Almost 25 years ago, on the ill-fated intervening night of 12-13 July 1991, a group of Sikh pilgrims, including women and children, were returning from a pilgrimage to Patna Sahib in the Terai belt of Uttar Pradesh. As the bus reached Pilibhit, policemen made the men disembark and dragged them out. Eleven of the men were separated from their families, taken to the jungle and shot dead, sending shock waves across Punjab. The pilgrim families belonged to Gurdaspur district of the state.
I was then a reporter with the Indian Express posted at Dehradun. My reports raised questions about the police action at Kachlapul Ghat. The police claimed that these Sikh pilgrims were hard-core terrorists and ‘produced’ arms and ammunition supposedly recovered from their custody. However, the alacrity with which the whole act was executed was telling; Police got the autopsy done on the bodies the same day and cremated them minutes thereafter.
Shockingly, the KN Singh Commission appointed by the then Kalyan Singh government not only gave a clean chit to the cops but stated that the police deserved commendation, not condemnation. The Supreme Court then appointed a special CBI court, which has sentenced 47 policemen to life imprisonment.
The court judgment is a damning indictment of the functioning of police forces and CBI. It points out that the “decision of dividing the victims into three groups, killing them in three different police station areas of Pilibhit and making the incident look like an encounter could not be taken by the convicts alone. Police officers on important posts must be behind the incident, but the CBI kept them away from investigation”.
Apparently, the cops took advantage of the situation at that time because militancy was at its peak in Punjab and there were reports that some militants might have spilled over to Pilibhit, a district with considerable Sikh population. The court also observed, “The investigating officer of the CBI was not fully free and had to regularly take directions and advice from his senior officers. While acting on their directions, several persons, who should have been accused, were set free by the investigating officers.”
While there is a question mark over whether the life sentence announced for the Pilibhit killers would have any deterrent effect on those who disgrace their uniforms by killing innocent people in staged encounters, the families want nothing less than death sentence for the guilty policemen for the barbaric act. The cops have met their nemesis but intend to appeal against the judgment in the High Court.
If it drags out much longer, this will be a classic case of justice delayed, justice denied.