In the 1980s and early ’90s, at the height of the Punjab Police’s clampdown on militancy, a wry joke that often did the rounds was that the state police could even get a monkey hanging upside down in the forest to admit that he was a man-eating tiger. All these years later, many would say the joke is now on the Punjab Police as it struggles its way through a string of unsolved cases, mistaken shootouts and now, a jailbreak.
On November 27, a group of 12 men, disguised as policemen and prisoners, broke into the high-security Nabha jail in Patiala and freed six inmates, among them Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF) militant Harminder Singh Mintoo. The jailbreak comes after a string of other incidents that have dented the image of the state police — two big terror attacks in a span of six months, a bunch of desecration cases and a trail of murders, all unsolved, forcing the state government to hand over the investigation in many to the CBI.
The jailbreak has raised questions about the state police’s intelligence management. According to the police, the 12 men reached the jail in four vehicles, with two handcuffed men in civilian clothes and the others in police uniforms. After the escape, the 18 heavily armed men (12 perpetrators and six jail inmates) fled the prison complex in four vehicles, came across a closed railway crossing, made a U-turn and once again crossed the jail gate. All this without the police giving them much trouble.
Despite Punjab being a border state, the prison had no backup or Quick Reaction Team to deal with such an exigency. Sources say that at the time of the jailbreak, the district’s entire police top brass was in Amritsar, discussing arrangements for the Heart of Asia conference with Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.
The brazenness of the jailbreak and the ease with which it was effected not only expose the glaring loopholes in prison security but point to something more sinister — how the lines between law-breakers and law-enforcers often blur.
By the Punjab Director General of Police Suresh Arora’s own admission, there are 57 gangs operating in the state, with the number of ‘active gangsters’ well over 500. Many of these gangsters are behind bars but, as the Nabha jail break and other cases show, prison is rarely a deterrent. In fact, gangsters freely access their mobile phones and other communication gadgets in jails and openly flaunt their connections with the police.
A widely circulated video last year showed members of the Gounder gang dancing over the body of Sukha Kahlwan, a rival gang member whom they had murdered in public view, while the police stood watching. As the gang members escaped, they even snatched the weapons of the policemen. Later, the police arrested a few of the gang members. It was the same Gounder gang that is believed to have executed last Sunday’s jailbreak and freed their leader, Vicky.
Former Punjab DGP Julio Francis Ribeiro says that if there is a lesson to learn from the Nabha case, it is that there are “no lessons learnt”. “It is a grave lapse that assailants entered the jail wearing police uniforms. It is a well-known fact that inmates are neither dropped inside the jail nor picked up for court hearings that early in the morning, that too on Sundays,” he says, going on to recall an attack on him and his family in 1986, at the height of the militancy. “Then too, the assailants came wearing police uniforms. The same thing happened in Uri. It appears that no lessons have been learnt.”
Critics list a string of cases that have slipped out of the police’s hands to make the point that the Punjab Police is a pale shadow of its former self — from the highs of the ’80s and ’90s, when it led the fight against militancy, to being a force that, many say, is shooting in the dark.
Quite literally, it seems. Last year in June, Akali leader Mukhjeet Singh Mukha was shot dead in his car by the police in Amritsar who mistook him for a wanted gangster, Jagdeep Singh Jaggu. The incident triggered strong protests by district Akali leaders. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up after the shootout is still to conclude its probe.
The police resorted to the same blind shooting after the Nabha jailbreak. As a high-alert was sounded across the state, a team led by Inspector Harvinder Singh Khaira intercepted a Swift Dzire car, signalled it to stop and, when it didn’t, opened fire. The police soon realised they had made a mistake: one of the occupants of the car, Neha, who was killed on the spot, was on her way to a wedding, where she was to perform. Another passerby, Kala Singh, was injured in the firing. Constable Shamsher Singh, who had opened fire, was assaulted by a mob and held hostage until officials of the district administration and police intervened and got him released. The Punjab Police later ordered an investigation into the firing.
A top Punjab Police officer admits that the shootout was a “bona fide mistake”, but says, “We have to see it in the right perspective. We ask our men to come out on the road and catch the culprits. But if a bona fide mistake takes place, we do not get any support — not from the department, not from the government, not from the society and not from the media. What do you do?”
Last year in October, protests erupted across Punjab over alleged instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. Two people were killed in police firing at Behbal Kalan village in Moga district and many were injured as the protests spiralled out of control. The most talked about of these desecration cases was at Bargari in Faridkot district. But days after Additional Director General of Police I P S Sahota announced the arrest of the “prime accused” — brothers Rupinder Singh and Jaswinder Singh — the case collapsed. Once again, the police were left scrambling for answers. On October 25, the then DGP of Punjab, Sumedh Singh Saini, was transferred and replaced by his batchmate, Suresh Arora.
On November 1, the state government handed over the three main desecration cases — at Jawahar Singh Wala, Bajakhana and Bargari — to the CBI. A day later, the police released both the brothers in the Bargari case. The case is yet to be solved; so are the other desecration cases.
Over the last couple of years, a series of high-profile cases have similarly been handed over to the CBI after the state police failed to crack them.
Of the two recent terror attacks — the July 27, 2015, attack at a police station in Dinanagar and the January 1 attack on the Air Force base at Pathankot — while the Pathankot case was immediately taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the police refused to hand over the Dinanagar probe to the agency. So far, the police have not even filed a chargesheet in the Dinanagar case.
Two other high-profile cases — the August 6 killing of RSS Punjab unit chief, Brigadier (retd) Jagdish Gagneja, and the April murder of 88-yr-old Chand Kaur, wife of the former head of the Namdhari sect — had to be transferred to the CBI after the police failed to make any progress.
The senior police officer, however, says cases getting transferred to the CBI does not reflect poorly on the police. “Yes, cases have been transferred to the CBI, but they haven’t been able to solve these cases either. On an average, 2,000 cases get registered annually and majority of these get solved. Unfortunately, only the cases that get stuck get highlighted,” he says.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, Akali Dal leader and advisor to Sukhbir Badal, says, “With Punjab being a border state, our police have been working under tremendous pressure. Despite the best efforts of the ISI, they have not been able to disrupt peace in Punjab – and that’s thanks to the vigilant Punjab Police.”
The police’s record in the state’s drug crackdown isn’t free of blemish either. After Sukhbir Badal ordered a statewide crackdown on drugs in 2014, the police arrested thousands of youngsters, drug peddlers and a few smugglers. Of the 6,598 FIRs registered under the NDPS Act in 2014-15, over 40 per cent were against addicts, people at the farthest end of the drug chain, while the big fish continued to evade the police.
Former DGP Shashikant says, “The Punjab Police have not yet fully emerged from the terrorism years, when they could shoot anybody they considered a terror suspect and get away with it.”
Anil Monga, Head of Department of Police Administration at Panjab University agrees. “The kind of courage that Punjab Police showed during the terrorism years was unbeatable. They had set an example for the police forces of the rest of the country. But, over the years, as technology improved, our police fell behind. They need to be modernised too. I believe that if they lack in something, it is modernisation and scientific investigation skills.”
Critics point to the alleged politicisation of the police force and say that’s one of the main reasons for the fall in standards of the force, besides its top-heavy nature.
Congress leader and former chief minister Amarinder Singh says, “The Nabha jailbreak incident is just the latest episode to show how the Punjab police has been relegated to the unenviable position of being either non-existent, or a tool for the Akali government to use and abuse”.
Dismissing allegations of “politicisation” of the police, Akali leader Sirsa says, “No politician would ever ask a police officer to execute a jail break or to not catch the culprits.”
The 70,000-strong force — around 12 per cent bigger than the Haryana Police — has seven directors general of police, 12 additional directors general of police, over 30 inspectors general of police and several senior superintendents of police. But it faces a staff shortage at the lower levels. A few months ago, around 7,416 constables joined the force — the first such recruitment in five years — but they are yet to undergo their training.
Last month, in its reply to the state Election Commission, the Punjab Police said that over 2,500 personnel guard nearly 900 VIPs across the state.
Former Punjab police chief K P S Gill, who is credited with stamping out militancy from Punjab, says, “The depths to which the police force have descended is all because of the politicisation of the force. All the postings are controlled by the political bosses. Officers are given postings depending on their political affiliations. That’s the reason case after case is going undetected. In Punjab, most of the key posts like that of district police chiefs are dominated by the state cadre officers and IPS officers are neglected.”
According to the NCRB data for 2015, Punjab received 3,107 complaints against its police personnel and the state figured sixth on the list of states with maximum complaints against its police. Of these, departmental probes were initiated only in 457 cases and magisterial probes in 22. Only in two cases were judicial probes ordered. In all, 100 criminal cases were registered against policemen who were found prima-facie guilty of wrongdoing.
At a press conference on Thursday, ADGP (Prisons), Rohit Chaudhary, who replaced M K Tiwari, who was transferred out of the department after the jailbreak, spoke of things changing. “We will take adequate steps to strengthen security around jails. We will also constitute a separate intelligence wing exclusively for jails so that we can get intelligence inputs about the activities and intentions of the inmates.
A week after the jailbreak, the police have made limited progress. Two Nabha jail officials, assistant jail superintendent Bhim Singh, head warder Jagmeet Singh and a nearby sweet shop owner, Tejinder Sharma, have been arrested for allegedly colluding with the inmates. Police have also nabbed Gurpreet Singh, a Moga resident at whose home the perpetrators allegedly stayed the night before they executed the jailbreak.
Critics of the Punjab Police say the two big arrests in the case so far —of KLF chief Mintoo and Palwinder Singh — were both made by their counterparts in other states. Mintoo was arrested a day after his escape by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police from the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station in Delhi. (The Punjab Police claim it was a joint operation.)
Palwinder Singh was arrested by a team of the Uttar Pradesh Police from Shamli. Palwinder had been an inmate of Nabha jail until March 29, when he effected a daring escape. That day, he had been taken to the Nabha civil hospital for a dental treatment when four armed youngsters reached the hospital, fired gunshots in air, threw chilly powder at the cops and freed Palwinder. The same man returned with his team to Nabha jail last Sunday to execute one of the most ludicrous jailbreaks in recent years.
From jail, a Facebook diary
NEXT to a handcuffed Kamal ‘Sam’ is a table with Domino’s pizza boxes and a smiling Punjab Police inspector. With this photo on his Facebook post dated March 31, ‘Sam’, one of Punjab’s well-known gangsters, philosophises, “Oh manzilan ki choongey jo rehan aasrey mukkadran dey; langhan waley taan langh jaandey aa paad ke seena pattran daan (What success will those people achieve who remain dependent on luck; those who want to can even scale mountains).”
That little comes between a Punjab jail inmate and his Facebook has been known for a while, reinforced by the November 27 jailbreak from the Nabha prison. Four of the six who escaped had been posting on their Facebook pages till a few days before.
One of the six, dreaded gangster Gurpreet Singh Sekhon alias Mudki, wrote on November 26, “Kaam aisa karo ki naam ho jaaye, warna naam aisa karo ki naam lete hi kaam ho jaaye (Do something so great that it makes you famous, or be so famous that work gets done just on the strength of your name).”
Prisoners are known to post photos, of their birthday celebrations in jail, of lying down in the cell and listening to music, group photographs, even selfies, as well as messages for their girlfriends outside, proudly tagged with their location: ‘Nabha Jail’, ‘Faridkot Jail’, ‘Nabha High Security Jail’ etc.
They talk about being happy at meeting their “veer (brothers)” in jail, feeling sad or simply bored. They speak about court hearings being “a lot of fun”. On May 1, Deep ‘Shooter Bathinda’, lodged in jail for murders, boasted, “High Court peshi jatt di, seel ho gaya Chandigarh sara (A Jat is going for a court hearing, the entire Chandigarh is sealed).”
Some pose with the weapons they have smuggled inside jail, while others challenge senior policemen. In May, after gangster Jaswinder Singh alias Rocky was murdered, rival Vicky Gounder (who also escaped from the Nabha jail) and wanted gangster Jaipal (absconding) competed with each other on Facebook to take credit for the killing.
The posts get thousands of ‘likes’, along with comments of “Miss U bro”, “That is so cool bro!”, “Wow, super awesome bro”, and the effusive “Virey tu agg laayi payi hai (Bro, you are on fire)”.
Officials admit prisoners have access to not just mobile phones, Internet and chargers but also pre-paid recharge coupons.
Former DGP (prisons) Shashikant says that during his tenure, there had been cases of criminals getting themselves shifted from one jail to another to intimidate rivals. “We recovered a sack full of mobile phones from Ludhiana jail once. But yes, most of the times smartphones are never taken away from hardcore and politically influential criminals. All that is shown in recovery during raids are cheap phones recovered from petty inmates,” he says.
Former DGP, prisons, Izhar Alam calls it a case of “Chacha qaidi, bhatija warden; bhatija qaidi, chacha warden”. “It all works with the connivance of the jail staff. They avoid taking on dreaded criminals. Secondly, under our law, there is no serious punishment if phones are recovered from prisoners.”
Worse, Alam adds, “(Through their posts) these gangsters are becoming cult figures for Punjab’s youth. They are seen as cool superheroes fearlessly challenging police.”
On July 29, ‘Sharp Shooter Sukha’ posed with a photo of two revolvers, saying ‘Gundey Returns — Feeling Lucky at Nabha Jail’.
On September 30, Amandeep Dhotian from Tarn Taran, who was among those who fled from Nabha Jail, posted a photograph from inside with the chilling caption that those who didn’t see him favourably could “donate their eyes”.
On May 8, dreaded sharpshooter Davinder Singh Bambiha openly challenged police to arrest him. Accused of murdering sarpanch Ravi Khwajke in February and dancing over his body, he said that was just a “trailer”. In his case though, luck ran out. In September, Bambiha was killed in an “encounter”.