Book: Stolen Years: A Memoir of Simranjit Singh Mann’s Imprisonment
Author: Pavit Kaur
Publisher: Random House India
Price: Rs 299
Pavit Kaur had a sunny, idyllic childhood till 1984. The daughter of a police officer posted in small towns in Punjab, she enjoyed the carefree, pampered life of the Punjabi feudal aristocracy. She had a courageous, devoted mother, Geeta, and a tall, romantic, deeply religious father with a fanatical streak, Simranjit Singh Mann. There was also an affectionate and loyal extended family.
But when her father was posted as commandant of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) in Bombay, Pavit’s world suddenly turned upside down. The Indian army stormed the holiest of holy shrines of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, in a bid to flush out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his band of militants. Along with Bhindranwale, many others inside the temple were killed.
Mann was probably not actively involved with the terrorist movement, but he was an ardent sympathiser of the Khalistani cause. Upset by developments in Punjab, he gave an intemperate interview to Shobha De in Celebrity magazine, hitting out at the Indian state. On July 18, he sent his resignation from the IPS to the President of India to register his protest. In a letter, he compared the Indian army to General Dyer and its entry into the Golden Temple to the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh. For his act of defiance, Mann would have to face the full wrath of the State. He was caught at the India-Nepal border while trying to flee to the US.
A dozen officers from the Intelligence Bureau and the CBI flew down from Delhi to interrogate Mann, who was arrested under the National Security Act. Incidentally, he is the brother-in-law of Amarinder Singh, the erstwhile maharaja of Patiala and the former chief minister of Punjab (his wife and Singh’s wife are sisters). On December 5, 1984, Mann was taken to Bharatpur jail in Rajasthan. When his family finally got to meet him, they felt he had aged 10 years: he was pale, emaciated and cold. He had been given no bedding or warm clothes.
Mann was to spend the next five years in jail, slapped with charges ranging from sedition to waging war against the State, to conspiracy to murder Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated during the three months he was on the run. The book recalls the nightmarish experience of Mann and his family through his jail diaries and letters written to family members.
When national security is invoked, there is no rule of law. The State deals with its prisoners with extreme ruthlessness and barbarity. After a year, Mann was transferred to a prison in Bhagalpur, Bihar. He was kept in solitary confinement with a company of CRPF posted outside the cell. His family could meet him occasionally, usually when he was taken to court. In prison, he had to speak to them through iron bars and wire meshing. After many months, he was allowed books, newspapers and a radio thanks to a Supreme Court order. Even the biography of Guru Gobind Singh by Bhai Vir Singh was withheld. Insects and lizards were constant companions.
Mann retained his sanity in such hellish conditions, despite frequent attacks of migraine. Writing his diaries and tending to pots of chrysanthemums and gladioli in the tiny courtyard next to his cell were useful distractions. “Misfortune and hard conditions in jail have made me very pessimistic’’, he wrote in his diary.
However, in Punjab, he was a hero, a man who had sacrificed his career and freedom to fight against the injustice faced by the Sikhs before and after Operation Blue Star. Five years after he was imprisoned, he was put up as a candidate for the Tarn Taran parliamentary seat. Pavit recalls that as a child she went campaigning, begging people to vote for her father so that he could come home to his family. The crowds assured that they not would not just vote, but would walk barefoot to the polling booth to show their solidarity. Mann won with a thumping margin of nearly five lakh votes setting a record at that time. Rajiv Gandhi lost the elections and the cases against Mann were dropped by the VP Singh government.
The problem with Stolen Years is that the author does not put the five years of Mann’s imprisonment in context. The extracts from Mann’s diaries and letters paint a poignant picture of pain and suffering, but would mystify readers unfamiliar with the history of Punjab during those turbulent years. The State is unquestionably the villain, but one is left with a lot of unanswered questions.