14 Years Later

Dozens of policemen are facing court cases across the state. Sewak Singh is, so far, the first high-profile instance in which a court awarded life imprisonment, a Kashmir Life report.

Last time Kashmir heard of a faceless police officer was at the peak of the hostage crisis. Acting on clues that the al-Faran kidnappers might have killed the Western hostages and buried them somewhere in the Kokernag mountains, the police mounted a massive search operation. Given the Western media interest in the story, the entire media corps reached the mountain range within hour after the police started its “operations”.

It was this officer who took a strong exception to the media presence. He did not only beat the reporters but even chased them using the dog squad that was supposed to sniff out the corpses. Within just 15 minutes, he forced the media to retreat from the mountains. The dogs that chased the reporters made it to Western newspaper front pages and obviously, Sewak Singh was part of it.

A few years later in 1998, Singh was again reported on the newspaper front pages across the state as in-charge SP (operations). This time it was a murder of a lower rank police officer. The epitaph of his career was out last week when the court of Additional Sessions Judge (II) Jammu found him guilty of the murder conspiracy of sub-inspector Ajay Gupta, one of his subordinate officers and awarded him life imprisonment.

For the last more than two decades, police and other security agencies have remained pre-occupied with the “kills”. But the murder of Gupta has remained one of the police force’s major embarrassments because it involved the police on both the sides and the motivation for the crime was just a tiff between the two. Police records suggest that Gupta and Singh had a scuffle over some issue in Surankote in August 1998. It was so heated an argument that Singh slapped Gupta. While Singh’s turban fell down, Gupta’s glasses also fell to the ground. Both the officers cocked their service weapons against each other. They shouted at each other and threatened to kill each other. As their colleagues intervened and prevented the situation from worsening, Sewak Singh shouted: ‘Only time will tell, who will kill whom?’

On the night of October 13, Gupta was dead. He had received a bullet in the back of his head. He was driven to the local hospital where doctors declared him brought dead. It marked the end of a life – Gupta was married barely for two months, and the beginning of an investigation that had many instances of Singh actually playing the established “norms” and making serious efforts to destroy the evidence and get the investigators into the maze of falsification.

There were two incidents that simultaneously took place in Poonch – the killing of Gupta and a massive blast in the police housing premises in which two SPOs Sagheer and Bashir were killed. While the marathon police investigations offer a lot of details about the murder, not much is available about the two other murders that were also suspected to be the outcome of Sewak’s “operations”.

Interestingly, the initial response from the police suggested that militants were involved in both the incidents. There was a deafening explosion in the police housing area and the police said militants had mounted a rocket attack. Two SPOs were killed and 12 other ranks were injured. It was later discovered that the “rocket attack” was an IED explosion that was carried out by somebody from “within”. This explosion had taken place minutes after Gupta’s murder.

Singh himself registered FIR 172 of 1998) under sections 302, 120-B, 121,122 RPC, 7/25, 26, 27 Arms Act and Section 3 EAO with the Surankote police station suggesting that Gupta was returning from the patrolling duty along with many others when “ANEs (anti-national elements) ambushed them near TCP crossing.” Jagjit Singh, the SHO proceeded on leave on October 27. It was this FIR that was the ‘fig leaf’ protection for the police to claim that the militants were behind the attack.

Though Inspector V P Samyal took over the investigation, he could barely do anything. As the pressure on the police high-ups mounted, the then Police Chief Gurbachan Jagat transferred investigations of the case to the State Police Crimes (investigation) branch (Order No 200 of 1999) on January 12, 1999. Then the CB was led by P K Raju, the police officer who headed the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Sewak Singh was immediately shifted and posted as Deputy Commandant JKAP 12 Bn.

Prolonged investigations revealed a different story that took a long time for the investigators to corroborate. After preliminary investigations, the then ASP Ms Shikha Goel arrested Sewak’s bodyguard Satinder Pal Singh alias TT. A professional grilling resulted in the breakthrough as the cop admitted to having shot dead the SI. He gave graphic details of the murder saying his boss was annoyed after Gupta rebuked him in the District Police Lines and decided to avenge the humiliation. He even said that his SP managed to replace the plain clothes on the body of the slain cop with police uniform to lend credibility to his “ambush” theory. He had even clicked the slain subordinate and presented a picture to his bosses.

Unable to digest the revelations made by TT, Ms Shikha flew him to Delhi where his statements were recorded afresh using the lie detector at the CBI headquarters. It was only after the investigators were fully satisfied, police arrested Sewak Singh on February 24, 1999, and charged him under sections 302, 120 (B), and 201 of Ranbir Penal Code (RPC).

The charge sheet on basis of which Sewak was given a lifer by Judge Subash C Gupta offers more details about how the crime was committed. Gupta and Singh had apparently mended the fences since they had a verbal duel in full public view. On October 13, Sewak Singh had hosted a party at his official residence that was attended by 27-Rashtriya Rifles Commanding Officer and his deputy, a local contractor Abdul Khaliq and SI Ajay Gupta. Two army men left, so did the contractor. However, Khaliq returned after some time with more liquor and after some time, he requested Sewak to get him dropped at home.

Sewak asked Ajay Gupta, driver Mohammad Akram, constables Abdul Razaq and Satpal Singh (accused) to drop Khaliq home. When they were boarding the bulletproof Gypsy vehicle, Sewak was seen whispering something in the ears of Satpal Singh, his bodyguard.

The driver dropped Khaliq and his PSO Shakeel at the contractor’s residence. While they were returning, Satpal sat on the rear seat behind SI Ajay Gupta. When they were passing near TCP crossing, a shot was heard inside the Gypsy vehicle and the driver looked behind. The back door of the gypsy was closed suggesting the bullet could not have come from outside. The driver saw TT’s SLR in firing position aimed at Gupta, who, by then, had fallen in his lap.

There was an argument between TT and all others. Akram accused TT of killing Gupta but he denied having shot the SI. TT jumped out of the vehicle and opened “indiscriminate” fire. Police records show he fired two rounds. Driver Akram and constable Razak overpowered TT with the help of a patrolling party of CRPF 83 Bn and disarmed him.

Following the routine, the cops handed over the seized SLR to their SP. When they told him that TT killed Gupta, he asked them to keep their mouths shut. When the seized SLR was checked by the army experts, they found only three bullets missing – the three shots that TT had fired. Interestingly, the SP restored the SLR to TT almost within minutes “refusing to buy the theory of others” who witnessed the murder.

Sewak followed his “plan”. He first lodged an FIR that was based on a cooked up account of the case. This was despite the fact that the duty officer in the police station had already conveyed to his SHO and the Poonch SP that a cop had murdered an officer at TCP crossing.

Gupta was not on active duty, he was partying actually, so he was wearing a T-shirt and casual pants. On Sewak’s instructions, SPO Sarfraz (now dead) brought Gupta’s uniform from his residence. On his orders, constables Chander Parkash and Mohammad Saleem tried to put this uniform on Gupta’s corpse. Despite their best efforts, they could not remove his T-shirt fully. The exercise was aimed at clicking slain Gupta in the battle gear and present the perfect shot to the bosses in the police. He did it but the photograph became part of the evidence against him.

Gupta’s removed pants were soaked in blood. Again, Sewak ruled that they are set afire. So his henchman TT took the pants and burnt them with the waste paper in the premises of the hospital. Initially, he had sought some petrol from driver Akram, the witness of the murder, but he refused to offer a drop.

Sewak started threatening the witnesses not to offer the exact details of the case. By then, almost everybody in Poonch police knew how the officer had asked TT to eliminate Gupta in a fake encounter. The investigation revealed that on the instructions of accused Sewak, the bloodstained Gypsy vehicle (No 8692/ JKO2AE) was washed which rarely happens in such investigations.

But meticulous police investigations unveiled almost everything. Sewak’s entire plot was nailed. Despite the best legal counsels – R K Kotwal and Sunil Sethi, they had hired, the prosecution had the last laugh in the case. In separate cases, both TT and his boss Sewak would have to undergo 14 years in prison besides a fine. They are expected to go in appeal but, legal experts say, that chances of any superior court undoing the trial court’s verdict is rare.

Nobody has actually looked at the possible linkage of Sewak Singh with the infamous massacre of 19 (20 if the six month foetus of one of the young slain ladies is also counted) persons (six males and 13 females from three families) that took place in the Salian village during the intervening night of August 3 and 4, 1998. It was apparently this massacre that created bad blood between slain Ajay Gupta and Singh, an incident that led to his murder later.

Interestingly the case is being revised by the judiciary now. Three residents of the Salian hamlet Abdul Ahad, Mohammad Shabir and Masood Ahmad Sheikh have petitioned the High Court that the case be reinvestigated. Seeking CBI investigation into the case, they have petitioned that police have not followed the proper procedure.

Instead, they have closed the case under Section 169 of CrPC with the observation that the crime committed remains untraced. The FIR (122/98) under Sections 122, 122 B, 121, 302, 449 of RPC) in Police Station Surankote was closed in December 1998 and the crime was attributed to militants.

Without admitting the writ petition, the High Court on November 2, 2011, had asked the government to file a report about the case and also submit the order copy of the District Magistrate Poonch that is mandatory for the closure of the case. The government filed the report but not the DCs order. Justice Husnain Masoodi has termed the government response ‘deficient’. The government will have to submit its final report within two weeks.

Regardless of what happens to the writ petition, the massacre is one of the goriest that happened in Poonch. Most of the population fled the village and could return only after two months. This is perhaps the first such incident in which the bodies of the victims were removed to Surankote for burial because nobody in the village was willing to bury them – most of them were torn into pieces using axes. The then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah who flew to the spot with the then Defence Minister George Fernandes had announced a probe by the then SHRC chairman Justice (retd) A Q Kuchay.

Human Rights lawyer Parvez Imroz who is pleading the petitioners’ case has told the court that the SHRC investigation has implicated the then SSP J P Singh, his deputy ASP Sewak Singh, Major Gora of 9 Para, SPOs Muhammad Younis alias Tiger, Muhammad Rafiq Gujjar alias Pathan and Havaldars Maqsood Ahmad and Muhammad Akbar.

Muhammad Shabir Sheikh, the only survivor of the massacre (he had fled and hidden in a maize field), has publicly accused police of recording wrong statements. He did saw the killers coming in army vehicles and from a distance witnessed the massacre that was over within eight minutes. It cost him the life of his father, mother, four sisters, two uncles, an aunt, nine cousins and a sister-in-law. Then 16 years old, he was kept under protective custody in police quarters for two months. He fled after one of his six guards “ counselled him to leave because his life was in danger”. As he fled from the police housing area, the block went up in an explosion. The guard, according to Shabir, had heard ASP Sewak Singh working to know details about the protected witness.

Sewak is a resident of Jammu (son of Niranjan of Colonel Colony, Rani Bagh) and prior to his police posting, he had very close relations with the criminals and smugglers before joining the service. The police, however, has left certain things un-investigated. Who had triggered the blasts that led to the killing of Sagheer and Bashir in police lines? What had Sewak done while serving in the elite Special Services Group (SSG) where cops make lot of contacts while securing the VVIPs? He became in-charge SP (ops) Poonch soon after his SSG tenure. And how fake was a mysterious incident that took place in the career of Sewak when he received a bullet in his leg in 1995 where he was a DySP (ops). Post-injury, police instantly promoted him without investigating the veracity of the “encounter”. A police officer who can hatch a conspiracy to kill his subordinates just to satisfy his ego might have killed many people in his tenure. How many people – militants or otherwise – had he killed while sitting at his terror throne?

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