A heartbreaking story of a custodial killing, and a fauji father’s long struggle for justice
Aasha Khosa | February 23, 2017 | New Delhi
July 3, 2009 was a hot day. At around 5.30 in the evening, Ravinder Pal Singh was busy selling milk and milk products at his Mother Dairy booth in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, when his phone rang. His younger brother Narinder Singh was on the line. When their conversation ended, Ravinder was ash-faced; his countenance was a picture of shock and disbelief. His brother had told him that his younger son, Ranvir Singh, was dead; he had been killed by police in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, in an encounter two hours ago.
Ravinder had met his son barely three days ago. The youngster had come home from Meerut, where he had studied for a masters’ degree in business administration (MBA) for two years and recently joined his first job with the Kotak Mahindra Bank. He had said he was planning to visit Dehradun, where the bank had a better position for him.
Ravinder hurriedly downed the shutter of his shop, unmindful of howls of protests from the customers in the queue and rushed to his home nearby. He hired a taxi in no time and left for Dehradun. With him were his elder son Sandip, brother Narinder and a family friend. The crew of a television news channel, which had come to know about the mysterious death of the MBA student from a friend of the Singh family, followed them. In his heart of hearts, Ravinder still wished it was a case of mistaken identity. But one thing that kept his stomach churning with apprehension was the fact that he knew that Ranvir would be in Dehradun on that day.
At the age of 24, Ranvir came across as a well-behaved person to his neighbours and friends. For his family, he was a born achiever who would discharge all his responsibilities with finesse. “He was a promising boy, a perfect gentleman who would never crib and finish his task with promptness,” recounts Ravinder, a former army man, while narrating his seven-year struggle to get justice for his son, who was murdered by 17 policemen in what is euphemistically called fake encounter – custodial killing, in other words – in the capital of Uttarakhand. He spoke to us at his two-storey house in Ghaziabad’s Shalimar Garden. In the drawing room, a framed photo of Ranvir hangs on one wall. A rakhi, made of red thread and golden beads is strewn across and there is a crimson tilak smeared over the glass right over Ranvir’s forehead. The air in the room and the house is thick with sadness and grief; the cold and bare walls only add to the ambience.
When in July 2012, a Delhi court had convicted 17 of the 18 policemen for Ranvir’s murder in cold blood and they were sent to Tihar jail for life, Ravinder was somewhat satisfied. “My struggle to get justice for my son has paid off, but on the day the court delivered the verdict, I realised, my grief had doubled; I was a loser even after winning a legal battle against all odds, for I would never be able to see my son again,” said the tall 59-year-old former soldier with moist eyes. He keeps his composure while talking about his son but his wife, Suresh, with stark sunken eyes is the epitome of grief and hardly speaks. The only time they all smile is when the one-year son of Sandip and his banker wife comes in and plays around. The toddler is named Ranvir, though there is no better aide-memoire than the grief of loss.
Ravinder remembers how his son would always stand up to the bullies – be it in school, college or to strangers on the roadside. “My children had been raised in cantonments across India where generally you don’t come across rude people,” said Singh, who retired as a subedar major in the army after 28 years. He said, because of this, Ranvir would sometimes get angry and argue with strangers if they shouted at him or spoke to him rudely. “I had explained to him many times that in this part of the world, rude behaviour is the norm and he should learn to take it in his stride,” says Singh. This habit of his son had always worried him.
The darkness was accentuated by the shadows of thick alpine forests falling on the road; the taxi was moving even slowly and Singh’s mind was cluttered with memories of his son’s life. Ranvir was a brilliant student and a good sportsperson in the Kendriya Vidyalayas, where he and his siblings – a sister and brother – had done their schooling. He spent money judiciously and kept meticulous records of all his finances. Ravinder had always seen him as a special person – a man of principles, positive habits and the right attitude. He visualised a bright future for his son. He was among the few students at the Ford Management Institute, Meerut, who were chosen for their first jobs in the campus placement interview. Ravinder was indeed very proud of him.
Ranvir, however, was unlucky on that day when a policeman in civvies randomly approached him at Mohini road of Dehradun. Sub-inspector GD Bhatt spoke to him with characteristic rudeness, seen by majority of police men across India as their right; the policeman’s language crossed the line between firmness and rudeness. This, for many, was a sign of their authority and omnipotence.
Before that, however, we need to find out how Narinder, who lived with his family in west Delhi’s Janakpuri, became the first to know about his nephew Ranvir’s death.
Back to Dehradun: a reporter of the Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala was among scores of media persons present at the briefing by senior superintendent of police Amit Sinha and the CO (circle officer, a senior sub-inspector) GC Tamta at the Dehradun police headquarters around 3.30 pm. Sinha was all smiles as he broke a major story to the media. He said the police had foiled a major terror plan hours before president Pratibha Patil’s cavalcade was to arrive in the city. The president was to spend a day in the Raj Bhawan on her return from the Himalayan shrine of Kedarnath. The police story was about three terrorists who had beaten up GD Bhatt at Mohini Road while he was quizzing them. They had also snatched Bhatt’s service pistol before running away. Three ‘terrorists’ at large just ahead of the president’s arrival was an alarming situation indeed. The police had launched a massive manhunt and tracked them in the Ladpur forests on city outskirts within two hours. The motorcycle-riding ‘terrorists’ had opened fire at the policemen and an encounter ensued in which one terrorist was shot dead, the two others had once again escaped. Police had recovered from the spot the motorcycle, a pistol and a black travel bag containing a tamancha, or a country gun, a nylon rope and some adhesive tape. A jubilant Sinha even announced cash reward of Rs 7,500 for the valiant team of his men. He had proposed to the office of the chief minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, that the president should be requested to give away the reward to boost the morale of his force. The CM office was discussing the proposal.
While most of the media persons left in a hurry to break the sensational story, the Amar Ujala reporter went to the Dalanwala police station, possibly to get more information on the encounter. He met a friendly ‘munshi’, the official responsible for keeping records and filing FIR and complaints, at the police station. With his help, he could easily lay his hands on the panchnama, the detailed first information report of an incident and recoveries made from the spot – signed by a third party – a tehsildar in this case. This document is treated as a key piece of evidence in legal matters.
The reporter was surprised to see on the list of recovered items the driving licence of the dead terrorist. It bore the name of Ranvir Singh and had his address as D56, Janakpuri, New Delhi, which was his uncle’s house. The reporter smelt a rat; it was becoming clear to him that the deceased had a name and address. He wondered why Sinha kept referring to him as an unidentified terrorist. He quietly noted down the details on the licence in his notepad and left without speaking to anyone. He spoke to his editor in Delhi, who, in turn, sent a reporter to the Janakpuri house of Narinder Singh. Since Ravinder Singh’s family lived in a rented accommodation in Indirapuram those days, Ranvir had declared his uncle’s place as his address for easy police check and delivery of the driving licence.
The Human Rights Watch, an international organisation,in December brought out a rather shocking report on the killings in police custody in India. Citing the National Crime Records Bureau data, it says 591 people died in police custody during 2010-15. It says, “Instead of holding police responsible to account, authorities have stalled reforms needed to build a more rights-respecting force.”
The 114-page report, Bound by Brotherhood: India’s Failure to End Killings in Police Custody, examines police disregard for arrest regulations, custodial deaths from torture, and the impunity of those responsible.
The supreme court has laid down rules to prevent custodial abuse in the 1997 case of DK Basu v. West Bengal, and they have been incorporated into the Code of Criminal Procedure. But, as a magistrate in Tamil Nadu told the Human Rights Watch, “Police has their own code of police procedure. They don’t follow the Code of Criminal Procedure.”
This behaviour has little to do with any passionate crime detection or slips made in the heat of the moment. It is embedded in the psyche of having unquestioned power.
To see that power on display, one could visit Uttarakhand during its first decade after bifurcation of Uttar Pradesh in 2000. The new state was born after a protracted and somewhat bitter struggle of the hill people against the ‘brash and dominating’ people of the plains. The newfound assertion by the locals against people from UP remained intact even nine years later. The police often took sides in case of a dispute between the locals and the outsiders. “Those days, the police was trigger-happy; they would kill pickpockets in the jungles and brand them as terrorists,” said SMA Kazmi, senior journalist with The Tribune in Dehradun. This perception about the state police was not without reason. Its men were accused of killing 24 innocents, mostly non-locals and petty criminals, in fake encounters. Seven of the victims were from UP, a fact the government admitted in its reply to an RTI query from television channel IBN7. Ranvir too was from western UP and more importantly, had come to Dehradun to snatch away a job that should go to a local.
Little did the policemen know that many people had accidently seen an injured Ranvir in their company. At around 2 pm, Anil Verma, a reporter with Nalini Singh’s TV programme Aankho Dekhi was returning with his two children from school in his car when he saw a police jeep coming from the opposite direction. As the road was narrow and only one vehicle could pass, Anil reversed to make way for the police vehicle. As the police van moved slowly past Anil got a full and close view of the inside. He could see a young man wearing a sky blue shirt and a jeans lying on the floor of the Maruti Gypsy van. His trouser had loosened up from his waist exposing his dark brown underwear. Verma took him to be a badmash, or a bad character, and didn’t pay much attention.
Verma reached home, and started having lunch after switching on the television set. He was shocked to learn that the man he had seen in the police jeep was a terrorist. Equally shocking was the news that the man was killed in a firefight in the Ladpur forest while he was trying to run away from the police. He could easily match the image of the man lying dead on the bed of dried leaves in the forest with that of the man in dark sky blue shirt and dark brown underwear in the police van. He knew that this was a staged encounter and police had killed the man in cold blood.
As Ranvir’s father had set out on the journey to Dehradun, the media fraternity in the city was on the trail of the fake encounter story after Verma and the Amar Ujala reporter shared their eyewitness accounts with others. Reporters spoke to the people who had seen Ranvir being beaten black and blue and then taken on a Chetak scooter by the police from Mohini road. Anjum Pervez Khan, who lived near the spot, was happily singing about his brave act of saving GD Bhatt from terrorists by making a timely call to the control room and firing in the air. Asima, a seamstress at a boutique on Mohini road, had seen the man in a sky blue shirt being carried on the motorcycle by police. Media persons had always suspected police of staging the encounter but never were there so many eyewitnesses to the murder by men in uniform.
Ravinder reached Dehradun by midnight. Though distraught with grief, he was relieved to see scores of unknown faces, mostly journalists, waiting for him on the city outskirts. They told him they all knew about his son’s death; also that the police was planning to dispose of his son’s body without trying to trace his family. At this stage, Ravinder had nearly gave up on the mistaken identity theory.
Surrounded by a bevy of reporters and cameras, Ravinder called up top police officers. To his dismay all phones were switched off. DySP Ajay Singh – who was later held guilty of Ranvir’s murder – came on the line. “Why did you kill my son? Usne aapka kya bigada tha (What harm had he done to you)?” cried the distraught father. Singh’s reply – all present there could overhear it – sent shivers down everyone’s spine. “You better go back or soon you too will meet the same fate,” Singh said and disconnected the line.
Officials at the Doon hospital would not allow him to see the body of his son on the ground that it was in police custody. Finally, in the morning, his pleadings and the high-pitched media coverage of the fake encounter helped melt some hearts. At 8.30 in the morning, the superintendent allowed him inside the mortuary to see the packed body of his son. “I recognised him from his shoes and shirt. I knew instantly it was him though I couldn’t see his face,” he says.
By that time, television sets across India were emblazoned with headlines of fake encounter of an MBA in Dehradun by the police. A large contingent of media persons from Delhi had descended in the Doon valley; for the first time outdoor broadcasting (OB) vans of televisions were beaming the unfolding tragedy live from the hill resort, which had never been in news for the wrong reasons so far.
Seven years later, the Delhi high court sent 17 policemen to jail for life for abducting and killing Ranvir as well as hiding and manufacturing facts to cover their tracks. One constable who was on duty at the police control room and had made fake entries in the log book when asked to was absolved of the murder charges and held guilty of only tampering with evidence. With the help of court records, today there is some clarity on the last hours of Ranvir’s life.
Ranvir and his distant cousin Ram Kumar, who hailed from his ancestral village of Baghpat, had travelled in a bus to Dehradun. On the morning of July 3, they had checked into Room No. 9 of the Digambar Jain Mandir Dharamshala on Mohini road. After taking a nap for a few hours, the duo went out. Ranvir withdrew Rs 1,200 from a nearby ATM and did not forget to duly record the amount in his personal diary (which was part of the evidence produced in the court). About 20 minutes later, as they were standing near a roadside teashop, sub-inspector Bhatt, who was in civvies, approached them. According to Ram Kumar’s statement before the magistrate, the policeman used foul language which made both of them angry. Soon, the two tall men had overpowered Bhatt and were exchanging blows with him as some 100 passers-by and shopkeepers looked on. It created a flutter. Anjum Pervez Khan, an engineer, came out of his nearby palatial house and opened fire with his licensed pistol. He also dialled 100 and alerted police about the attack on Bhatt.
While the scuffle was on, a police team led by Dalanwala police chowki SHO SK Jaiswal had arrived in a jeep to rescue Bhatt. The policemen quickly caught hold of Ranvir; threw him on the ground and thrashed him with rifle butts and lathis. Meanwhile, Ram Kumar had managed to escape and board the first bus out of the city. The shocked onlookers were now seeing a posse of policemen mercilessly beating the man in sky blue shirt and jeans. He was bleeding profusely and crying. The entire neighbourhood saw the SHO’s jeep leave Mohini road; followed by a Chetak scooter of the police on the pillion of which was seated the badly injured man in the sky blue shirt.
Ranvir was taken to the Nehru colony police station, where he must have been quizzed about his purpose of visiting the city and subjected to more torture. Apart from bullet marks, his body had 27 deep cut wounds, obviously inflicted by the police during beatings. Soon, two policemen in uniform had reached the dharmshala. They broke open his room and ‘recovered’ his black duffle bag. They also took aside the guest register and jotted down something in it in full view of the staff. Later it was found that they had entered names of Amit and Prakash, notorious ‘bad characters’ of the area, in the column of Ranvir Singh’s booking reference. Obviously this was done to prove that Ranvir was in the company of criminals. The staff of the lodge also saw the police men leave with the black bag.
By now police had decided to bump off Ranvir, who was badly injured and unlikely to survive. He was semi-conscious and cried in pain intermittently. Police wanted to kill two birds with one stone: not leave trail of custodial torture by letting him off and get medals for bravery by claiming to have neutralised a dreaded terrorist just before the presidential visit. They were fudging records and making misleading entries in the log books to write the script of an encounter. The police control room had flashed an alert about three terrorists being on the run after attacking Bhatt and snatching his service revolver. Policemen didn’t give a damn about the fact that about 100-odd townsfolk had seen Jaiswal carrying Ranvir to the police station. The cops were complacent and didn’t ever cover their tracks fully before indulging in the most gruesome act in uniform.
Kazmi, who had reported from Punjab during the peak of insurgency there, says that back then, Uttarakhand police was behaving like Punjab police. Encounters were common and they killed several innocents for getting awards.
Ranvir’s body had deep cut wounds; a big stain of coagulated and dried blood covered his trousers in the groin area; it was due to heavy bleeding from his ruptured scrotum – the most sensitive part of the body of a male human. Beside journalist Anil Verma, a few labourers, who were working in the Ladpur forest, had also spotted Ranvir. Policemen had quickly shooed them away. One of them had seen a policeman pulling Ranvir out of the white jeep and telling him to run. He also saw – and later described to media persons – how the man in the sky blue shirt could not run and collapsed on his knees while policemen surrounded him in a circle.
Now, in the jungle, 17 policemen had surrounded the semi-conscious Ranvir, each one holding their service weapon – AK-47s, revolvers and pistols. Eight of them, including SHO Jaiswal, opened fire – 29 bullets hit his body, 10 of which were found embedded in his chest. All bullets were fired from close range – of three feet as the forensic experts found later. The pistol planted on Ranvir’s body was shown to have fired five rounds – supposedly on the police and triggered an encounter. This was contradicted by forensic experts during the legal trial. Ranvir had not used the pistol.
Ranvir lay dead. The policemen quickly placed a rickety motorcycle and the black duffle bag close to it on the ground. The policemen were seen patting each other and calling their superiors on the wireless sets and mobile phones.
Police, however, had no idea of the grit of the fauji father that Ravinder was; nor of the power of the media and people who had stood with the aggrieved family demanding justice for a young man killed by police. “Media has been my biggest ally in the fight for justice for my son,” Ravinder says. Ranvir’s killing was exposed also because of the fine legwork of a few journalists in Dehradun. Within hours of the murder, journalists had even spoken to two labourers who had seen Ranvir in the last minutes of his life.
Ravinder’s struggle began as soon as he went to claim his son’s body in the Doon hospital. Forget about filing his FIR, the police party led by Tamta simply refused to see him and even objected to his presence outside the mortuary during the autopsy. Ranvir’s father saw hundreds of townsfolk joining him in protesting against police. The police used lathis to disperse the mob; Ranvir’s brother Sandip was manhandled. Inside, the police was trying to use all the tricks it had up its sleeve to spike the truth from coming out. For example, the video camera, used for recording the autopsy, was found damaged, much after the event!
Ravinder spoke to the chief minister and asked him to find his son’s killers. Only after much struggle and drama the police allowed him to carry his son’s body, which was cremated the next day in Baghpat. He had no time to grieve and returned to Dehradun the next day. He knew that his battle for justice was going to be a long and difficult journey. “I would never move alone; the media gave me a cover; this was because I had been openly told that the rattled police would kill me,” says Ravinder. It took the chief minister’s intervention and protests and sit-ins by the Singh family for the police to lodge Ravinder’s FIR for his son’s murder in custody on July 6. In fact, Ranvir’s death became the proverbial tipping point for people to break their silence on police’s habit of killing innocents and behaving no differently from criminals. Protests erupted all over the state and also in western UP. Finally, on June 29, Pokhriyal asked New Delhi to send a team of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the Ranvir murder.
By then Ravinder had sensed the dangers of pursuing a case involving killers who enjoyed powers in khakhi. He met his nephew Ram Kumar good 10 days after he had fled from Mohini road on the fateful day. Ram Kumar, 24, remained in hiding for several months as he feared for his life from Uttarakhand police. One day, he finally reached Dehradun quietly with his family to record his statement before a magistrate. (He changed his statement later and was declared a hostile witness by the court)
Six months later, the CBI filed charges against 18 officers in the CBI special court at Dehradun. But, notwithstanding huge support from the locals, Ravinder was unable to hire a lawyer to help him in pursue the case. “One day finally a lady lawyer quietly came to me and told me in confidence that all of them were scared to help him due to fear of police retaliation,” recalls Ravinder. She did help him get some papers attested from a notary on that day for a hefty fee, though. The CBI had charged the policemen with murder, abduction of a person with intention of killing him, abducting him secretly, creating false records to save the guilty and misleading the investigations.
“Though CBI could establish that my son was killed in custody but they never bothered to probe the role of the senior officers, including the SSP, in the conspiracy,” Ravinder Singh said. All the accused continued to serve in police for three months; seven had surrendered before the CBI court but 11 others including DySP Ajay Singh and GD Bhatt had managed to evade arrest. Ravinder had lost all hope the day the Nainital bench of the Allahabad high court granted bail to 11 policemen charged with murder. Little did he know that this would become the turning point in the case. He subsequently approached the supreme court to seek stay on the high court order on bail and also requested for transfer of trial out of Dehradun. The SC verdict was favourable: in March 2011, it cancelled the bail of all the 11 policemen and ordered the transfer of the trial to Delhi.
“That day, I knew my son will get justice,” he says. Ultimately, after the framing of charges against 18 policemen by the court, all the elusive policemen surrendered.
“It was a difficult period for all of us, but much more gruelling for my father,” says Sandip, who was virtually imprisoned by his paranoid mother in the house as she feared the guilty policemen may be aiming for revenge against him. “My father would leave home early morning as if he was leaving for office to be present in the court and would return only late.” Sandip said he could do nothing to help him.
The CBI court held daily hearings of the case and within a year – on June 6, 2013, pronounced all the 18 accused guilty, 17 of murder.
During the trial, many of the policemen’s lies were nailed as they stuck to their story that Ranvir had come to commit robbery in Dehradun.
The confidence that the law will not be able to catch up with them was evident in the way police had cooked up a false story about the identity of the man picked up by Jaiswal from Mohini road. It was Karunesh Kumar, a private gun man with a local leader, and not Ranvir who was picked up by police from Mohini road on the afternoon of July 3. To prove their point, Karunesh, who was of the same height and build as Ranvir was made to wear a blue shirt and produced before the media in Dehradun. The police claimed that Karunesh, who had a licensed gun, was mistaken for a criminal by Bhatt and later picked up by Singh. He was later released after verification of his antecedents. It was a shoddy cover-up as Karunesh was wearing a royal blue shirt and not a navy blue one. Needless to say, this story didn’t stand before the court.
The other irrefutable fact presented in the court was the detail of the global positioning system (GPS) log of the vehicles of the police officers involved. Though the police had tampered with the handwritten log books, the GPS records were sufficient to nail the scripted lies of the police. For example, Dalanwala SHO Ajay Singh had pleaded that he was not present anywhere near Mohini chowk at the time eyewitnesses saw him carrying Ranvir. The GPS data of his vehicle gave away the truth.
Forensic experts had detected fake entries in the police station documents, the dharmshala register, the police control room strip and the log books of official vehicles. They also pointed out that Ranvir had been shot from close range and he was tortured badly before being killed. The motorcycle alleged to have been used by Ranvir was not found in running condition and was without the key.
Did the police learn a lesson from this incident? The Uttarakhand police is yet to admit that Ranvir was killed in cold blood, for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery even today. The police department quietly slipped into silence on the case. A senior police officer, who spoke to Governance Now on condition of anonymity, says, ”The moment I received Ranvir’s post-mortem report, I knew it was a case of custodial death.” Yet, he did nothing to book the culprits; he kept mum when police were tutoring fake witnesses and visiting Singh’s booth to threaten him of dire consequence if he pursued the case. That fits the pattern: most police officers shield their colleagues involved in torture and fake encounters to not let “morale of the force go down”, says the international organisation Human Rights Watch.
Still, Ravinder is happy about one development: Ranvir’s was the last fake encounter in Uttarakhand. “Ranvir saved many people.”
(The story appears in the February 16-28, 2016 issue)
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