Amid debate over use of human shield in Kashmir by Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, Bhela, a village in district Tarn Taran, on Friday observed the death anniversary of six of its natives who were allegedly used as human shield and killed in a 30-hour-long encounter between three Sikh militants and Punjab Police, CRPF and the Indian Army 25 years ago.
The encounter took place on June 8, 1992, in which well-known militant Surjit Singh Bhela was killed along with two other accomplices. Three policemen and one Indian Army soldier was also killed in encounter. According to police records, a total of nine militants were killed in the encounter. Villagers, however, claim six of these nine were locals used as human shield to save lives of some senior police officers. Police never gave bodies of the dead to villagers for cremation.
Four of the villagers also allegedly used as human shield survived. One of them was Sukhchain Singh, who sustained two bullet injuries. Militants had taken shelter in the two-storey house of former minister Manjinder Singh in the village and constructed a fortification on the second floor.
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s current security adviser Khubi Ram, who was SP (operations) at that time, was part of the operation along with the then Tarn Taran SSP Ajit Singh Sandhu and two other senior police officers.
Sukhchain Singh, who lost his father Niranjan Singh and brother Sakatar Singh in the encounter, says he and three others had a narrow escape. While Sukhchain’s father and brother were mentioned as militants in the FIR registered by police following the encounter, the police never took any action against Sukhchain.
“I had just passed 10th class. We were constructing a room outside the village at our farm when a police team came and asked my father, brother, me and one more labourer to sit in the jeep. They took us to the house of the former minister. Police had also brought six other persons from village. We all were asked to move inside the house where militants had taken shelter,” says Sukhchain Singh.
“Police asked us to move forward and themselves took shelter behind us. We were first taken to every room on the ground floor and then to the second floor. Meanwhile, Ajit Singh Sandhu and Khubi Ram climbed on the third floor. Soon, firing started from both sides. Five of us died on the spot, including my father and brother. I sustained two bullet injuries and kept lying there for many hours. One of the injured died in hospital. Three sustained no injuries,” claims Sukhchain.
Sukhchain Singh also has a collection of some newspaper clippings which read that police killed nine Sikh militants in the encounter. “There were only three militants. Rest of us were villagers. I was never arrested by police or prosecuted in any court. If we were terrorists, why did not the police prosecute me all these years? We were used as human shield to save some police officers.”
In the operation, police and the CRPF failed to clear the building of militants and finally the Army was called to blast it with heavy ammunition. Villagers at Bhela observe death anniversary of all the locals killed in that encounter every year.
“Recently, I watched hot debates held on TV channels about use of human shield in Kashmir. For all these years, I believed security forces were allowed to use such tactics. Now, I have come to know it is a war crime to use human shield. Either government should take action against all those officers or I should be treated as militant and prosecuted,” says Sukhchain Singh.
Paramjit Kaur, head of human rights organisation Khalra Mission, said, “An inquiry was also ordered by Deputy Commissioner into the encounter, but the report was never made public. Government should take action against police officers who are still working on high posts.”
When contacted, Khubi Ram said, “Do you know what kind of terror was there in Tarn Taran during those days? I, along with 26 policemen, was stuck at the third floor of the building. You must see what had happened to that building during that encounter.”
“Simranjeet Singh Mann had also claimed at that time that human shiled was used. It is very easy to say human shield was used. If someone is providing food and shelter to terrorists, how can you easily identify who is terrorist and who is not? Later, they would cry they were used as human shield. You have been digging it after so many years. But I want to maintain no human shield was used at that time,” he said.
“A story on this after 25 years would not solve any purpose. Terrorism was a bad thing and it is better to forget it than digging old stories,” said Khubi Ram.