THE ALLEGED suicide of a 23-year-old priest the same day he was interrogated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Mohali earlier this month has brought under scrutiny a Punjab police case of sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against 30 men, mostly in their twenties.
The case was registered at Sultanwind after pro-Khalistan slogans were found painted on walls in the area. Among the accused was the US-based Gurpatwant Singh Pannu of Sikhs For Justice (SFJ). Challan was filed in March 2019. Punjab Police investigated the case for 18 months before transferring it to NIA in April this year.
A perusal of the police challan against 11 of the 30 accused, who remain in custody, throws up more questions than answers.
As per the challan, one of the accused — Bikramjit Singh — said that his relative Bhupinder Singh from Srinagar had promised to arrange for weapons to pursue the agenda of Khalistan along with SFJ, which was not banned in 2018.
He had told police that he could accompany a party to raid the homes of Bhupinder Singh and other accused, including teacher Sukhbir Singh, Davinder Singh, Sandeep Singh and Harjeet Singh, all from Srinagar, to “recover weapons and posters of Khalistan”. While the police booked these men for sedition, they did little to trace them.
Learnt about the case only this year: Accused
The Indian Express spoke to two accused in Srinagar — Sukhbir Singh and Davinder Singh — who said they knew each other and were social workers.
Both claimed they came to know about the case against them for the first time in March this year, after J&K police questioned them in connection with the 2018 FIR.
“I am not aware of any FIR at Amritsar. Police told me that my name was in some FIR. There was another name, Davinder Singh, in the FIR. I also knew one Davinder Singh, who is my friend. I called Davinder and he was also questioned. There are names of three more persons from J&K in the FIR and police asked us to help find them. But we couldn’t find anyone,” said Sukhbir.
He added, “I am surprised at the FIR. I run a coaching centre for poor students. I am a social worker. My wife and I donated our organs on the day of our wedding. We run blood donation camps. The Sikh community in Srinagar knows me well.”
Sukhbir said he has an M.Ed/M.Phil in biology and 13 years of teaching experience. He calls himself a ‘NEET expert’ and trains students for competitive and civil services exams.
Davinder Singh said, “We had invited Bhai Amrik Singh Ajnala to preach in our area back in 2017. He had come here then. That is how we have contact with Amrik Singh. But we were never in regular touch with him. Recently I asked him about the FIR and our names on it. He said he was also not aware about the accused.”
Amrik Singh Ajnala, head of the Damdami Taksal, Ajnala faction, was questioned by the NIA on June 24. There are names of around 15 accused in the police challan who have a direct or indirect link with Damdami Taksal Dera Ajnala. However, Punjab Police never questioned Amrik Singh.
Why did police not act if my son had confessed: Mother of accused
Bikramjit Singh’s mother Satnam Kaur claimed that her son never made any confession.
“We have no relative named Bhupinder Singh. We are Hindustani. My husband retired as subedar from the Indian Army. My brother Rajinder Singh is in J&K police. I belong to Kashmir and got married in Uttarakhand. Why did police not arrest Bhupinder Singh if my son had made the confession? Why did the police not arrest other accused to recover weapons when my son had promised to accompany police? It is clear that…police have cooked up the whole story. Otherwise why would they not arrest the accused and recover the weapons? Because there were no weapons. Why is Punjab Police doing this? Is there any justice?” she asked.
Police, NIA claim ISI link
The Punjab Police challan reads that one of the arrested accused — Sukhraj Singh — had allegedly confessed that they were planning to undergo weapons training in Pakistan.
According to the NIA FIR, “The module had been motivated by one Javed Khan, an ISI handler based in Pakistan, for conducting subversive activities and pasting of Khalistan/Referendum-2020 posters/banners at different locations in Punjab and New Delhi.”
However, it is not yet clear why Punjab Police did nothing to crosscheck the alleged confession statements for 18 months.
“…to collect evidence against the other absconding…all 11 accused persons are required to be examined in judicial custody to unearth the conspiracy hatched to destabilize the unity and sovereignty of Union of India and prayer has been made to allow the Chief Investigation officer of the NIA to examine all named accused at their respective location of judicial custody,” said the NIA submission in court on June 5, after taking charge of the investigation in April this year.
Following these submissions, the agency arrested ‘absconding’ Pargat Singh, who had never been questioned by Punjab Police in relation with the case.
Mehar Singh, Pargat Singh’s father, said, “If my son was such a big terrorist, why did nobody arrest him in the last one and half years? Was he not a danger then? It shows that my son is being implicated in a false case. He was never absconding. You can ask the whole village. He was a priest not a terrorist.”
The NIA had told the Mohali court that Pargat Singh was one of the key conspirators and a recruiter of radical Sikh youth while working under the directions of handlers located abroad to further the activities of SFJ.
Accused ‘hangs self’
Similarly, Lovepreet Singh of Ratta Khera village in Sangrur was summoned and went to NIA headquarters in Chandigarh on July 13. Lovepreet, who had just got employed as a priest in a village gurudwara, was in touch with his wife during his journey to Chandigarh, and even sent her some videos. But on returning from the NIA office in Mohali, he allegedly hanged himself from a fan at Amb Sahib Gurdwara where he had to stay the night.
The family is now demanding investigation into his death which they have linked to the NIA summons.
“Our son was killed. We had no idea about any case against him. He had recently got a permanent job as a priest in Barnala village. You can confirm it from the villagers that he was never absconding,” alleges Lovepreet’s father.
Didn’t go to J&K because law and order wasn’t stable there: Police
“We didn’t go to J&K because law and order was not stable in the state at that time,” said former ACP Palwinder Singh, who was handling the probe into the sedition case before it was handed over to NIA. when asked why police didn’t follow the lead given by Bikramjit Singh.
Palwinder was recently transferred as DSP Jalalabad in Fazilka.
He also admitted that police didn’t conduct any raids to locate Pargat Singh, arrested by NIA from his home in Muktsar, or Lovepreet Singh, who allegedly committed suicide.
The sedition case relating to the ‘Referendum-2020 campaign’, was registered at Sultanwind police station in October 2018. Police registered the initial FIR against Sukhraj Singh, Malkeet Singh and SFJ’s Gurpatwant Singh Pannu on October 19, 2018. During the course of investigation, police named 27 more accused. Eleven out of the total 30 accused were arrested. Subsequently, a chargesheet was filed against these 11 in March 2019. The case was handed over to NIA on April 5, 2020.
Most of the accused are in their twenties and the police have linked 20 of them to the Ajnala Dera.
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