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Security at What Cost?

Courtesy: Jagpal Singh Tiwana.

The Hindustan Times, Nov. 21, 2005

Photo: Jaswant Singh Khalra

The conviction of six policemen in the 'disappearance' and murder of Punjab human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra brings to a satisfactory end a trial with huge implications for civil liberties in the country. Over the years, a disturbing pattern of impunity seems to have become characteristic of security forces battling separatists and insurgents. Instead of sticking to the letter and spirit of the already draconian powers at their command, they began to terrorise the very people they were meant to deliver from terrorists. State authorities who appear to have never heard the advice that insurgencies could only be defeated by winning hearts and minds of the people almost completely abdicated their responsibility to bring the perpetrators of these atrocities to justice.

While Khalra, the then general secretary of the human rights wing of the Akali Dal, met the same fate as those for whom he sought justice in the Supreme Court. The present trial, lasting nearly a decade, has also demonstrated how difficult, and dangerous, it can be to confront and question repression enacted by the state machinery. The intimidation of, and threats to Paramjit Kaur, Khalra's wife, and her lawyers, even in front of the magistrate, false cases lodged against witnesses and their arrest by the Punjab police, undue postponements of the trial etc. are a badge of shame that the Punjab police must wear until they rid themselves of elements who hide behind a uniform to murder and torture people in the name of security.

It is the duty of the state to provide the security forces with all judicial powers and legal protection they need to combat terrorism and insurgencies. But once they have these powers, the security forces must be held narrowly accountable to uphold the letter and spirit of the law. Any official who does not do so must be ruthlessly punished. In this sense, the Khalra judgment must be seen as a beginning, not the end.