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Once praised for crushing rebels, India’s police now prosecuted

July 4, 1997

CHANDIGARH, India (AP) _ Yesterday’s heroes, today’s villains.

Once praised for crushing a bloody Sikh secessionist movement, policemen of northern India’s Punjab province are now facing condemnation for the means they used against the rebels _ and battling to stay out of prison themselves.

More than 70 police officers have been charged, mostly on allegations of killing suspected separatists. One district police commander, unable to bear the ignominy of being investigated, committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.

As more evidence emerges of torture and killings by police, Indians are rethinking who was the terrorist in Punjab _ and who the victim.

The Sikh separatists took up arms in the early 1980s and terrorized northern India for years. They massacred unarmed Hindus; blew up public buildings, trains and buses; assassinated government officials.

The judicial system was paralyzed. Judges refused to try accused terrorists for fear of retribution. Sikh militants killed more than 1,700 policemen and 800 members of policemen’s families.

In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself was slain by her Sikh bodyguards, angry at her for ordering the army to storm a Sikh shrine occupied by rebels.

Militant Sikhs, members of a 500-year-old religion with a warrior tradition, say India’s Hindu majority discriminates against them. They want to create a sovereign nation _ to be called Khalistan, or Land of the Pure _ in predominately Sikh Punjab, India’s bread basket.

Altogether, the Sikh conflict has killed more than 25,000 people since 1983.

In the early 1990s, Police Chief Kunwar Pal Singh Gill went on the offensive _ a Sikh rallying his largely Sikh force against guerrillas among their own people. Without acknowledging it did so, the government gave him carte blanche.

Gill, a tall, soft-spoken man with a love for poetry, converted a timid police force into what human rights groups called a killing machine. He doled out promotions and cash for each corpse, and didn’t ask for proof of guilt.

By 1993, the war was declared over. Night life returned to Punjab. Factories, long closed for fear of extortion and murder, reopened. Gill and his men were national heroes.

But now, a trail of alleged human rights abuses is catching up with them.

``The entire force is being humiliated. The courts aren’t willing even to grant bail to the officers,″ says Puran Chand Dogra, Punjab’s director-general of police.

Although the separatist movement is weakened, it’s not dead. Chief Minister Beant Singh, Punjab’s highest elected official and Gill’s political mentor, was assassinated in 1995. Occasionally, bombs still go off.

The lingering tension helps preserve public sympathy for the police. After the suicide of district police chief Ajit Singh Sandhu on May 24, there was a spate of self-examination by a nation torn between loyalty to the police and to its humane values.

This week, two policemen tried to hang themselves by tying their unraveled turbans to ceiling fans in a jail near Chandigarh. A jail warden pulled them down before they strangled.

Gill again has gone on the offensive, this time against human rights organizations, which he accuses of being front organizations for pro-separatist groups in the United States, Germany and Britain.

``There are large numbers of interest groups abroad which do not like India to be strong, which are bent upon exploiting the basic conflicts which exist in our society,″ said Gill, who retired as director-general of police 18 months ago.

Privately, some police officers admit illegal actions, but argue that their extrajudicial methods were directed against known terrorists and were necessary because of the breakdown of the courts.

Thanks to Gill, separatism ended, but so did the rule of law, says Jaspal Singh Dhillon of the Human Rights and Democracy Forum, an activist group in Punjab.

Stories of police excesses are common at the orphanage that Dhillon runs.

``My father was taken away by the police. For eight days, my grandmother took food for him in the jail. On the ninth day, they gave her his ashes, saying he had been killed in a gunbattle,″ said Amanjot, a 12-year-old at the foundling home.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Jaspal Singh is now in Burail jail, on the outskirts of Chandigarh, alongside Sikh militants whom he had helped capture.

Singh, along with Sandhu, was charged with abducting civil rights activist Jaswant Khalra, who disappeared in 1995 after he filed a court case alleging that the police had secretly cremated the bodies of hundreds of suspected militants who officially were listed as missing.

Singh denies involvement in the activist’s disappearance. Once decorated with the highest police gallantry award, Singh now says he will return the medal to an ungrateful country.

``It was not my personal war. I was fighting for the country and was under orders,″ Singh said, adding, ``People in Punjab appear to have forgotten the days when they came running to police stations, asking for help.″

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