Punjab political killings Part 1: Too many agencies, too little progress; probe into 15 murders headed nowhere

Editor's note: The state of Punjab has been plagued by a series of political killings in recent times — many of which remain unexplained and unsolved. The latest of these was the murder of Hindu Sangarsh Sena leader Vipan Sharma, who was shot dead in Amritsar last week. This is the first in a three-part series that seeks to shed some light on these mysterious killings that appear to share a very similar modus operandi.

Chandigarh & Ludhiana: Although Punjab has seen 10 fatal attacks targeting members of non-Sikh religious groups since last year, investigating agencies don't have any concrete leads yet.

These attacks have claimed 15 lives, the latest of them on 30 October in Amritsar when two men pumped a dozen bullets in the body of Hindu Sangharsh Sena's Amritsar district president Vipan Sharma. Thirteen days ago, a veteran Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist Ravinder Gosain was killed outside his home in Ludhiana in a similar fashion. The other targets of these attacks include Hindu leaders, members of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) and a pastor. (Full list at the end of the story)

The probe of a few of these cases is with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) while the rest are with Punjab police's Special Investigation Team (SIT). Gosain's murder case has been assigned to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

Punjab Police. Representative image. AFP.

Punjab Police. Representative image. AFP.

Police have found the motorcycle on which Gosain's assailants fled and have identified one of the youths who fired at Sharma (Saraj Singh, alias Minti, 26, a proclaimed offender with a history of murder, robbery and kidnapping cases), but that's that. Investigations in none of the previous cases have achieved a breakthrough. Only, the similar nature of these attacks is apparent.

Punjab DGP Suresh Arora said the footage obtained from about 1,500 CCTV cameras and the evidence collected by the forensic department indicate a common pattern in all these murders. He said all the assailants used 32 bore or nine-millimetre pistols, wore similar headgear, shot at the target from close proximity, brandished the gun in the air to instil fear and sped away on motorcycles.

He informed that the assailants' appearance too seemed manipulated in a similar manner. He explained that they seem to be wearing padding on their upper body under their clothes to disguise their actual built and mislead the manhunt.

Arora said there's a possibility that some terrorist organisation based in a foreign country is behind Gosain's murder, but no supporting evidence has been found yet. Member of Parliament from Ludhiana, Ravneet Singh Bittu, claimed in October-end that Gosain's murder was hatched by groups sitting in Pakistan and Canada. Former Punjab DGP Sarabjit Singh Virk told Firstpost these communal attacks seem to be the handiwork of some radical Sikh organisation(s) operating from the United Kingdom.

He disapproved of the manner in which these attacks are being investigated. He highlighted that some cases are with the CBI while some are with Punjab police's SIT. He said this is not the ideal way to investigate high-profile cases of similar nature and asked how different teams will collate their findings to examine the common thread in these murders. He said if the current DGP is aware the attacks follow a similar pattern, their investigation too should be done by a single agency.

Rupinder Pal Singh, a member of the SIT that's looking into the murder of the father-son duo of Dera followers, said they haven't made any breakthrough yet. He opined that different agencies investigating these murders was not a hindrance but a plus point since the involvement of multiple teams meant more scrutiny and increased chances of success.

Victims' kin unhappy

Sudesh Devi, the wife of RSS leader Jagdish Gagneja, who succumbed to the bullets of motorcycle-borne assailants in Jalandhar last August, said their case's investigating officer has changed thrice so far. She said the new officer met them last month and asked the same questions all over again. She said the family is not happy with the way the probe is being approached, adding that they don't have any hopes from it. This case is being investigated by the CBI.

Devi shared that the family has been living in fear since the attack last year and they have been avoiding going out in the dark.

Anuj Kumar, 31, a friend of Hindu leader Amit Sharma, who was shot dead in Ludhiana this January, informed that Sharma's family was so shaken after the incident that they have shifted to an undisclosed location. He said the bereaved family was constantly living in fear.

Alluding to Sikh hardliners, he said everybody knew who orchestrated the attack but people don't talk about it openly since they are wary that these forces' informants might be lurking nearby.

Gosain's son Amit Kumar said the police have been cooperating with them. He also expressed gratitude that the investigation of the case was transferred to the NIA.

Easy targets

All the victims of these recent communal attacks were like sitting ducks. Shravan Singh, 50, a management committee member of the DSS in Ludhiana, said the aforesaid father-son duo had no security cover. Gosain's son said his father had never received any threat and thus did not avail any security, adding that killing him was a cakewalk. Gagneja's wife said her husband too had not received any threat nor had any enmity. She said her husband would spend much of his waking time outdoors in social activities.

In contrast, Hindu leaders who are on the hitlist of terrorists have been given a security cover. Shiv Sena leaders Pawan Gupta, Sanjeev Ghanoli, Harvinder Soni, Nishant Sharma and a few others have bulletproof cars and gunmen. Gupta and Soni move around in the protection of 25 gunmen while Ghanoli has 18. Hindu Suraksha Samiti chief Swami Panchanand Giri has 30 gunmen.

Militants' arrest

On 29 September, police in Ludhiana arrested seven youths associated with terrorist organisation Babbar Khalsa International and recovered three pistols and 33 bullets from them. One of them is a minor and the others are between 18 and 22 years old. All the seven hail from poor families but were in touch with the United Kingdom-based commander Surinder Singh Babbar through social media. The police believe they could have been involved in the recent communal attacks.

DGP Arora said the youth confessed to having plans to create disturbance in the state and recruiting people. He said they wanted to teach a lesson to those who speak against Sikhism.

To identify possible recruits, extremist groups share derogatory posts about Sikhism on social media platforms and zero in on youth who respond with passion and anguish. The recruiters try to brainwash these youth and convince them into joining their 'cause' of protecting and serving their religion.

One of the conspiracy theories about Gosain's murder is that his speeches on Hindutva could have drawn the ire of extremist Sikh groups. Sources said these groups took exception to Sikh youth joining the RSS, deemed it a slight to their religion and held the Sangh responsible for brainwashing their young folk. Reportedly, these groups had expressed their beef with the RSS on social media multiple times, with the posts gaining much traction.

With little to no progress in the investigation of these murders, conspiracy theories are all there is to it.

Recent communal attacks on non-Sikh leaders in Punjab:

  1. January 2016: RSS volunteer Naresh Kumar fired at but escapes unhurt in Ludhiana. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  2. April 2016: Head of Namdhari sect Mata Chand Kaur, 88, killed outside the sect headquarters near Ludhiana. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  3. April 2016: Head of the labour wing of Shiv Sena's Punjab unit, Durga Prasad Gupta, shot dead in Khanna, Ludhiana. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  4. August 2016: RSS's second-in-command in Punjab, Brig (retd) Jagdish Gagneja killed in Jalandhar. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  5. January 2017: Publicity manager of Hindu outfit Sri Hindu Takht, Amit Sharma, gunned down in Ludhiana. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  6. January 2017: Twin bomb blasts in Bathinda targeting Congress candidate and DSS chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's relative Harminder Singh Jassi claim six lives, but Jassi barely escapes death.
  7. February 2017: DSS followers and father-son duo Satpal Kumar and Ramesh Kumar shot dead near Ludhiana. Attackers came by foot and pumped bullets into the victim's head from point-blank range.
  8. July 2017: Pastor of a local church, Sultan Masih, shot outside his house in Ludhiana. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  9. October 2017: Mukhya Shikshak of the RSS in Ludhiana Ravinder Gosain shot dead outside his house. Motorcycle-borne men behind the attack.
  10. October 2017: District president (Amritsar) of Hindu Sangharsh Sena Vipin Sharma shot dead at 2 pm in a market. Assailants flee on foot.

(Sat Singh and Manoj Kumar are freelance writers based in Rohtak and Chandigarh respectively. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

Read Part 2: Fuelled by murders of non-Sikh leaders, religious fault lines re-emerge in state

Updated Date: Nov 06, 2017 10:49 AM

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