Gurdaspur. Raut wrote that Onkar had informed him of Deepak’s death. The letter demanded an investigation into the matter and the arrest of the murderers on priority. Raut further requested the police to inform the unit of the investigation’s outcome.

On 1 July, Deepak’s family members lodged a complaint at the Gurdaspur city police station. The police lodged an FIR against the accused under the Sections 304 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code—pertaining to culpable homicide and acts committed by a group of people with a common intention. The next day, the FIR was converted to one under the section 302 of the IPC, pertaining to murder. The SSP added that in April 2021, the police filed an FIR against Saini, for an attempt to murder. He was accused of shooting at his former business partner, and was out on bail.

None of the accounts of the family, nor the videos, nor the documents, suggest any ideological motivation behind the lynching. But not long after Deepak’s death, social media was awash with rumours about the killing. Deep Sidhu, a Punjabi actor and activist who became known for his participation in the farmers’ protests, alleged in a Facebook post that a “blasphemy attempt” had been made. Sidhu backed the accused, claiming that the death happened in police custody.

Soon, Hindu right-wing handles on social media also jumped into the fray. Some claimed that the killers were Khalistani, or Sikh extremists. The website OpIndia ran articles fanning this narrative, highlighting that Deepak was employed in the Indian Army, and claiming that he was a Hindu murdered by those aligned with separatist Sikh forces.

One twitter user, AkkaPrasanna, posted to the website on 4 July that “the killer of dear Deepak Thakur was a Khalistani militant of Damdami Taksal arrested by Gurdaspur police earlier #JusticeForDeepakThakur.” The Damdami Taksal is an orthodox group once headed by the Sikh extremist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

AkkaPrasanna shared a screenshot of a 2018 news report regarding a sedition case against a man named Daljit Singh, who appeared to be connected to the Sikh Youth Federation Bhindranwale, a Sikh radical organisation. The next day, OpIndia published an article with the headline, “Punjab Army man lynching case: Khalistani links of accused and supporters emerge.” The article went on to draw weak connections between Daljit and the Damdami Taksal. The piece did not contain any accounts of the family members, nor the police’s version.

The article also included a reference to Barjinder Singh Parwana, a Sikh religious speaker. Like Deep Sidhu, Parwana released a video on social media backing the accused. He claimed that a man entered the gurudwara for “sacrilege” and that “the gurudwara committee gave him a thrashing,” following which he died. Parwana, too, did not include any accounts from the family. He described Daljit as “veer”—brother. The OpIndia article greatly emphasised that Parwana has a tattoo of Bhindranwale. The website ran a few other articles along the same theme.

Hindutva political party workers, too, have touted the incident as an anti-Hindu attack. Vipan Nayyar, a worker of the Punjab faction of the Shiv Sena, released a Facebook video asking people to gather in protest at the SSP’s office in Gurdaspur. Nayyar rebuked Parwana, saying that the latter was “creating a rift between Hindus and Sikhs.” He went to allege that Parwana was being funded to do so. Nayyar claimed that “the incident shows that attempts are on to suppress Hindus in Punjab by implicating them in cases of sacrilege.” No Hindu has yet been accused of sacrilege or blasphemy in Punjab. Meanwhile, some affiliated with the BJP launched a social-media campaign with the hashtag “JusticeForDeepakThakur.” A party worker named Apurva Singh and the party’s Haryana head Arun Yadav shared a video on Twitter, of Deepak’s daughter 9-year-old daughter with the hashtag. The child can be heard asking for  “phaansi”—hanging—for those that killed her father.

When asked about OpIndia’s article, the SSP Nanak Singh denied any connection to Khalistan. “Nothing of this sort till now has come to notice and that Daljit Singh has no past criminal record,” he said. Nanak emphasised that the claims of sacrilege too were unfounded. “The incident is  unfortunate and involves misunderstanding and suspicion of a ‘sacrilege intention’ leading to his assault,” he said. “Since there is no ‘sacrilege’, this is not a case of religious hate.”