His modus-operandi was to create a fear psychosis: Ex-Punjab DGP Sumedh Saini’s shadowy career

Sumedh Singh Saini, when he was the director general of police of Punjab, at the site of an attack on a police station in Dinanagar on 27 July 2015. Saini was one of the senior police officers who played a major role in curbing the insurgency in the state during the nineties. But his tenure was marked by widespread accusations of human-rights violations and extra-judicial killings. Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
31 May, 2020

On 6 May 2020, in the midst of the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic, Sumedh Singh Saini, who served as an Indian Police Service officer for 36 years, was booked in a case from 29 years ago. Saini served as a director general of police in the state of Punjab for three years, between 2012 and 2015. The first-information report against Saini was filed at the Mattaur police station in Mohali by Palwinder Singh Multani regarding the alleged abduction and disappearance of Palwinder’s brother, Balwant Singh Multani, in December 1991. Saini was charged under six sections of the Indian Penal Code which pertain to kidnapping or abducting in order to murder; causing disappearance of evidence of offence; wrongful confinement for ten or more days; voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession; a public servant who corruptly or maliciously makes or pronounces in any stage of a judicial proceeding, any report, order, verdict, or decision which he knows to be contrary to law; and criminal conspiracy.

Six others booked in the case were also police personnel—Baldev Singh Saini, a former deputy superintendent of police; Satbir Singh, who was then an inspector; Harsahai Sharma, Jagir Singh and Anokh Singh, all sub-inspectors at the time; and Kuldip Singh, an assistant sub-inspector. On 11 May, Saini was granted anticipatory bail in the case by a local court, which also directed him to join the investigation by appearing before the investigating officer within seven days. The Mohali Police has constituted a special-investigation team for the case, headed by Harmandeep Singh Hans, a superintendent of police. The SIT has already recorded the statement of some key witnesses and Saini has joined the investigation, as per the court’s order.

While the court put stringent restrictions on Saini, the additional district and sessions judge, Monika Goyal, who was presiding over the case, questioned the timing and motivation behind the FIR after almost three decades of the alleged crime. In the bail order, Goyal dismissed Palwinder’s contention that Saini was very influential and hence he had not come forward with his complaint, based on which the FIR, dated 6 May, was registered. Goyal said, “No explanation is coming as to why the present complainant had kept mum for such a long time especially after June, 2018”—the month Saini retired—“and had chosen this time, that is the outbreak of COVID-19 when whole of the State of Punjab is under curfew and had travelled all way from Jalandhar during this time to do an act of lodging the FIR in 29 years old case.”

Goyal’s observations may be pertinent, but it should be noted that Saini’s reputation bolster’s Palwinder’s claims. Saini enjoys the dubious distinction of being singled out by name, for human-rights violations, in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in April 2013. A recounting of the various twists and turns in the case of Balwant’s disappearance, and the trajectory of Saini’s career, lay bare the highly complex and controversial nature of Saini’s career in the IPS.

Saini joined the IPS in 1982 and went on to serve as a senior superintendent of police in six districts over the next 20 years. He was an SSP in Chandigarh at the time of Balwant’s disappearance. As a senior police officer in Punjab during the eighties and nineties, Saini was heavily involved in counter-insurgency and later, anti-corruption drives. He is said to have enjoyed the patronage of KPS Gill—a former DGP of the state, credited with neutralising the Khalistani movement—who reportedly gave him a free hand. Gill, who served as DGP of Punjab twice, has faced severe criticism over the years for the tactics employed by his forces to curb the insurgency, ranging from gross human-rights violations to accusations of false encounters and extra-judicial killings. At the time of Saini’s appointment as the DGP, Punjab, in 2012, he was the youngest ever to be given the rank. According to news reports, four senior officers had been superseded to promote Saini; and the Shiromani Akali Dal and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party had just come to power in the state.

Saini’s rise in the forces aside, his tenure was marked by extreme polarisation of opinion over his approach to law enforcement. In October 2015, Gurmeet Singh, commonly referred to as Pinky, a former senior police officer from Punjab, gave an interview to the Outlook magazine. Pinky, who was known as an “encounter specialist,” implicated Saini in multiple instances of forced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings, including that of Balwant, who Pinky said was tortured and murdered in police custody. Pinky has also been listed as a witness in Palwinder’s FIR. Saini is currently embroiled in another case on a range of charges mirroring the 6 May FIR. Ensaaf, a non-profit organisation that works on the issue of police impunity with a special focus on Punjab, has held Saini responsible for at least 150 cases of forced disappearances and unlawful killings. Sukhman Dhami, one of the co-founders of Ensaaf, told me, “Undoubtedly, Sumedh Saini is one of the chief architects of widespread and systematic enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture in Punjab.”

Ensaaf, which launched in 2004, began investigating and documenting Punjab’s disappearances and fake encounters in 2009. “Since then, we have released over five thousand and two hundred cases on our site,” Dhami said, and added that their database “has been relied upon by the United Nations and the State Department of the United States.” The site has a dedicated perpetrator-profile page that includes profiles on Saini and his then subordinates. Dhami said that their “data demonstrates that wherever Saini was posted, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture ensued … and these incidents represent just the tip of the iceberg.” Balwant also has a page dedicated to his case on the website.

Balwant, who worked as a junior engineer with the Chandigarh Industrial and Tourism Corporation, was 28 years old when he was picked up by the Chandigarh Police in December 1991. Though, the sequence of events that led to his disappearance began on 29 August 1991. That day, Saini, who was the then SSP of Chandigarh, was on his way home with a police escort when a powerful car bomb was detonated in an attempt to assassinate him. The driver of Saini’s car, Amin Chand, Lal Ram, an ASI, and PR Reddy died on the spot while Saini and another ASI, Ramesh Lal were injured. The same day, an FIR—number 334—was registered at the Sector 17 police station under various sections of the IPC, the Explosive Substances Act 1908 and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, to investigate the attack on Saini’s car. The charges pertain to attempt to murder, causing an explosion which endangers life, possession of unauthorised firearms and acts of terrorism.

According to court documents, a chargesheet was filed against eight people in connection with the blast—Pratap Singh Maan, Gursharan Kaur Maan, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, Manmohanjit Singh, Manjit Singh, Navneet Singh, Gurjant Singh Budhsingh Wala and Balwant. Over the course of the next three years, Navneet, Manjit, Manmohanjit, and Balwant were all declared proclaimed offenders while Gurjant was said to have died on 30 July 1992. On 25 May 2006, charges were framed against Devinder, Pratap Singh Mann and Gursharan Kaur under various sections of the IPC which deal with murder, among others, on the grounds that the three had conspired with Navneet, Manjit, Manmohanjit, Gurjant and Balwant to attack Saini. Devinder, who was one of the prime accused in the attack against Saini, was already in prison. In August 2001, in another controversial case, he was convicted and sentenced to death as the mastermind of a car bomb blast that occurred in Delhi in 1993. It should be noted here that Manjit was Devinder’s maternal uncle and during the investigation, the police detained several members of Devinder’s family.

According to an affidavit filed with the High Court of Punjab and Haryana in August 2007, by Dinesh Bhatt, the then SSP of Chandigarh, Balwant was arrested on 13 December 1991 and charged under various sections of the IPC, the Arms Act and TADA, which deal with harbouring an offender, possession of firearms and acts of terrorism. The FIR was lodged at the Sector 17 police station in Chandigarh. As per the affidavit, on 18 December, Balwant was taken to the Qadian police station in Gurdaspur district to search for his co-accused, Navneet. The police records said that Balwant was locked up in the police station but he escaped the next day, on 19 December. That day, another FIR was filed against Balwant at the Qadian station and he was charged with resisting and escaping arrest. Balwant was subsequently declared a proclaimed offender—a person who absconds all warrants of the court of law—on 7 July 1993 and has never been traced till date.

In end December 1991, Darshan Singh Multani, Balwant’s father and an officer of the Indian Administrative Services, filed a habeas corpus writ petition with the high court asking that his son Balwant be produced in court. The court dismissed the petition based on the state’s claim that Balwant had escaped from the police custody and that his whereabouts were unknown. 

Over the next few years Navneet, Manjit, Manmohanjit were all declared proclaimed offenders while Gurjant died in 1992. Navneet and Manjit both were declared as proclaimed offenders on 2 March 1993, and as per Bhatt’s affidavit, Navneet was killed in an encounter with the Rajasthan Police in Jaipur on 26 February 1995. Manjit, who was also picked up by Chandigarh Police in December 1991, went missing, too, and has not been traced till now. Court records indicate that Manmohanjit moved to the United States in the early nineties and has lived there since then. In 1994, Devinder fled to Germany and sought political asylum. However, in 1995, he was extradited back to India. Consequently, with Balwant missing, by 2006, only three of the original eight accused—Devinder, Pratap Singh Mann and Gursharan Kaur—were put on trial.

On 1 December 2006, RS Baswana, an additional sessions judge who was presiding over the case, extended the benefit of doubt to the three and acquitted them of all charges. Subsequently, on 25 January 2007, RS Rai, the additional public prosecutor for the union territory of Chandigarh, filed a petition in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana which sought an appeal against this judgment.

However, on 11 May 2007, the high court dismissed the state’s appeal. The court then went a step further and issued another order on 30 May directing the state to ensure the presence of the remaining accused who had been declared proclaimed offenders during the trial. Then, in August that year, the high court made the Central Bureau of Investigation a party to the case in order to assist the court. On 22 August, the high court directed the CBI to file a status report regarding the proclaimed offenders and the agency filed this report on 19 September.

The same day, Darshan, Balwant’s father, filed an affidavit in the high court, which said that his son “had been eliminated by the police after being tortured in the year 1991.” Referring to Darshan, the CBI’s status report, too, said, “He has also claimed that witnesses are available who had seen his son Balwant Singh Multani in custody, but their names will not be disclosed to the investigating agency until their protection is ensured.”

On 5 October, the high court issued another order which said, “It is difficult for us to look over the affidavit of Darshan Singh Multani (retired IAS) regarding accusation/allegation he has made of his son being eliminated. This aspect of elimination must be looked into.” The court then ordered the CBI to investigate whether Balwant, Navneet and Manjit “were eliminated in false encounters and if so, as to who were/are the police official responsible for it, so that they be brought to justice.”

Consequently, the CBI began a preliminary inquiry on 23 October 2007. And this is when the police’s narrative on the entire case began to unravel. Gursharan Kaur, who had spent years as an accused in the case built by the state police, emerged as a key witness during the CBI inquiry. She has also been added as a witness in the fresh case filed by Palwinder. A lawyer by profession, Gursharan shared her and her family’s ordeal, including Saini’s treatment of Balwant, in a long conversation studded with bone-chilling details from three decades ago. The same account had been given to the CBI, back in 2007, too. She told me that Saini had a reputation for using extra-judicial means “to get people eliminated.” She said that following the attack on him, Saini “had kept Balwant Singh Multani’s residence under recce for two to three months.” According to her, the surveillance had been extended to her house since Balwant “was a friend of my husband having studied in the same engineering college.” She said that she, her husband Pratap Singh and Balwant met in 1991 after a gap of five to six years. “Addresses were exchanged, being old classmates. Then, once or twice Multani visited us on his way back home from his office and joined us for a cup of tea. We also visited his house once and that summarised our acquaintance with him.”  

Gursharan’s timeline markedly differs from the state police’s narrative and she placed full responsibility for Balwant’s disappearance on Saini’s shoulders. She said that she saw Balwant, in an injured state, at the Sector 17 police station on 12 December 1991, a day before the police claimed to have arrested him. “Me, my husband, and our two-year-old son were taken to Sector 11 police station on the night of December 11 and my husband, who knew nothing, was subjected to intense torture in front of me and our toddler. Saini was sitting there along with a DSP and an SHO and so many other cops.” She added, “The next day, on 12 December, we were taken to Sector 17 police station and there Multani was also present, in a very bad shape, having been subjected to brutal torture. I cannot even describe his state.” She said that on the night of 13 December, “Sumedh Saini came and he kicked Multani, and he and his men savagely tortured him. He was lying on the ground, unable to even stand. Multani was begging Saini to forgive him and there were wails and cries … in the verandah in the morning, he was lying in a very bad state… his eye was popped out and he was bleeding profusely.” According to Gursharan, that day, Balwant was moved from the Sector 17 police station and “we did not know where they took him afterwards. Initially, we were told by the officers that Saini has got to know that we are innocent and that we would be released.”

However, she and her husband were produced in the court on 17 December. “I was released on bail and my husband was sent to jail. My husband was granted bail after two-three months. We went to fetch him from Burail jail. However, a police gypsy was already parked there.” Gursharan said that she and her husband were then taken to Saini’s office in Sector 9. “He asked my husband how he managed to come out and said that he would kill him. He asked my husband if he knew that he had already eliminated the rest of the guys.”

According to Gursharan, Saini then told them that he had killed Balwant. She said that Saini threatened her husband and told him, “I killed him [Balwant] despite his father and uncle being IAS officers. Do you also want to die?” Gursharan said that her husband was framed in another case and spent four months more in jail. She said that her husband managed to get bail only after Suresh Arora replaced Saini as the SSP. However, according to Gursharan, in 1993, Saini called the couple to his residence “where even Suresh Arora was present and told us that we would receive a letter from Multani at our residence, and we must take that letter to Multani’s father and tell him that the letter was written and sent to us by Multani, saying that he was alive and that his father should not be concerned about him.” While the couple did go to the Multani household, but “we came back without handing over the letter to anybody that day.”

She said that even after their acquittal in 2006, “Saini kept terrorising us and my husband went into depression. The depression was also because if Saini didn’t spare the one whose father was an IAS, then we were nothing in front of him.” Gursharan said, “Apart from getting my statement recorded in the latest FIR against Saini, I had also given my statements to the CBI saying that Multani couldn’t even walk or stand due to torture. So, how could he run away from the police custody?” She said, “We were heartbroken like countless others when he was promoted as the state DGP. Nobody could even dare to complaint against him while he was heading the state.”

In line with Gursharan’s account, the CBI’s investigation also discredited the police’s version. Moreover, as the inquiry progressed, apart from the three men specified by the high court—Balwant, Navneet and Manjit—the CBI began looking into the disappearance of Balwant Pal Singh Bhullar, Devinder’s father, who, too, had been picked up by the Chandigarh Police in December 1991. A year into the CBI’s inquiry, in 2008, the state of Punjab approached the Supreme Court and won an appeal against the agency’s involvement in the case and the investigation was scrapped. However, the agency’s reports to the high court and then to the apex court call into question the state’s enthusiasm to defend an officer with such damming inquiries against him.

As per the agency, the FIR against Balwant, registered on 13 December, was a false FIR. In an affidavit submitted by the CBI to the Supreme Court in November 2008, the agency stated that Balwant was picked up by a Chandigarh Police party headed by Baldev Singh Saini, a then deputy superintendent, on 11 December 1991. According to the agency, Balwant was kept in illegal custody till 13 December and then implicated in a false FIR—number 440—which stated that he had been arrested that day itself. The affidavit further said that Balwant had been tortured in the presence of and under the orders of Saini by the other accused officers—they wanted information on the whereabouts of Devinder. The affidavit stated that Balwant was found in a bad condition in Sector 17 police station on 17 December and was taken to Qadian the next day.

In addition, the CBI pointed out that as per the FIR, Balwant had admitted his involvement in the attack on Saini “but he was never interrogated in the bomb blast case.” The CBI’s inquiry also stated that Balwant “was badly tortured during custody by the Chandigarh Police and his escape from the custody is also doubtful because of serious discrepancies in the statements of the concerned police officials of Chandigarh Police as well as of PS Qadian.” The CBI also submitted that it was incorrect that Balwant was a proclaimed offender in several cases.

In addition, the agency’s investigation confirmed that Balwant Singh Bhullar, the father of Devinder, and Manjit were picked up by Chandigarh Police during investigation of the bomb blast case and were missing since then. Surprisingly, neither the state of Punjab nor the Chandigarh Police ever registered a complaint regarding their disappearance.

Nine months into the investigation, on 2 July 2008, the CBI had registered an FIR against Sumedh Singh Saini and other police personnel of Chandigarh police—Baldev Singh Saini, the deputy superintendent of police of Chandigarh at the time of the disappearances, Har Sahai Sharma and Jagir Singh, both of whom were sub-inspectors at the time, among others. The CBI charged them with the abduction and murder of Balwant and Devinder’s father, Balwant Singh Bhullar. The contents of the FIR are based on the CBI’s inquiry which recorded the statements of around seventy witnesses.

The CBI’s FIR stated that on 12 December 1991, a Chandigarh Police party led by one of the accused picked up Balwant Singh Bhullar from his village. He was “tortured in presence of and under the orders of Sumedh Singh Saini … to know the whereabouts of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar. Due to torture Balwant Singh Bhullar lost his mental balance and was segregated from others and taken away after which his whereabouts are not known.” Balwant Singh Bhullar has been missing since then. The CBI said that a witness had informed them that Saini told the witness that Balwant Singh Bhullar had died a natural death and that his son Devinder tried to assassinate him.

The CBI submitted its final status report on 4 July 2008. Taking cognisance of the agency’s report, the high court accepted the CBI’s contention that Navneet was killed in a “genuine encounter” with the Rajasthan Police and that the investigation into Navneet and Manjit’s whereabouts could be considered closed. However, the court also directed the CBI to investigate whether both the Balwants had been “eliminated in false encounters.”

It was against this order, that the then SAD government of Punjab approached the Supreme Court. In its appeal, the state claimed that it had to espouse the cause of its officers who fought the “war against terrorism” and “put themselves at risk” during the troublesome period in the early nineties. The state defended Saini as one of its most decorated officers who was honest and hardworking and had taken drastic steps to curb terrorism in the state. The state’s contention at the apex court was that the high court had gone beyond its remit in asking the CBI to hold an inquiry into the administration’s appeal against the acquittal of three of the accused. The state claimed that the court’s actions were “legally impermissible” and “unsustainable.”

On 7 December 2011, the Supreme Court allowed the state government’s appeal and declared the high court’s orders as null and void. As a consequence, the CBI’s FIR against Saini and other police officials was quashed. However, the Supreme Court also said that, “it is open to the applicants who had filed the petitions … to take recourse to fresh proceedings, if permissible in law,” a provision that was evoked this year and resulted in a fresh FIR against Saini in May.

Pradeep Virk, a lawyer who appeared on behalf of Palwinder, the complainant in the recent FIR, said that though the CBI’s FIR was quashed due to technical reasons “but the investigations and affidavit submitted by the CBI was every bit true and based on findings of the nine months of preliminary enquiry which culminated into registration of an FIR in July 2008.”  He told me that the CBI had filed three status reports to the high court. “Because of the sensitivity of this case, these reports were submitted in sealed envelopes. So, we just know a few witnesses of this phenomenal figure of 70 and these are the ones who volunteered to come forward,” Virk said. He also said that Devinder’s father, Balwant Singh Bhullar and uncle, Manjit, were both gazetted officers and had no history of cases against them anywhere.

The new FIR, filed on 6 May, included extensive details of what transpired in December 1991 and makes the same assertion as the CBI’s inquiry—Balwant was picked up by a team of Chandigarh Police on 11 December under Saini’s orders. As per the complaint, around 4 am that night, the police forcibly abducted Balwant without providing any documents or reason, from his residence in Mohali and took him to the police station at Sector 17, Chandigarh. Subsequently, again under Saini’s orders, the police took Balwant along while conducting a raid at another address in Mohali. The complaint said that the police then picked up Jaspreet Inderjit Singh and his father Manjit, Devinder’s uncle, in the presence of their family. According to the complaint, Manjit and Jaspreet were tortured by officials, including Baldev Singh Saini, in attempt to know the whereabouts of Devinder.

Charting Balwant’s movements, the complaint further stated that on 12 December, around 2.00 am, Balwant, Manjit and Jaspreet were taken to a nearby village called Dyalpura Bhaika by a police party headed by Baldev Singh Saini and picked up Balwant Singh Bhullar. The same police team then moved on to another village, Rampura, and took Kultar Singh into custody. Kultar was Devinder’s father-in-law. The complaint then lists how all the men—Balwant, Manjit, Jaspreet, Balwant Singh Bhullar and Kultar—were taken to the Sector 17 police station and subjected to brutal torture. As per the complaint, at some point on the night of 13 December, Saini himself went to the police station and the five detained men were produced before him and tortured in his presence and on his instructions.

It notes that, “Saini, in his presence, facilitated and got inserted a wooden stick in the rectum of his brother”—Balwant—“who was also administered electric shocks on his testicles by Sumedh Singh Saini himself.” These details were based on Pinky’s interview. The complaint states that Balwant could not withstand the sustained torture. It notes that according to Pinky, Balwant succumbed to his injuries on 17 December. The complaint also questioned the police version of Balwant’s escape—the lock up where Balwant was supposedly incarcerated at Qadian was guarded by Chandigarh police, a team of the Central Reserve Police Force and Punjab Police officials.    

Palwinder’s complaint stated that his “father and their family left no stone unturned to secure release of his brother. He fought for justice till his death, but due to influence and power wielded by Sumedh Singh Saini, they could not get justice and they lost all faith in law & order and judiciary.”

Virk told me that the disclosures made in the Outlook interview shook the family, specially the graphic details of torture endured by Balwant. “They were hopeful that the law and order machinery of Punjab and Chandigarh will take its cognizance, but nothing happened because of the error and influence of Sumedh Singh Saini and no action was taken.” According to Virk, “after retirement of Sumedh Singh Saini, their family again got some courage to resume their efforts to fight for justice.” Virk said that once Saini retired, Palwinder contacted various people who had suffered along with his brother during that period and those who were conversant with the facts of the case in order to build a new case.

RS Bains, a lawyer who works with the Punjab Human-Rights Organisation, a non-profit, told me that “some of the documents provided by me were also taken on record by the high court in this case.” The organisation, headed by Ajit Singh Bains, a retired judge, has spearheaded the task of bringing fake encounters in Punjab to the fore and holding guilty officials of the Punjab Police accountable. Bains slammed Saini’s involvement in Balwant’s disappearance. “On one hand, it is claimed by Saini that Multani was arrested on 13 December and then escaped from police custody on 19 December from the police station Quadian at Gurdaspur and later in the year 1993, he was declared proclaimed offender by the court. But on the other hand, no efforts were made to catch or nab him in the next 27 years. Even though Saini remained posted as the state police head he made no efforts to trace or arrest him,” he said. “So much for the attack on his life and the cops who lost their lives or were injured.” He said that there was no lookout circular notified for Balwant ever and “nor was Multani’s property attached which is the laid down procedure for a PO”—proclaimed offender. “This is enough to hint that police and Saini knew that Multani was no more. It is pertinent to mention here that Devinder Pal Bhullar, the main accused in Saini bomb blast case, was extradited and no questions were asked from him regarding the whereabouts of Multani.”

Sarabjit Singh Verka, a human-rights lawyer and the principal investigator for the PHRO said that while in a few cases, the officials responsible for the cold-blooded extra-judicial killings of youth in Punjab have been convicted, there are nearly three dozen such cases pending with the CBI court in Mohali. “There are thousands of cases of forced disappearances and extra judicial killings, awaiting justice,” Verka said. He claimed that “Even in case of Multani, huge payment was made to discredit the orders of the high court marking the CBI inquiry.”

Another such case involving Saini is that of Vinod Kumar, a businessman who went missing in March 1994 along with two others. According to news reports, Vinod was a financier of Saini Motors, an enterprise in Ludhiana which was run by Saini’s relatives—Saini held a grudge against his relatives and asked Vinod for help, which he refused. Vinod and his driver, Mukhtiyar, were picked up by the state police from the parking lot of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on 15 March 1994 and the same day, another police party picked up Vinod’s brother-in-law Ashok Kumar from Ludhiana. At that time, Saini was the SSP of Ludhiana and he and three other officers were charged with the abduction and disappearance of the three men. In December 2017, Vinod’s mother, Amar Kaur, died at the age of 103 while waiting for justice for her son. Till her last days, Kaur used to attend the hearings in the case, held at a special CBI court in Tis Hazari Special CBI Court, in a wheelchair.

Shelly Sharma, the lawyer dealing with the case, said that presently the case is scheduled “for the evidence of prosecution witness Sharad Kumar, a vigilance commissioner of the Central Vigilance Commission.” She said that “The trial is going on at snail’s pace due to the delaying tactics of Sumedh Singh Saini.” Sharma told me that Saini’s lawyer had cross-examined the complainant, Vinod’s brother Ashish Kumar Walia, “for about eighty hearings containing more than three hundred pages.” Sharma said that Saini has hardly ever appeared personally in this case as he was granted a permanent exemption on the grounds of threat to his life. She said that his lawyer “intentionally did irrelevant cross-examination to prolong the trial.”

Sharma alleged that Saini was so influential that even judges hearing his cases had been threatened. She cited the case of V Jhanji, the judge presiding over Vinod’s case. On 22 December 1995, Jhanji recorded several such instances in a court order. “During this time,” Jhanji said, “I had also been receiving anonymous telephone calls threatening to wash away my hands from this case and one such caller had gone to the extent of saying that I would be picked up and thrown in a furnace like the three had been thrown along with their car and scooter. I had brought all these facts to the notice of my lord the chief justice in presence of my brother judges.” Jhanji concluded by saying that Saini’s “modus-operandi has been to create a fear psychosis” even among the judiciary.

APS Deol, a lawyer who is the counsel for Saini’s bail plea in the case filed by Palwinder, however, accused the Punjab government of “a revengeful attitude towards Saini to harm him by implicating him in false cases.” The anticipatory bail plea filed by Deol stated that Saini was instrumental in lodging FIRs against the present chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who is a leader of the Congress, under charges of corruption, tampering with the records of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha, amassing disproportionate assets, among others. As per the bail plea, Saini also targeted Bharat Inder Singh Chahal, a former media advisor to the chief minister, in a case of nepotism involving Chahal’s son who was enlisted at the rank of DSP. The counsel said that Saini was being targeted for his anti-corruption drive when he was the head of the state’s Vigilance Bureau.

Deol said that “the state government was pursuing an agenda to arrest Saini in cases pertaining to violence and use of force by the police at Kotkapura and Behbalpura.” On 14 October 2015, Punjab police forces opened fire on demonstrators who had gathered to peacefully protest the desecration of a Guru Granth Sahib. Two protestors were killed in the police action. Saini was the DGP of the state at the time. In July 2018, a commission headed by Ranjit Singh, a retired judge, which was set up to look into the incident, held Saini responsible for the deaths. The case is currently being investigated by an SIT. Deol argued that since the state government could not succeed in implicating Saini in these incidents, it has started digging old cases and Palwinder’s case is such an example.

It should be noted here that initially, Satnam Singh Kler, the chairman of the Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission, was scheduled to appear as the legal counsel for Saini’s anticipatory bail application. The Commission deals with cases involving the gurdwaras, institutes and employees of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the highest decision-making body for Sikh religious sites. However, Sikh organisations strongly denounced Kler’s involvement in defending Saini. Kler was quick to tender an apology for hurting Sikh sentiments and withdrew from the case as the Sikh community voiced its anger over Kler representing an official notorious for the torture and disappearance of several Sikh youths.

In fact, Saini’s notoriety is not limited to the state. Saini was accused by name, for human-rights violations, in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in April 2013. What echoed in the UNHRC, the United Nations’ body whose mission is to promote and protect human-rights around the world, fell on deaf ears back home. Ironically, India is a member of the Geneva-based UNHRC and has served three terms on the council in the past decade. The last term is still ongoing.

On 26 April 2013, Christof Heyns, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee and an expert in the field of international human-rights law, submitted his “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Mission to India” at the twenty-third session of the UNHRC. Heyns conducted an official visit to India from 19 to 30 March 2012 in his capacity as the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The report presents his main findings and proposes recommendations to ensure better protection of the right to life in India.

In the report, Heyns has recorded a damming indictment of the situation in Punjab where officers like Saini, involved in human-rights violations, were promoted rather than held accountable. “The situation is aggravated by the fact that security officers who committed human rights violations are frequently promoted rather than brought to justice,” the report said. “The Special Rapporteur has heard of the case of Mr. Sumedh Singh Saini, accused of human rights violations committed in Punjab in the 1990s, who was promoted in March 2012 to Director General of Police in Punjab.” Heyns said that promoting rather than prosecuting perpetrators of human-rights violations is not unique to Punjab and the level of extrajudicial executions in India still raises serious concern.

The report maintains that delay in judicial proceedings constitutes one of India’s most serious challenges and has clear implications for accountability. “For example, lengthy and ineffective proceedings exist in Punjab where large-scale enforced disappearances and mass cremations occurred between the mid-1980s and 1990s. The lack of political will to address these disappearances is evident in a context where steps to ensure accountability have been reportedly inconclusive.” The report stressed that promotions and “other types of awards for security officers suspected to have been involved in unlawful killings, including through encounters, should not be granted until a proper clarification of facts.”

When I reached out to Saini to ask him about Balwant’s case and the various allegations against him over the years, he responded with a cryptic one-line reply. “All this - and more - will be placed before the Higher Judiciary.”