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 Anoop 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.”