Ranjeet Singh’s parents think he will be back in five years, Arvinder Singh’s mother that it will take 10 years, while Surjit’s parents are counting on him being back in seven years after the 32 months he has already spent in jail are commuted.
The NGO that has been funding their legal fight hasn’t told the families yet that on February 5, the District Additional Sessions Court, Nawanshahr, sentenced the three youths to life term, on the charge of waging war against the State. Legal experts say they don’t know of any other case when people have been convicted of this on the basis of recovered literature alone.
Arvinder Singh (29), Surjit Singh (25) and and Ranjeet Singh (28) have already spent more than two-and-a-half years in jail. The “incriminating” documents police claim to have found on them include books related to Operation Blue Star, posters carrying the word Khalistan, and literature on Sikh history. Police also claim they have links with the terror outfit Babbar Khalsa International (BKI). But the cyber proof given for the last charge actually names a man named ‘Mittha Singh’, who police claim is Arvinder.
Additionally, in its judgment sentencing the men, the court said, “The accused are acquitted of the charges framed under Section 10 (penalty for being member of an unlawful association) and 13 (punishment for unlawful activities) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967.”
Advocate R S Bains, who is representing the men, said this proves that the court does not believe them to be members of any banned organisation.
Incidentally, on February 7, two days after the men were convicted, the Nawanshahr police filed a fresh FIR against Arvinder under the Arms Act and the UAPA. According to the FIR, an accused under the NDPS Act had told them “Arvinder alias Mittha” had supplied him a pistol and six bullets to take revenge against some incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. But at the time these incidents took place (January 2017 and June 2018) Arvinder had been long in jail — held without bail or parole since May 2016.
Asked about this, DSP Balachaur Rajpal Singh refused to comment, saying they were investigating the case.
The Nawanshahr court sentenced Arvinder, Surjit and Ranjeet to life term under Section 121 of the IPC with a fine of Rs 1 lakh and under Section 121 (A) of the IPC with rigorous imprisonment of 10 years and fine of Rs 25,000. Both the sentences are to run concurrently.
There are three others wanted in the case — BKI head Wadhawa Singh Babbar and Karnavir Singh, both believed to be in Pakistan, Wadhwa’s son Jujhar Singh who lives in Germany, and UK-based Akalrup Singh. Nawanshahr Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) Mukhtiyar Rai, the Investigating Officer (IO), said the three would be tried “after they are extradited”, while adding that police are yet to take up the matter with Interpol.
A world away are the homes of Arvinder, Surjit and Ranjeet. With the family-owned land less than one acre in size, Arvinder’s mother Sarabjit rears two cattle to eke out a living in their native Pallian Kurad village in Nawanshahr. After his arrest, his wife of four months left and got a divorce. Sarabjit claims her husband Gurnam Singh took to the bottle after Arvinder’s arrest, and died on November 23, 2017, just five days after Arvinder’s grandfather’s death. Sarabjit, 50, now lives alone in a four-room house.
Crying inconsolably, Sarabjit says, “Arvinder was everything to me. He left home at the age of 18 to work, and became a JCB machine operator. He was the one who constructed this house as we had no money even for basic needs.”
With little money to spare, Sarabjit is able to go just two-three times a year to Nabha Jail, 100 km away, where Arvinder is lodged. As they couldn’t hire a lawyer, a UK-based NGO, Sikh Relief, provided legal aid. The NGO claims to have helped around 100 Sikh prisoners implicated in ‘false cases’, including of supporting Khalistan.
Tek Singh, the 57-year-old ailing father of Surjit, says police told him initially that he would be back in two days. “But after two days police contacted us and told that Surjit had been arrested.”
Tek, who owns a one-acre plot and lives in a semi-pucca house with wife Manjeet Kaur in Bahadur Hussain Kalan village in Gurdaspur district, says he sold a buffalo and a cow to pay the lawyer’s fees of Rs 60,000. “Surjit was our only support as his two sisters are married. After doing Class 12 he had started working as a night guard at a private bank. During the day he would help me in the field and conduct paath (religious discourse) at people’s places,” says Tek, who holds ‘Akhand Paaths’ at the village gurdwara.
Tek’s mother-in-law sends over some money from her pension for Surjit to use in jail.
In April 2017, 11 months after Surjit was held, Sikh Relief took up his case too.
Ranjeet’s parents, who have been told he got a sentence of five years, say he was a ‘panthi’ and deeply religious. He had met Surjit during one such religious programme in Kaithal, and the two became friends, the family says. After Ranjeet’s arrest, his father Kashmir Singh says, his younger brother had to drop plans to go to Australia for further studies. “Is being religious a crime?” says the 62-year-old Kashmir, sitting at their three-room house, that is in need of repairs, in Nouch village in Kaithal district of Haryana.
The families of the three convicted youths also contest the police version regarding the arrests. Arvinder’s mother Sarabjit says that on May 23, 2016, midnight, two dozen policemen barged into their house and whisked Arvinder away promising to return him the next morning. In the FIR registered against Arvinder, police claim to have arrested him following a tip-off from Rahon Bus stand, two days after the family says he was picked up.
Surjit’s maternal grandmother Balbir Kaur says he was arrested from her Pathankot house on May 28 late afternoon. The case FIR says he was arrested from Jadla T-point, around 180 km away, on May 30.
Ranjeet’s family claims they themselves took him to the Nawanshahr police station on June 6, 2016, following a police visit looking for him. “We thought it was nothing serious and that police needed him for some questioning,” Kashmir says. The FIR says Ranjeet was arrested on June 11.
Parminder Singh, who is associated with Sikh Relief, points out that the material recovered from the youths is available in the public domain and that reading about Sikh history is not a crime.
Advocate Kulwinder Kaur, who is looking after this case on behalf of Sikh Relief, says, “There was no recovery of any arms, explosives from these youths, but they were still charged with waging war against the State… They were implicated because of their poverty and because there is no one to look after their case.”
R S Bains, who has filed an appeal in the Punjab and Haryana High Court on behalf of Sikh Relief, and is a renowned human rights activist, says, “I have not seen such a case in my 35 years of experience. How can one be accused of waging a war for just keeping literature and posters which are not even banned?”
On police claim of links with the BKI, Bains says, “In the past decade, the Punjab Police has arrested several alleged BKI members but not been able to prove the charge in court.”