CHANDIGARH — On July 13, Lovepreet Singh arrived at the Community Centre at the Model Jail in Sector 51 to be questioned by the National Investigation Agency in connection with a 2018 case in which the Punjab police had arrested 11 people for “conducting subversive activities and pasting of Khalistan/referendum 2020 posters/banners at different locations in Punjab and New Delhi”.
Twenty-three year old Lovepreet, who was Dalit, was summoned as a witness in the case. At the time of the incident in 2018, Lovepreet was studying religious instruction at a Sikh centre of learning, or taksal, near Amritsar. His family was surprised that he was summoned, but he reassured them by pointing out he had been called as a witness — not an accused or a suspect.
The next day, on July 14, Lovepreet’s parents were stunned to learn that he had died by suicide. Lovepreet, the police said, had hanged himself from a ceiling fan in a gurudwara in Chandigarh where he spent the night after he was questioned by the NIA.
In his handwritten suicide note recovered by the police, Lovepreet asked that his friends and family not be harassed for his death, and apologised to his wife for leaving her alone in the world.
Lovepreet’s lips were bruised, his right-leg was bandaged, and he had wounds on his genitals, his parents told HuffPost India. His father, Kewal Singh, is convinced that Lovepreet’s interrogation, and possible torture, by the NIA pushed him to take his life.
“My son was innocent,” Kewal Singh told HuffPost India over the phone. Lovepreet, as noted earlier, had been summoned as a witness not a suspect.
“No one should be pushed to commit suicide in a case where someone has written Khalistan slogans on the walls,” Kewal Singh said. “Instead of conducting atrocities, the police should counsel the youths in the state.”
Lovepreet’s case, Punjab-based lawyers say, is only one of the hundreds of cases of harassment, intimidation, torture and wrongful arrest in connection with the Khalistan movement — a long-pending demand for a separate Sikh homeland.
Of late, the movement has gained attention in connection with Referendum 2020, an international online campaign aimed at drumming up support for Khalistan amongst Sikhs living in over 20 countries across the world, organized by Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US-based member of an outfit called Sikhs for Justice (SFJ).
On July 1 this year, India declared Panun and eight other pro-Khalistan activists as “designated terrorists” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s draconian anti-terror legislation. The government has also aggressively blocked SFJ websites.
Lawyers and those who support a separate Sikh homeland in principle say the Indian government has vastly overstated the significance of this so-called “Referendum”, which is basically an online petition and is indiscriminately using anti-terror legislation such as the UAPA to harass young men across the state.
“How can I or Pannun run a referendum or a plebiscite in our individual capacity?” said Simranjeet Singh Maan, a former bureaucrat and a politician advocating for the Khalistan cause in Punjab. “The referendum 2020 does not hold any constitutional validity, still Indian government perceives it as the biggest national security threat.”
Advocate Jaspal Manjhpur said the state had filed over 94 UAPA cases since 2009, mostly against young men aged between 20 and 24. Many are being held simply for expressing pro-Khalistan sentiments, Manjhpur said.
“So far, the conviction was held only in one case whose appeal is still lying pending in the court. Despite the fact that ‘Referendum 2020’ does not hold any legal sanctity, the Indian government has gone jittery over the issue and even threatening and picking up youths for liking or sharing the pro-Khalistan posts on social media,” said Manjhpur.
Ironically, there appears to be unanimity amongst Punjab’s senior politicians that the UAPA is being misused. Amongst its many problems, the UAPA empowers the NIA to overrule local law enforcement and take up cases in which the law has been applied. Except each side has accused the other of imprisoning young men under the law without adequate reason.
In the past few weeks, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress and Punjab’s former deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal(SAD) have traded charges on who has misused the law the most.
Badal has said there are“increasing cases of Sikh youth being arrested and jailed for minor misdemeanours under the UAPA. It is clear that the state police is misusing UAPA which needs to be stopped immediately”.
Chief Minister Singh said the SAD-BJP alliance had filed more than 60 cases under the UAPA during their tenure.
“Of the 225 individuals arrested in these cases, 120 were acquitted or discharged, indicating that indiscriminate application of UA(P)A had in fact been done by the Akalis during their tenure,” Singh said.
Lost in this bickering are victims like Lovepreet Singh, whose plight remains largely forgotten.
“The draconian law suits every political party. For the BJP-SAD alliance in the state, it is important that Hindus remain fearful of the Sikh radical forces and keep voting in favour of the alliance while the Congress does not have the panthic image in the state,” said Sukhpal Khaira, founder of the Punjab Ekta Party. He said the Punjab Police has registered at least 16 cases under the UAPA in the past few weeks alone, while 47 such cases have been filed in the past three years.
Sikh rights activists don’t deny that a significant section of Punjab’s young men are possibly sympathetic to the Khalistan cause; however they maintain that the indiscriminate arrests under anti-terror laws such as the UAPA are only alienating people, rather than solving the problem.
On September 4 last year, two people were killed in an explosion in a vacant plot of land in the village and a third, prime accused Gurjant Singh lost his eyesight. The state police arrested several people in connection with the explosion under UAPA — including a 17 year old Dalit boy. HuffPost India is withholding his name to protect his identity as he is a juvenile.
The accused, the police said, were hiding explosives. Manjpura, the lawyer, who is representing the prime accused Gurjant Singh said his client was a victim, not the perpetrator, of the blast.
Narinder Kaur, the mother of the juvenile, said her son was not at the site of the explosion. “His only crime was that he knew Gurjant, the prime accused in the blast case as he used to occasionally work on his fields after the death of my husband,” Kaur said.
When Kaur’s son was produced before the Juvenile and Justice Board at Amritsar, the board dismissed his bail plea by stating that his release is likely to bring him in association with unknown criminals or expose him to moral and psychological danger.
Ten months later in July, Kaur says her son is under severe mental trauma, and is fast losing strength in his lower limbs.
“His legs have become weak and he has asked me to get some medicines,” his mother told HuffPost India over the phone, adding that her son was unable to walk.
Initially, Punjab police filed a case under section 304 of IPC and 4, 5 of the Explosives Substances Act, it was later transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on September 20 last year. Since then, any prospects of the boy receiving bail have fast faded.
Only a court of law will be able to decide the guilt, or innocence of the juvenile and the others arrested in connection with the explosion, but the unthinking application of the UAPA and the involvement of the NIA, lawyers such as Manjpura say, is making it impossible to bail. The denial of bail is particularly cruel as most of these cases do not end in conviction.
The Indian and Punjab state government’s reaction to Referendum 2020, critics say, is a good example of how anti-terror legislation is being used to harass people for merely expressing an idea.
Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer Ranjan Lakhanpal said several young people in Punjab had recently called him to say they were being threatened by the Punjab police for liking or sharing pro-Khalistan posts forwarded by their friends on social media platforms.
“Last month, some banners supporting Referendum 2020 were posted all across the state which also carried two mobile numbers. The people were asked to contact any of the two numbers in case they face harassment by the state police for supporting the referendum. While one of the numbers remained switched off, the other number was mine,” Lakhanpal told HuffPost India.
Lakhanpal said he didn’t know who had posted his numbers, but he didn’t mind as he had been fighting human rights cases for over two decades. He said the police had called him up regarding the posters, but he said he would continue to provide legal aid to those being harassed by the authorities.
“There is no harm in holding a peaceful demand for a separate state — let it be Khalistan,” Lakhanpal said. “Only an armed rebellion demands a legal action but the police in Punjab are slapping charges under UAPA Act for supporting the referendum through peaceful means which is a gross violation of the Right to Speech and Free Expression. Even Punjab government has issued a notification that demand for Khalistan simpliciter is no offence,” said Lakhanpal.