The Turbulent Years

Samar Vijay Singh IPS

 

The eighties were the years of terrorism in Punjab. Sporadic incidents had started taking place even earlier. A major incident was the assassination of Lala Jagat Narain, the octogenarian freedom fighter and editor of Hind Samachar Group of Newspapers of Jalandhar, on the National Highway (Shershah Suri Marg) on9.9.1981 in broad daylight. Lalaji was a towering figure of Punjab. A fearless man, he never failed to condemn any unpatriotic utterances using words as his weapon. Two young men riding a motorbike crossed him near village Bhattian in Ludhiana and shot him dead. It was an alarm signal for both Government of India and Government of Punjab. Lalaji has rightly been called the first victim of terrorism in the State. Punjab Government was headed by Sardar Darbara Singh, a veteran Congress leader.

 

Punjab Police has been enjoying the reputation of ruthless efficiency. It boasts of a very well-knit intelligence network. In intelligence and operational efficiency, the dare devil Punjab Police is second to none in the country. Once a task is given to them, they do not rest till they have accomplished the task. I have always perceived the Sikhs in State Police or armed forces uniform as ‘dwij soldiers’ –the twice born like the ‘dwij scholars’ – the Brahmins of Indian tradition. The Brahmin is ordained and ‘Christened’ to be the repository of knowledge and wisdom in Indian tradition. Hence, he is known as ‘dwij’. When the soldier of the Guru is christened as the soldier of the state either in police or the armed forces, he is a ‘dwij’ soldier – the twice born soldier. He is proud, confident and efficient and ready to sacrifice his life in the line of duty. When more than two months lapsed and the Punjab Police were not able to apprehend the youngsters who had killed Lala Jagat Narain, alarm bells sounded in both the governments in Delhi and Chandigarh. Though the two youngsters were identified, they were not nabbed. It was alleged that police officers in the field were not putting in their best efforts because they did not want to get into a confrontation with the terrorists. It was a case of leadership failure at operational level.

 

In October, a series of grenade attacks took place on some houses of Sub Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) throughout Punjab. It was an attempt to demoralize the bureaucracy in the field. So far, the Khalistan movement was confined to taking out small demonstrations and raising anti-national slogans, printing of fake Khalistan currency, holding of seminars propagating separatist ideology, inflammatory and separatist speeches by some odd separatist leaders etc. But now what was being done was a step towards an open violent struggle. It was a different scenario. It was the beginning of a serious law and order challenge.

 

Moga town in Faridkot district then had a population of about a lakh. The people in the rural areas have small land holdings. The town has a big grain market. There are a large number of small industrial manufacturing units making air coolers, threshers etc. Moga town also has numerous vice dens. The township has a background of serious police-public clashes resulting even in police firings and deaths. So, I was not surprised to find that as SSP, I was required to visit Moga two to three times every week to tackle serious law and order problems, whereas Faridkot and Muktsar Sub- Divisions could be left to be managed by the junior police officials.

 

My first day in Faridkot, 31st October 1981 was memorable. I had hardly sat in my office for a couple of hours when I was visited by a public delegation headed by Pandit Chetan Dev. Panditji was a freedom fighter and a reputed social activist. He brought a woman victim of a rape case and complained, “SSP Sahib, this young girl has been raped by a co-villager. She belongs to the sole Muslim family in the village. The case has been registered by the police, the accused has been arrested, but your Station House Officer (SHO) of the Police Station is not bringing the case to court”. After going through the details, I had no doubt in my mind that it was an authentic case. Dilly-dallying by the police was not justified. I rang up the SHO. He was not available on the phone. I left a message that he should talk to me at the earliest. Meanwhile, I assured Pandit Chetan Dev that the case would be put in court within the next twenty-four hours. But Pandit Chetan Dev was not satisfied. He said again, “The SHO will not do that. He is not fair.” However, on my repeated assurances, Panditji left my office. After some time, I received the SHO’s telephone call. He argued, “Sir, this is a false case. If I put it in court, great injustice would take place.”

 

I told the SHO tersely, “Who told you that I have come here to do justice? Do what I have told you without any loss of time. It is inconceivable that a Muslim family in a village in Punjab is making false allegations against a co-villager. Do not see me unless you have complied with my instructions.” My words had the desired effect. The very next day, the first thing that the SHO did was to put the case in court for trial. This incident spread quietly through the rank and file in Faridkot. It was noted that I wanted prompt action in serious cases like rape or murder and would not tolerate lethargy or injudicious delay. These, as well as, similar clear-cut instructions to the police officers in my monthly crime meetings made my task easier. I never found my policemen in Faridkot creating any difficulty for me in dispensing justice. They all acted as a team- faithful, committed, honest and loyal to the profession. I had no occasion to shout or take serious action against them. They knew what I expected of them and they acted accordingly. If ever I punished anyone, the severest punishment was just a written warning or censure which did not harm their career prospects. As per police rules, these reprimands had their adverse effect for a period of six months only. I also never failed to appreciate and reward the good work done by a subordinate officer. This earned me lasting loyalty from my subordinates.

 

It is a well-established principle in management that on any new assignment, there are two distinct phases of getting results. The first is the honeymooning phase when one gets to know the job and its different implications, challenges, the shortcomings (if any) in the available resources. This takes about three months. The second phase is the make or break phase when one either succeeds or shows progressive result or otherwise proves unequal to the task. This may take the next three to six months. Acting as SSP Faridkot in this period of terrorism was one of the most challenging assignments. I was aware that I had to complete the honeymoon phase fast and start the second phase of showing results.

 

It did not take me long to realize that the two most important aspects of meeting the challenges were intelligence and operation. As far as intelligence is concerned, it was not merely routine crime intelligence of my district. In a situation where the entire State was gradually being engulfed in terrorism, the intelligence network had to be statewide. One could not collect intelligence in one’s own district and get results. So, I gave oral instructions to all ranks (including the constables) to collect information about the activities of terrorists not only in their jurisdiction but from anywhere they belonged to. Who were the elements getting associated in these activities and where were they operating?

 

It is common knowledge that people know about their own co-villagers easily. The police strength in Punjab is about 75,000 and the number of villages is about 12,000. There is hardly any village in Punjab, which does not have four to five constables in the police department. The same was true in Faridkot district. This innovation in intelligence collection proved very effective. Intelligence started trickling in from all sides. I formed a collation unit at district police headquarters for evaluating and developing intelligence coming from individual police officers. A large volume of intelligence collected and collated could be acted upon. However, a lot of intelligence gathered related to other districts. The results were most impressive.

 

In a major breakthrough, we received information about one of the assassins of Lala Jagat Narain. The assassin of Lalaji was hiding in neighbouring Bhatinda District; off and on he would come to Faridkot also. A raid was organized in the bordering area. The culprit was arrested without any resistance from his side. The assassin was none other than the nephew of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

 

The news spread like wild fire. The sympathizers of the accused were apprehensive that he may be killed in a fake encounter. But nothing like that was in my mind. He was brought to my office before being produced in the court at about ten am, the next day.

 

He was thoroughly interrogated. He confessed to his crime and was remanded. The news of the arrest of the nephew of Sant Bhindranwale was received with great relief from not only the administration in Punjab, but also in Government of India. It was taken as a sign that the Punjab Police was not scared of acting boldly. The fact that the arrested culprit was treated in accordance with the law without prejudice was well received by the ‘Kharku’ (militant) leadership at Amritsar. It was a well-organized and well-executed operation by Faridkot Police. Thereafter, there was no looking back.

 

 

 

 

 

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