How the Punjab Police persecuted poor Dalit Sikhs under the UAPA with little evidence

Punjab Police officials stand on duty in Amritsar, in March 2020. In July, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the president of the Punjabi Ekta Party, wrote to the chief minister Amarinder Singh that the rise in UAPA cases in the state revealed “a well-designed conspiracy by central agencies and Punjab Police to implicate innocent Sikh/Dalit youth to tarnish the image of Sikh community as a whole as terrorists and anti-national.” RAMINDER PAL SINGH/EPA
30 January, 2021

Months before the Sikh farmers protesting the centre’s controversial farm laws were branded Khalistani, the Punjab Police targeted Dalit Sikhs under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act with little to show by way of evidence. In July, a group of politicians had addressed this concern to the chief minister, Amarinder Singh, noting in a letter that “more than 16 FIRs have been registered during the recent weeks across Punjab while 47 FIRs have been registered during the 3 years tenure of Congress government.” The accused in these cases are often poor Mazhabi Sikhs, individuals from the Dalit Sikh community, who were accused of involvement in Khalistani activities with little evidence to substantiate these allegations. Despite strong criticism from the Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of Sikhism—and politicians such as Sukhpal Singh Khaira, the president of the Punjabi Ekta Party, the state police has used rhetoric that creates a false narrative about the bogey of Khalistan and its prevalence in Punjab.

The rise in cases appears to be a response to the call for a Referendum 2020—a non-binding referendum of Sikhs from across the world for the constitution of an independent sovereign Sikh state of Khalistan—proposed by the secessionist group, Sikhs for Justice. As I previously reported, both the SFJ and its founder, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, have little influence in Punjab, the Sikh diaspora, or even among the Khalistani hardliners abroad. Unsurprisingly, no such referendum took place. Despite this lack of support, the Punjab government and the centre have relentlessly pursued Pannun and the SFJ, designating him a terrorist and the group a terrorist organisation. The Caravan has earlier reported that while persistently disavowing the notion of religious extremism such as Hindu terror, the home ministry has continued probing “Islamist and Sikh terrorism.” The recent UAPA cases and arrests suggest that the probes have continued despite little evidence to justify it.

I examined the cases against five individuals who were arrested during the investigation of three different first-information reports registered in June and July 2020—two by the Punjab Police, and one by the National Investigation Agency. Across these cases, the accused were predominantly Dalit Sikhs, and their arrests indicated a misuse of the UAPA and a pattern of false projections by the police. Many of them were arrested without being informed of the FIR or even knowing that they were accused of being involved in Khalistani extremism. In July, Khaira wrote to the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, that these cases clearly indicate “a well-designed conspiracy by central agencies and Punjab Police to implicate innocent Sikh/Dalit youth to tarnish the image of Sikh community as a whole as terrorists and anti-national.”

On 28 June, in Punjab’s Patiala district, the Samana police station registered an FIR—number 144 of 2020—under the Arms Act and offences under the UAPA pertaining to involvement in a terrorist act and organisation and performing unlawful activities. It was registered against a complaint by the deputy superintendent of police, Krishan Kumar, which stated that an informer approached the DSP Kumar when the latter was patrolling and provided information that led to the FIR. The informer named five accused persons—Lovepreet Singh, Sukhchain Singh, Amritpal Singh, Gavi and Jass.

The informer told the DSP, according to the FIR, that the accused individuals were in touch with “anti-national powers and foreign countries” as well as the Pakistan-based extremist organisation, Khalistan Liberation Front members and “were teaming up with pro-Khalistani people to carry out a terrorist act in Patiala.” The FIR claimed that these individuals were “armed with weapons” and “waiting to cause deadly harm to people from a particular community and thus disrupt the peace and law and order.” Going by the FIR, the informer appeared more efficient than the Punjab Police in keeping track of accused persons, from multiple districts, while keeping a tab on cross-border conversations.

But the first arrest took place two days before the FIR was registered, according to Hakam Singh, the sarpanch of Sehra village, in Patiala. Hakam said that on 26 June officials from the Samana police station went to the village and detained 25-year-old Sukhchain Singh of Sehra in the presence of the panchayat. Sukhchain has two brothers, and one of them, Budhraj, told me that the police had said they were taking him to the station to inquire about a case related to the misuse of mobile SIM cards.

“In the presence of the sarpanch and nearly 200–250 people, the policemen said that Sukhchain would be released after two hours,” Budhraj said. “He was having tea when the cops told him to have it after he comes back.” Budhraj and Hakam told me that it was only days later that the village residents learnt from newspaper reports that he had been booked under the UAPA, and shown to be arrested on 28 June, from Patiala’s Gajewaas village.

After spending more than five months in custody, Sukhchain Singh was granted bail on 11 December because the police failed to submit the chargesheet within the stipulated time period. Indian criminal procedure mandates that the police must normally file a chargesheet within three months of the registration of FIR, but the UAPA grants the police an opportunity to extend that to 180 days, by submitting an application to the court seeking an extension. Though the 90-day period for FIR 144 expired on 28 September, the Punjab Police only filed an application for extension on 2 November.

In its application, the police admitted that Sukhchain’s mobile had been sent to the cyber crime department for extraction of data, and that the report was still pending. It further stated that a pistol and cartridges were also recovered from Sukhchain, but the FSL report— forensic science laboratory report—of the same was also pending. It is unclear, then, what evidence the police had on Sukhchain to justify his detention for five months. Ultimately, the court released him on bail citing the failure to submit a chargesheet and the application for extension within the stipulated time period.

Sukhchain’s arrest was not the only one in the case that seemed to be based on lack of evidence. His arrest was reported along with that of two others—Jaspreet Singh, an 18-year-old Dalit Sikh resident of Amritsar’s Majitha block, and Amritpal Singh, a resident of Mansa district’s Achanak village, in his mid-twenties. At the time, Punjab’s director general of police, Dinkar Gupta, had proclaimed to the press that a terror module had been busted with the three arrests. Newspapers splashed headlines accusing them of being members of the Sikh extremist group, Khalistan Liberation Front, declaring, “Punjab police bust Pakistan-backed KLF terror module from Patiala; 3 arrested.” Based on Gupta’s press statement, the Indian Express reported, “The Punjab Police has foiled a major bid by Pakistan-backed terrorists to target socio-religious leaders and disturb the communal harmony of the state with the arrest of three members of the Khalistan Liberation Front.”

But after two weeks in police custody, this grand declaration seemed hollow. On 10 July, the police submitted in court that it had no evidence against Jaspreet and he was released. According to a report in the Indian Express following his release, Palwinder Singh, Jaspreet’s father, said his son was thrashed by the police and witnessed the police subject the other accused persons to third-degree torture.

The third person arrested in the case, Amritpal Singh, was arrested on 29 June. According to his mother, Gurnam Kaur, the accusation that Amritpal is a KLF operative is particularly unlikely because of his addiction to tobacco, strictly prohibited in the Sikh faith. “Oh taan ji, jarda, biddiaan te tambakhoo sabh khandaa”—Yes, he used to smoke cigarettes, beedis, chew gutkha, everything, Gurnam said. Oh nahin singhan naal ral sakda. Hun eho jehe hei bache singhaan waaste attwadi banaoon waaste. Koi hor nahi labdha?”—He cannot join the extremists. Have their standards gone so down that they left recruiting such drug addicts as terrorists? Can’t they find anyone else?

Gurnam recounted the day of his arrest. She said she had told Amritpal’s employer, a local lambardar—a powerful zamindar family—to never let him leave the fields mid work, in order to prevent him from drinking. “That day also, he left at 8 am and close to 3.30 pm, Doha police came to his fields where Amritpal was working, and despite the lambardar telling them that he was answerable to me for the safe return of my son every day, they just took him along with them,” Gurnam said.

She made me speak to a group of youth from the village who confirmed her claims about the family’s background. “They are only a mother-son duo in their family,” one of the villagers, who requested anonymity, said. They, too, questioned how a person who consumed tobacco could be associated with the Khalistani ideology or extremist group. “The son works as a farm labour but is heavily into drugs,” the same villager said. “So, the mother who is reeling under debt, told his employer to hand over the money he earned to her directly, apart from ensuring that he reaches immediately back home after work.” Gurnam said she was now fighting the case in court. “Initially, I did not have any money to hire a lawyer but now somebody obliged me with a lawyer,” she said. “He is my only son and a reason to live at this age.” She added that Amritpal had gotten married just twenty days before he was arrested.

Amritpal, too, was released on bail from Nabha Central Jail in Patiala on 15 December. Like Sukhchain, the court granted the bail because the Samana police had failed to submit the chargesheet in time. According to Uday Partap Singh Shergill, Sukhchain’s lawyer, the chargesheet in the FIR was finally filed later that month, but the accused individuals have not yet been provided the full copy of the documents. He added that the case would only proceed further once the complete chargesheet was provided to all the accused.

Khaira, the member of legislative assembly from the Bholath constituency, in Punjab’s Kapurthala district, had visited all three families in July. He made the visits with a team of four other MLAs—Kanwar Sandhu, Jagdev Singh, Pirmal Singh Khalsa and Jagtar Singh Jagga—the former member of parliament from Patiala, Dharamvir Gandhi, and former MLA Sucha Singh Chhotepur. In his letter to the chief minister Amarinder, Khaira emphasised on Jaspreet’s release in FIR 144 for lack of evidence. “Such a casual confession by the Patiala police is despite the fact that Sh Dinkar Gupta DGP Punjab himself made a special press release dated 1st July declaring him and others as Khalistani modules in the said FIR,” Khaira wrote. “Thus, from the arrest and release of Jaspreet it is amply clear that the Punjab police is misusing the UAPA law for torturing and arrest innocents.”

Harmeet Singh Hundal, a superintendent in the investigations team of the Patiala Police, told me that chargesheet in FIR 144 was submitted on 21 December, and only three people were were arrested—Sukhchain, Amritpal and Lovepreet. Hundal said that a fourth accused, Jaspreet, had been discharged on 10 July, and that the fifth accused could not be traced. According to a senior intelligence official, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, “anomalies” such as Jaspreet’s arrest and detention without evidence may occur. But he added that the Punjab Police had been advised not to let such things happen lest the youth feel wronged, get estranged and go astray.

On 2 July, the Punjab Police registered another FIR—number 49 of 2020—under the UAPA at the Bholath police station, which pertained to the Sikhs for Justice. Like FIR 144, this one was also registered against a complaint by a DSP, Jatinderjit Singh, and named two persons, Joginder Singh Gujjar, and the SFJ founder, Pannun. Gujjar is a resident of Italy who arrived in India in February 2020. In his complaint, the DSP Jatinderjit stated that Gujjar “is a prominent and active member of Sikhs for Justice” and that he was in regular contact with Pannun “for promoting the activities of SFJ … providing financial assistance to SFJ operatives/activists based in Punjab/India and abroad.” One of the main allegations against Gujjar was that he visited Geneva in November 2019 “to attend and actively participate in the anti-India convention organized by SFJ.” The complaint did not offer any evidence of these allegations, merely stating that Jatinderjit had “received reliable inputs,” and then concluded that Gujjar had committed offences under the UAPA.

Gujjar, a 65-year-old heart patient, was arrested from his home in Akala, a village in Bholath, on 10 July. I spoke to one of Gujjar’s acquaintances from Akala who has been assisting him with legal proceedings following his arrest, and requested not to be identified. “Eh bahut hei bhala manas hai, kora anpad”—He is too good a soul but completely illiterate, the acquaintance said. He added that Gujjar used to perform sewa—service—in a gurudwara in Italy. “Regarding Geneva, he was told like many other that some religious congregation is being held with free travel and great food and he just went along with others to be a part of the fun and the fanfare,” the acquaintance told me.

Khaira, too, noted in his letter that he visited Akala on 3 July, “where gram panchayat and village elders vouched for his innocence.” He added that that the “arrest has been made on frivolous grounds.” Soon after his arrest, Gujjar applied for bail, and the case proceedings exposed the hollow case presented by the police. During the hearing, Jatinderjit conceded that “no evidence that Joginder Singh ever participated or propagated the activities of Gurpatwant Singh Pannu has come into notice till today, and investigation is going on to establish the same.” According to the bail order, the DSP further admitted that “except for hearsay evidence, no substantive evidence against Joginder Singh Gujjar@Goga has come on police file.” The order noted that Jatinderjit had stated this in a sworn affidavit.

The public prosecutor, too, conceded that “except for the allegations levelled in the FIR on the basis of secret information there is no document to connect that accused is the member of the SFJ Organization, or to consider his active participation in commission of offence under the Act.” On 30 July, Gujjar was released on bail, but the Italian resident was forced to surrender his passport and barred from leaving the country without the permission of the court.

I spoke to Kanwardeep Kaur, the senior superintendent of police in Kapurthala district, about the Bholath case. She said that the case was still under investigation. “Reports are awaiting and action would be taken accordingly based on the findings and reports from the Forensic Science Laboratory,” she said.

The intimidation and targeting of Dalit Sikhs under the UAPA received particular attention in July following the suicide of Lovepreet Singh, a 22-year-old Dalit Sikh from Ratta Khera, a village in Punjab’s Sangrur district. On 13 July, Lovepreet took his own life in a gurudwara in Chandigarh, just hours after attending a summons for interrogation at the NIA’s office in the capital city. His brother-in-law, Gurmeet Singh, told me that Lovepreet was only educated till middle school, worked as a granthi—a priest who acts as a custodian of the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib. He had been married for less than a year and was living with his wife, Manjit Kaur, in Sahejra, a village in Barnala district.

On the day of his interrogation, Lovepreet called his father, Kewal Singh, at around 9 am to tell him that he had come to for a peshi—a summons for appearance—in Sector 51, in Chandigarh, and asked Kewal not to call him, Gurmeet said. “His father then asked him kahdi peshi?” (What summons?) “To which he replied, ‘Just don’t call me,’ and switched off his phone.” Gurmeet said the family did not know Lovepreet was going to Chandigarh and who had summoned him for interrogation. Then later that evening, Lovepreet called up his father to tell him that it was getting dark and that he would return in the morning.

“Following that call, his phone was switched off for the next three days and it was post his death that we got to know that he took a room in the gurudwara at Phase 8 in Mohali that evening,” Gurmeet continued. “Finally, my father-in-law, Kewal Singh, who works as a daily wager, went to the Lehra police station on 15 July and returned after lodging a complaint. Soon after, he got a call from the police station that the Gurudwara Amb Sahib authorities from Phase 8 of Mohali had informed them of Lovepreet’s suicide.”

Lovepreet left a suicide note that stated, “I apologise to my wife. I am leaving you in middle. I can never pay for what you have done for me. I will miss you. I had many plans with you in life but fate was not with us.” Gurmeet told me that family suspected foul play in Lovepreet’s death because he was not the kind to take his own life and leave a vague suicide note apologising to his family and friends.

According to a report in the Indian Express, the NIA had summoned Lovepreet in a 2018 case concerning pro-Khalistan slogans written on walls. The report stated that the Punjab Police had registered an FIR in the case in October 2018, and had not summoned or visited Lovepreet even once before the NIA took over, in April 2020. Kewal told the Express, “Lovepreet’s death is linked with NIA summoning. I don’t know what happened with him inside the NIA office. There should be an investigation and those responsible for suicide of my son should be booked.” According to a senior police official in the Punjab Police, who also wished to remain anonymous, the NIA intended to make Lovepreet an approver in the case, but the 22-year-old took his own life after attending the summons out of fear.

Following his death, opposition leaders in Punjab had called for a probe into the suicide. Harpal Singh Cheema, the leader of opposition in the state assembly and the Aam Aadmi Party’s MLA from Dirba, and Khaira, the AAP rebel who founded the Punjabi Ekta Party, had both visited Lovepreet’s family in Ratta Khera following the suicide. Both leaders had subsequently spoken to the press and called it a suspicious suicide. In his letter to the chief minister, Khaira wrote, “He disclosed in his suicide note that after my death, my family or my friends may not be harassed. This clearly means that he could not tolerate mental and physical torture under the UAPA charges and took his life so that his family could be saved from the said black law.” 

Khaira’s letter also stated that Gurmeet had noticed marks of torture on Lovepreet’s legs and genital area, and the brother-in-law had told me the same thing as well. Harwinder Singh, Lovepreet’s paternal uncle who is also the sarpanch of Ratta Khera, told me while washing the young man’s body for his funeral rituals, the family had noticed injury marks on his genitals as well as swelling on his leg. Khaira continued, “The residents of the village again stated that Lovepreet was a boy of good character, baptised and had no previous criminal record … Therefore, we demand an impartial judicial probe to verify the CCTV footage, call records, post-mortem report of deceased Lovepreet during his interrogation at Sector 51 Chandigarh NIA office, so that the actual truth pertaining to his suicide can be brought to public domain.”

Harwinder Singh, Lovepreet’s paternal uncle who is also the sarpanch of Ratta Khera, noted that despite Cheema and Khaira’s involvement, there had been no progress in the investigation into the young man’s suicide. “Kuch nahin baneya ji case da”—Nothing happened in the case so far, he said. Kewal, Lovepreet’s father, similarly said, “Baddian jathebdandian aayina te lead vei par kuch nahin hoya—Many organisations and leaders came, but so far nothing has happened. Khaira echoed the family’s concerns, but did not offer any solutions. “This is shocking that despite a lapse of more than six months, there is no investigation into the circumstances forcing Lovepreet to commit suicide and no justice to the family,” he told me. “It’s a state of complete anarchy and a very dangerous trend.”

Not just the chief minister, Khaira and the team of MLAs also visited the Akal Takht’s jathedar—or head—Giani Harpreet Singh to discuss the persecution of Dalit Sikhs under the UAPA. Following their meeting, on 27 July, the jathedar called upon the state and central government to stop “terrorising” the Sikh youth. He told the media, “The youths are being booked under UAPA and put behind bars without any reason or for minor offences. I think this is an attempt to create an atmosphere to terrorise Sikh youths.”

The increasing number of cases registered under the UAPA has not translated to a rise in convictions. According to the senior police official, the Punjab Police has registered around 120 cases under the UAPA since 2007, and twenty of them have been transferred to the NIA.  In November 2020, The Tribune reported that the state had witnessed only one conviction in eleven years, despite arresting over 400 persons. I messaged questions about the unsubstantiated nature of the UAPA charges and the targeting of Dalit Sikhs to Jatinder Singh Aulakh, the inspector general of police of the Patiala range, and Arpit Shukla, an additional director general of police and the director of Punjab Police’s bureau of investigations. Aulakh declined to respond, noting that he is on leave till 22 February and “very busy.” Shukla did not respond to my queries.