Today we mark the anniversary of the murder of Jathedar Gurdev Singh Kaunke on January 1, 1993.
Jathedar Gurdev Singh Kaunke, the acting Jathedar of Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, was tortured to death in custody by the Indian police on January 1, 1993. Jathedar Kaunke had been serving in his role since January 1986 and was widely respected by all sides in Punjab. He was a voice of reason and principle and had an unblemished and towering character
Just like the recent revelations of Gurmeet Pinky have drawn new light to the horrific human rights abuses in Punjab at the hands of Indian security forces, we would not know what happened to Jathedar Kaunke if not for the investigations of human rights activist Ram Naryan Kumar and statements he obtained from two former police officers. Despite their detailed accounts, none of the officers named have been prosecuted. The details below are from Kumar's article "The International Media in Punjab: A Study" published in Embedded Journalism- Punjab Eds. Jaspal Singh Sidhu and Anil Chamadia [Delhi: Media Studies Group, 2014]. The same details are reported in his book "Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge and Truth"
Background & Torture by Sumedh Saini
After 1984, Jathedar Kaunke spent several long periods in illegal police custody, though he himself was never accused of any crime. Once in the summer of 1991 when Jathedar Kaunke had been illegally abducted by the Punjab Police, he was interrogated by SSP Sumedh Saini (later to appointed the DGP or Chief of Police in Punjab by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal), Saini blew cigarette smoke on Jathedar Kaunke's face, as he hung upside and without clothes from the ceiling of the police station. When Saini refused to stop blowing cigarette smoke even after being told several times, Jathedar Kaunke slapped him on his face. As a result he was brutally tortured by Saini. This was all witnessed by Pritam Singh, a resident of Kaunke village who used to bring food to Jathedar Kaunke during his incarceration(Kumar, page 153).
Illegal Detention in 1992
After the Congress party came to power in February 1992, Jathedar Kaunke was illegally held for nine months until October 16, 1992 during which time his health suffered severely. Following his release, there was a growing consensus amongst Sikhs that Jathedar Kaunke should provide leadership to the community and he should be accepted as the Jathedar of Sri Akal Takhat Sahib. The government was determined to stop this from happening.
On December 20, 1992 a group of 15-20 police officers arrived to arrest Jathedar Kaunke in order to interrogate him about the killing of 17 bus passengers on December 2, 1992. Jathedar Kaunke denied any knowledge of the perpetrators. Oddly, one day after the massacre, the Punjab police had announced an encounter near Makhu town in which they claimed that 19 "terrorists" responsible for the incident had been killed. Why, then, were they still looking for further information? A day after the encounter, Simranjit Singh Mann and Parkash Singh Badal held a joint press conference in which they showed turbans which the police had used to tie the hands of the persons killed in the "encounter" and also showed a bottle of alcohol and glasses which the policemen had been drinking before the killings.
Jathedar Kaunke was released after five hours of interrogation.
Five days later, on the morning of December 25, 1992 a group of police officers led by Inspector Gurmit Singh, in-charge of the Sadar Police Station Jagraon, came to arrest Jathedar Kaunke again. Jathedar Kaunke was at that time at the Gurdwara leading morning services. Jathedar Kaunke returned to his home, bathed, performed some prayers and then had some food. He told Pritam Singh that this would be his last journey and then in front of hundreds of villagers, got into the police vehicle.
The next morning the police came back to arrest Ranjit Singh and Mohinder Singh, residents of Kaunke village and close associates of Jathedar Kaunke. That evening, they saw Jathedar Kaunke sitting in a corner of the police station, with a blanket wrapped around him, with his eyes closed.
Ranjit Singh was released on January 9, 1993 and reported hearing nothing but the screams of those being tortured every night and could not sleep. Mohinder Singh was tortured so brutally that he would never speak again. Sher Singh, a 70 year also picked up from Kaunke village was tortured so badly that he was unable to walk and died some months later.
Jathedar Kaunke's wife, Gurmail Kaur, brought food to the police station as Jathedar Kaunke would only eat food prepared in his own home but the police refused to allow her to meet with her husband.
On December 28, Gurmail Kaur found out that Jathedar Kaunke had been moved to the CIA interrogation centre at Jagraon. When she brought food there and gave it to a sympathetic police officer, he took it in but came back to tell her that Jathedar Kaunke was in no shape to eat anything due to torture. This fact was also confirmed by a doctor who had seen him in custody and a youth who was released on December 30th who said Jathedar Kaunke could not walk.
Gurmail Kaur was informed that Jathedar Kaunke was taken away from the CIA interrogation centre on December 31st. After that, Jathedar Kaunke's whereabouts could not be discovered. Police later claimed that he had escaped from custody after breaking a chain restraining him.
The truth of Jathedar Kaunke's brutal murder in custody would have remained a mystery if not for the investigations of Ram Naryan Kumar who found two police officers who had personal knowledge of the incident. The first was Darshan Singh who had been invited by SSP Swaran "Ghotna" of Jagraon to join the police in May 1992. The other was an SSP whose identity was kept secret by Kumar at the SSP's request.
Excerpts from the interview with Darshan Singh are as follows:
"Just next to the gate is the office of the munshi or clerk, which also served as the torture room. I went past the room and was astounded by the amount of blood on the floor. I saw SSP Swarn Singh and DSP Sodhi inside. My curiosity was aroused; so I looked in. Gurdev Singh was lying on the floor. A piece of cloth covered his face. He was very tall. There was no one in the CIA staff of his height. So, I realized that Gurdev Singh had been killed. I turned back....it was obvious to me that his legs had been ripped up at extreme angles. His hands must have been tied to the back. Two persons must have got hold of one leg and the two more the other leg. They must have pulled them and ripped him open in the same way as we break a chicken by pulling its legs. That explained the profusion of blood on the floor. He must have died under horrible pain.
The same night SSP Swaran Singh was transferred to Jalandhar. Harinder Singh Chahal came in as the new SSP. Swaran Singh went away after dumping Gurdev Singh's body in Sutluj (river), which flows close to Kanniyan. A story of escape from custody was concocted to explain away his disappearance. The story claimed that Gurdev Singh Kaunke was being taken for the recovery of arms. At Kanniyan, he escaped from custody by breaking loose from the belt of a constable to which his handcuffs had been secured. How can a man who was already dead escape form custody this way?"
Excerpts from the interview with the SSP are as below:
"I had been posted at Jagraon for long and the CIA staff had arrested him several times in the past. There, one Shiv Kumar SP and one Anil Sharma, also an SP had interrogated him. Please do not mention my name but these officers had interrogated Gurdev Singh to find out about his terrorist connections. They had done bad to him- bura kitta si. I told Anil Sharma that arrest him any time you want to but do not insult him for nothing. The past interrogations did not lead to any evidence of his involvement in terrorist crimes, so why just insult him every time by removing his turban and by torturing him....
Basically his arrest and subsequent torture had nothing to do with information that linked him to any concrete crime. Swaran Singh generally suspected that all the terrorists of the area were in touch with him and took inspiration from him...The truth is that there was no evidence to show that Gurdev Singh had committed any crime..."
"One [Harbhagwan] Sodhi DSP was responsible for the operations at the CIA interrogation center. I never got along with him. I used to tell Swaran Singh that I would not work with Sodhi: 'you either send him there or send me there. Don't put us together.' Sodhi too was a sadist. Everyday, he would drown someone in the water; kill someone and in the evening ask others to take the body away. He would call the SHO of Rajkot or of Sidhwan and tell them to take the body for disposal. This was routine. I could not stand his ways. He was also extremely corrupt. Finally he got dismissed....
Swaran Singh had told [Sodhi] that Kaunke was hiding a jute bag full of arms. Sodhi was torturing to recover a bag that did not exist....I am convinced that Swaran Singh had come to know that he was about to be transferred out of the district. In my opinion, he decided to kill Kaunke so that his transfer would get deferred. He used to do such things whenever there was a rumor of his transfer, or whenever he had to attend a meeting of the SSPs with the DGP [KP Gill]. You can check up that before such meeting with Gill, three or four hundred Sikhs used to die in Punjab. Every SSP had to report: I have killed fourteen, fifteen, and ten! The other who said I have killed 28 was appreciated more. One who wanted to outsmart all had to report 31. The night before the meeting with Gill, Sikhs of Punjab died so that the SSPs could vie amongst themselves to demonstrate their anti-terrorist achievements..."
Question: Was [Jathedar Kaunke] removed from the Sadar Police station on 1 January 1993 between 12 and 2pm?
Answer: No. He was tortured there in this period. He was removed from there late in the evening again to some other place. He was already almost dead. He could not have survived the torture. Gurmeet Singh, the SHO of Sadar Police station, had taken pity and had given him a blanket and had also put a heater in his cell. Barging in suddenly into the police station, SSP Swaran Singh abused the SHO: "Twada bap lagda hai ki isno kambal aur heater ditta?"- Is he your father that you give him the blanket and the heater?
Sodhi started torturing Gurdev Singh again. His lower parts got ruptured and blood started flowing.
Question: Were you there at that time?
Answer: Yes, I was there at that time. I am giving you an eye-witness account. Gurdev Singh was huddled on the floor of a cell under a blanket. He had twisted himself into a knot. Swaran Singh abused the SHO Gurmeet Singh because he had given a blanket and heater in the cell. Immediately, Swaran Singh had the blanket removed and Sodhi and Channan Singh started kicking him with their boots. When blood started flowing, Swaran Singh looked at me and said, "Twade Jathedar da peshab nikal gaya"- Your Jathedar has pissed out! He emphasized "Twade Jathedar da". He was taunting me for my sympathies for Gurdev Singh. I told him: "peshab nahin nikla, uska khoon nikalgya hai. Jaan bhi nikal jaeygi!"- He has not pissed out, his blood is pouring out. Soon his life will be gone too."
This happened on the 1st January 1993 afternoon. That night Kaunke was transferred to Sidhwan. I do not know exactly what happened thereafter."
To this day, none of the police officers named in the torture and murder of Jathedar Kaunke have ever been brought to justice.
DSP Harbhagwan Sodhi was reported to have died in a car accident in Haryana in May 2000 and SSP Swarn Ghotna died in February 2013 at the age of 84.
Sumedh Saini, recently implicated in several other murders by Gurmeet Pinky, continues to serve as the Chairman of the Police Housing Corporation after being demoted from DGP in October 2015.