Jail reform should be top priority after Nabha incident

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Five terrorists escape from Nabha in Patiala
Not impregnable: The gate of Nabha jail

The recent gangster- terrorist jailbreak from Nabha ‘maximum security’ prison has exposed the prison system as never before. It has also exposed the failure of the Punjab government to reform the system despite taking a series of steps, including installation of mobile jammers and x-ray machines, introduction of video conferencing and even using sniffer dogs. It seems all these steps — which were taken to rein in corruption and nepotism in the running of jails — have come to naught.

At Nabha, as many as six mobile jammers were installed recently. However, this did not deter gangsters from coming right up to the jail door in broad daylight and coordinating with their brethren inside to reach the courtyard and execute a textbook escape in minutes. Obviously they were in close ommunication with their colleagues inside the jail. So much for the jammers!

That’s not all. The gangsters outside had intricate knowledge about the functioning of the jail. The jail, which is short of staff, was facing a severe manpower crunch on Sunday, the day of the attack. Only 20 jail personnel were on duty that day, with 50 others attending the cremation of a colleague. Jail Superintendent Paramjit Singh Sandhu and his deputy Karanjit Singh Sandhu were absent from duty in violation of the jail manual. The gangsters could not be intercepted because there was no one manning the perch where a machine gun has been installed to deal with any such eventuality.

It seems the Punjab government has still not learnt any lessons from the jailbreak. It has gone in for kneejerk reactions like suspending Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) MK Tewari who, sources say, does not have much role in transfer and postings of officials. Former Punjab DGP AP Pandey, who held the top jail job earlier, says posting and transfers of jail superintendents and senior officials is the absolute prerogative of the political masters. He says there was a time when he took action against most of the senior jail staff — only to see them back at their positions very soon. He says there cannot be any genuine reform as long as the state police chief is not given a free hand to post staff based on professional merit.

It is this fact which has seen senior police officers from Punjab protesting against the move on social media. These officers, without saying so much, have indicated that the minister in charge of jails should get the rap along with officials.

All this points to a deeper malaise which can be tackled by going in for a complete overhaul of the prison system. Punjab DGP Suresh Arora, who is regarded as one of the top cops in the country, has tried to do this. The DGP had himself conducted raids in various jails some months back and recovered 82 mobiles and SIM cards. Besides this, efforts are on to isolate gangsters and terrorists by cutting off their communication links with the outside world. Six mobile jammers have been installed in the Nabha jail, eight at Sangrur and 10 at the Gurdaspur central jail. About 90,000 inmates in 25 jails have been produced before court through video conferencing in the last one year for extension of judicial remand. Eight sniffer dogs have been deployed to check on prohibited substances. But it seems all this is not enough. The DGP says the force is investigating connivance between jail staff and gangsters, indicating much more needs to be done to end corruption in jails by posting the right people at the helm. For that to happen, politicians will have to let the professionals take over.

 Harminder Singh Mintoo of the Khalistan Liberation Force before his escape and after he was caught (Photo: Raman Gill)
Harminder Singh Mintoo of the Khalistan Liberation Force before his escape and after he was caught (Photo: Raman Gill)

The after effects

Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal suspends ADGP, Jails, MK Tewari besides dismissing the Nabha jail superintendent as well as his deputy. Forms a SIT to pursue the criminals and announces a 25 lakh reward for their capture. A separate inquiry commission has been formed to look into the entire case and pin point responsibility for lapses.

The follow up

The state might have failed to prevent the incident but it has done a good mop-up. It struck quickly, using intelligence inputs from Punjab Police to net Palwinder Pinda, who masterminded the operation. The gangster was arrested after a brief chase by UP police in Shamli district. An even bigger catch was Khalistan Liberation Force terrorist Harminder Singh Mintoo, who was nabbed at the Delhi railway station after Punjab Police sleuths monitored his cell number.

Genesis of crime

There are many theories. One is that sportspersons have taken to crime after getting disillusioned with the system. One even states that kabaddi has spawned gangsters, with well muscled youth first flexing their muscles in villages, then becoming bouncers and eventually ending up in a life of crime. Some student leaders have also found their way into organised crime while some others have “graduated” during their stint in jails.

But there can be no denying that the fact that gangsters are only able to survive and ‘earn’ a name if they have political patronage. Two such cases have been Prabhjinder Singh Dimpy who was a politician in the making before being shot down in Chandigarh in July 2006. Another gangster Jaswinder Singh Rocky missed winning the 2012 assembly elections by a whisker. He too met a gory death after being gunned down in Solan in May 2016. Both gangsters were known to be close to politicians.

Presently there are two major gangs in Punjab, one of which was involved in the Nabha jailbreak. This is the gang of slain gangster Gurshahid Singh alias Shera Khuban. One of the inmates who escaped — Gurpreet Singh Sekhon alias Sonu Mudki — is the leader of this gang at present. A notorious member of this gang is Jaipal Singh who gunned down Jaswinder Rocky and is presently on the run. Jaipal and his accomplices form the rival gang and have an ongoing enmity with the Sekhon group.

Facebook as a weapon of terror

The gangs and their leaders would have been relegated to the category of small-time crooks if not for social media. Facebook has served to ‘glorify’ them. The gangsters apparently use the social media to regroup and plan their strikes, with many of them taking root in jail. One day before the jailbreak Sekhon posted on FB: “Kaam asia karo ki naam ho jaaye varna naam aisa karo kee naam lete hi kaam ho jaye” (Do deeds that earn a name or earn such a name that your work is done). This message had its own resonance across Punjab and will definitely add to the terror quotient of the gang now.

So organised are gang members that after the escape, their relatives went on FB to state that the Punjab Police had faked the escape to eliminate them on the pattern of the ‘Bhopal incident’.

Now once it has become clear that the escape was planned and meticulously executed, they have been ‘warning’ the government with a post saying “No one can dare encounter our brothers. Badals (Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal) will have to pay for it” says a post on the Shera Khuban group page.

This is not all. Gangsters compete with each other to make claims of killings. Sekhon group member
Vicky Gonder, who also escaped from Nabha, claimed he was behind the killing of Jaswinder Rocky and termed it as “justice for Shera Khuban”. This claim resulted in the actual killer Jaipal coming to the forefront and “proving his kill” with photographic evidence.

Gangsters also try to create hype about themselves with many projecting a Robin Hood image. They are often seen on FB in flashy cars and guns. Few even chronicle their stay in jail. Sharpshooter Sukha Kahlwan would post each visit to the court on his fan page. A video of the gangster thrashing an inmate Jimmy in the Kapurthala jail was also put on the page. Ironically, Sukhal Kahlwan’s murder was also taped and released by his rivals who danced alongside his body to celebrate their “kill”.

This self-glorification, which is continuing with gangsters having access to mobile phones in jails even now, is helping them in the courts also. In the past five years, not a single gangster in the state has been convicted. As many as 62 cases have ended in acquittals and compromises.

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Criminal minds:  (Clockwise from top) Kashmir Singh, Amandeep Dhotian who committed several offences in Amritsar disctrict, Vicky Gonder  and Neeta Deol,  all part of Punjab gangs
Criminal minds: (Clockwise from top) Kashmir Singh, Amandeep Dhotian who committed several offences in Amritsar disctrict, Vicky Gonder and Neeta Deol, all part of Punjab gangs

 Two terrorists

♦ Harminder Singh “Mintoo” — KLF chief Harminder Mintoo was arrested from the IGI airport, Delhi in November 2014 following assistance from central agencies. Mintoo had set up a terror base in Thailand and was involved in around ten cases of terrorism. (Now arrested)

♦ Kashmir Singh Galwadi — Kashmir was arrested for the shooting of Shiv Sena leader Harvinder Soni in Gurdaspur. Police claim this killing was ordered by foreign agencies and that besides this, Kashmir was also running a sleeper cell in Punjab.

So organised were gang members that after their escape, their relatives went on FB to state that the Punjab Police had faked the escape to eliminate them on the pattern of the Bhopal encounter

Four gangsters

♦ Gurpreet Singh Sekhon alias Sonu Mudki — Gurpreet is a trained and qualified flight attendant from a rich family of Mudki in Faridkot district. He is the prime accused in the killing of sharpshooter Sukha Kahlwan. He faces 13 criminal cases in various districts across the State.

♦ Harjinder Singh Bhullar alias Vicky Gonder — Gonder is a top suspect along with Gurpreet Sekhon in the killing of Sukha Kahlwan. He has earlier been primarily involved in highway robberies
and murders. He is a leading light of the Sekhon gang and his importance can be judged from the fact that he “fought” with a rival gang member in Ropar to get transferred to the Nabha jail in September
this year.

♦ Kulpreet Singh alias Neeta Deol — Kulpeet is also an accused in the Sukha Kahlwan case besides being involved in six criminal cases.

♦ Amandeep Dhotian — He heads a sub gang called the Dhotian gang in the Majha region and has committed several criminal acts in Amritsar district.

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Reach and spread of gangs

According to a police document accessed by Tehelka, there are a total of 57 gangs in Punjab with 423 identified members. Gangs from Ferozepur, Muktsar and Faridkot districts are the most notorious. Most of them are extortionists, sharpshooters and contract killers. Gangs in Khanna consist of dacoits and highway robbers. The Punjab government has, to its credit, undertaken a drive to end this menace and around 280 gangsters are lodged in various jails in Punjab. Around 40 gangsters are lodged in the Nabha jail which witnessed the jailbreak.

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