The Chandigarh Police registered a first-information report against a United Kingdom-based lawyer Satnam Singh Bains on 19 April, nearly two years after the ministry of home affairs sent “inputs” about him to the ministry of information and broadcasting. Satnam is an activist who founded the civil-society group Punjab Documentation and Advocacy Project in 2008. The PDAP aims to uncover excesses committed by security forces in Punjab between 1984 and 1995, a period of turmoil in the state. The PDAP says it has documented at least 6,733 cases of disappearances and illegal cremations in this time. It released a documentary on these cases, titled “Punjab Disappeared,” in 2019. That year, the MHA told the MIB that the documentary propagated “the agenda of pro-khalistan elements.” The MIB complained to the Chandigarh Police about this, but the police did not find any substance in this claim. The MIB had also mentioned that the documentary was screened without certification—in April this year, Satnam was booked for this offence.
The PDAP has led perhaps the most expansive effort to show the scale of the mass state crimes that took place in Punjab under the guise of curbing militancy. Based on its work, a crucial petition that seeks to show the state’s heavy handedness in 1980s and 1990s was filed before the Punjab and Haryana High Court on 14 November 2019. Satnam is a counsel of the petitioners and the PDAP’s documentary is a part of the petition. The petition notes that families of many victims have lived without closure; without knowing whether their kin are dead or alive. It says that many family members have been denied basic rights—such as death certificates of the victims, access to pension and succession rights—just because the state has chosen to not acknowledge the crimes of the police and security forces. The petition seeks an “independent and effective investigation into these killings and a diligent prosecution of those involved in the murders and the subsequent cover-ups.”
The case against Satnam indicates a clampdown against the PDAP and the petitioners. The MIB complained to the police in July 2019, but the FIR against Satnam was only registered in April 2021. Rajvinder Singh Bains, Satnam’s co-counsel in the petition, said, “We read it as a crude attempt to undermine the legal defence of the victims and the exercise of prosecuting the guilty [police officers] and an attempt to prosecute those who we called human rights defenders.”
The FIR was registered against a complaint, dated 23 July 2019, from Ashok Parmar, a joint secretary in the MIB. He wrote that “inputs have been received” from the MHA that Punjab Disappeared was “Propagating the agenda of pro-khalistan elements.” He mentioned that the PDAP violated the Cinematograph Act of 1952 by holding a “public exhibition” without certification from the Central Board of Film Certification. Parmar asked for “necessary action against exhibitor and producer of the documentary” and provide details of the action taken. While it was registered at the police station in Sector 36, the crime branch in Chandigarh’s Sector 11 had been enquiring into the matter. The FIR booked Satnam under the Cinematograph Act. According to the act, the exhibition of a film that has not been certified by the CBFC is punishable with imprisonment for up to three years or with a fine that may extend to one lakh rupees or with both.
Rajvinder, who had booked the auditorium for the screening in Chandigarh, thought the case against Satnam was unfair. He characterised the screening, held on 25 May 2019, as a seminar. Several civil-society organisations had partnered with the PDAP for the screening, including Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, Committee for Coordination on Disappearances and Punjab, Human Rights Law Network, Khalra Mission Organisation, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Punjab Human Rights Organisation. “The proceedings of a seminar of human rights in which the audiences [were] all the victims and the survivors and their families and the lawyers can hardly be called public exhibition of a film,” Rajvinder told me. Apart from Chandigarh, the documentary was also screened in Delhi and Amritsar on 26 April and 7 July that year.
When asked about the complaint, Charanjit Singh Virk, a deputy superintendent and the spokesperson of the Chandigarh Police, replied with basic details of the case in a WhatsApp message. He said that the FIR had been registered against “Satnam Singh & others others after conducting enquiries by Crime Branch.” He also wrote, “No elements regarding pro-khalistan found during enquiry.”