Their foreheads bearing the marks of a surgical procedure to remove the tattooed words jeb katri, or pickpocket, four women in Amritsar waited 23 years for justice, while a fifth died waiting. A judgment came from a special CBI court this month — three years’ imprisonment for two Amritsar policemen, and one year for a third. To the four survivors, it was too little for 23 years of suffering.
“We should have been compensated. What is three years? They have gone almost scot-free,” said Surjit Kaur, now 70.
Of the five women whose foreheads were tattooed on December 8, 1993, three were of Baghrian village in Sangrur, Punjab — Surjit, her sister-in-law Mohinder Kaur, 65, and Mohinder’s mother-in-law Hamir Kaur, now dead. Surjit’s sister Parmeshri a.k.a. Kehri, 65, is of Cheentawali village in Sangrur. Gurdev Kaur, 60, whose son is married to Surjit’s sister, is of Rohti Channa village in Patiala.
According to the case files, the five were headed to Tarn Tarn after a visit to the Golden Temple when police rounded them up from the bus station, kept them in custody for a week, and etched the tattoos.
“A man was brought with a machine used to scribble names on utensils. Narinder Singh Malhi [then sub-inspector] wrote on our foreheads with black ink and the man started working the machine,” said Parmeshri, who showed her forehead to the judge when the police produced her. This led to the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, followed by a case in Punjab & Haryana High Court and a CBI probe.
The surgical procedures to remove the tattoos were carried out in 1994. For a year-and-a-half until then, they lived with the tattoos. “We were humiliated by people who addressed us as jeb katri. Once my son and I were asked to step out of a bus by the conductor,” said Mohinder.
“What they did to my mother ruined my life,” said Pappu, 40. “I was teased at school. Whenever a student reported a loss, it was I who was frisked. I dropped out because of the humiliation.” His father died of a heart attack shortly after the incident.
Surjit Kaur’s son committed suicide; Parmeshri alleged this was because of the humiliation. “He was teased so much that he poured kerosene on himself and set himself on fire a few years after the incident.”
Parmeshri’s elder daughter, married recently at that time, was soon divorced. This too was because of the tattoo, alleged Parmeshri, who lost her son two months ago while she was in Ambala jail.
All four surviving women have criminal cases against them in several police stations. Parmeshri faces 19 cases of theft, snatching and under the NDPS Act for allegedly selling drugs in various parts of Punjab and Haryana.
In 1994, the high court ordered that the state government arrange plastic surgery for removal of the tattoos, pay Rs 50,000 each as compensation and punish the cops. The surgeries were done at Rajindra Hospital in Patiala. “They used a kind of stitching technique to hide the tattoo but it was still visible,” said Mohinder. “We borrowed and went to a private clinic, which did three surgeries on each of us. My mother-in-law Hamir Kaur did not live to see all three sessions; a part of her tattoo was still visible when she died eight or nine years ago.”
She claims that of the Rs 50,000 compensation, she received only Rs 11,000. On the other hand, Gulzar Singh, former sarpanch of Rohti village where Gurdev Kaur lives, told the Indian Express the women have bought agriculture land and alleged their criminal activities are well known. Gurdev Kaur could not be contacted to share her experience; her daughter-in-law said she was away.
Parmeshri has a large house in her village. Surjit lives with her daughter-in-law and a widowed daughter and grandchildren in a recently built house. She said her daughter-in-law is a MNREGA worker and her granddaughter earns by stitching clothes.
The four women did not engage a counsel. They learnt about the sentence through the media. Amritsar SP Sukhdev Singh Chinna and sub-inspector Malhi were awarded three years; ASI Kanwaljit Singh got one year. Their defence was that the tattoos had been made by fellow villagers.