The forgotten days and hounded heroes

Those were the days when officers of Punjab bloated with authority under the prolonged President’s (read bureaucrats’) rule trembled in their trousers and repainted their car registration plates in violation of the law and in conformity with the diktat of terrorists. Traders of Mohali traded their signboards for the yellow and blue that the boys with guns demanded. The Press obeyed the commands in the covering letters that not a dot in the terrorists’ communique should be changed by the editors. An officer of the Punjab Government on deputation to Chandigarh carried this obedience to new heights by refusing to issue an advertisement in Hindi announcing the arrival of the Prime Minister to this city two days later.

Yes, those were the days I saw as Home Secretary of Chandigarh from 1990 to 1992. We had just come out of the trauma of the Mandal Commission agitation when the so-called Panthic Committee laid down its laws for the timorous. No more national anthem, no Hindi, no skirts. The timorous, who constituted the vast majority, obeyed. The few, who looked into tomorrow, dared. The majority bought their insurance by decrying those who dared.

The new SSP had just joined from Punjab. He went to the interrogation centre and saw the cloth masks. What are these for, he asked. To conceal our identities while we interrogate the terrorists, said the demoralised cops. The SSP made a bonfire of the masks and told them to go home if they were going to face the terrorists with the psyche of fear. He said he would himself interrogate them without a mask. That brought some shame and some shine to the uniform.

Yes, the Press, shouting for press freedom, went to the Administrator of Chandigarh demanding the transfer of the Home Secretary who stood in the way of their faithfully reproducing the terrorist handouts. The Administrator was in a mood to oblige. The visit of the Prime Minister next day changed all that. While he was sitting after inaugurating the waterworks, a reporter asked the Prime Minister about his reaction to the confiscation of newspapers by the Chandigarh Administration for printing the terrorising material. Standing behind the Prime Minister, I waited for the response. The Prime Minister did not wait. It is a good step, he said. I will ask other terrorist-affected states to take similar measures. Things moved fast thereafter. I was not transferred. Copies of our orders were sent to Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Assam for the same drill. Some of them took three months in complying. The bureaucrats who were to sign the orders waited for their transfer orders rather than sign what they construed as their own death warrants.

Why am I saying all this after a decade? It had pained me to read about the suicide on the rail track of a police officer who at that time had terrorised the terrorists. The slip in his pocket said that he preferred an honourable death to a life of humiliation. That is what he and others of his ilk had done during the long years of terrorism. They offered themselves for an honourable death everyday as they sallied forth to take on those who had decided to take on civilised society. To them, the killers of innocent bus passengers, the assassins of a devotee on the steps of the holy shrine in Amritsar and the gun-point rapists deserved a taste of their own medicine. The society was to be saved from these desperados even if it meant jumping across the thin line sitting behind which some of the arm-chair proponents of human rights proclaimed human rights only for the terrorists. It is for the state to protect the victims of terrorism, screamed the blurred conscience of these luminaries. But in the process, the rights of the terrorists were to be protected.

That was the time when three-fourth of the Punjab police was amassing wealth under the shelter of terrorism. The remaining one fourth comprised K.P.S. Gills, Gobind Rams, Sumedh Sainis and Sandhus who had put not only their lives on the block but also of their family members. They lost all they cherished and they kept fighting. They fought this war and they won. But for their victory, the national anthem would have still been asleep in this part of the country and your daughter, Mr Human Rights Proponent, would not have taken her skirts out of the closet where you had asked her to hide these in those days of the diktat.

Yes, a war it was. But with a difference. At Nurmeberg and at Tokyo trials, the victors tried the vanquished. Here, the victors are being tried; by those for whom they fought and won this war. But this is not the first time this has been done to patriots here. Remember, how political prisoners got amnesty after Independence. The followers of men like Chandra Shekhar Azad were forgotten. Nay, they craved to be forgotten. The independent India had not decided that a brave man with a gun who killed the white occupier of his motherland should be honoured. The British-trained and British-tainted leaders under the tutelage of their British Governor-General saw the killers of the British with the eyes of the British.

My father, who is no more, was one of those who as a young boy got attracted towards the fire-brands owning allegiance to Azad. He went through the ritual of holding his wrist over the candle flame. He carried the scar quietly till the end. The khadiwalas, he used to say with contempt, have appropriated the term freedom fighter. No self-respecting soldier would share a title with them. He and many like him never desired to figure in the lists of Tamra Patras.

Again, why I am saying this almost 60 years after the events? Is there a message for an Indian in the trial of the Punjab officers who killed terrorists and the slipping into silent oblivion of those who fought for freedom with a gun? In both cases, these brave men sacrificed their lot for you and me. In both cases they faced execution more certainly than those who shouted slogans or shouted about bringing the misguided youth into the mainstream. In both cases they succeeded in driving out the enemy. And this society handed over the rewards to the wrong hands.

Let me recount, if memories have failed, attempts at another trial. The Press had carried in those days big news items that these human rights proponents will conduct a trial, at Chandigarh, of Punjab Police officers whom they were accusing of human rights violations. I, as Home Secretary, was inflamed. This was the best way of making an officer a target. Try him, find his guilty and leave it to the goons to carry out the execution. Those who are for such a farce are entitled to their convictions. To me, it was barbarism. This happens in NWFP, not in India, certainly not in Chandigarh. We issued an order prohibiting such a trial. One of the proponents, a lawyer, landed up at my residence, protesting against the order. Why, I asked him, should you do it in Chandigarh. The matter relates to Punjab. Go and hold your so-called trial in Punjab, I taunted him. He was looking towards his feet. If he had the courage to do so, he would have been a freedom fighter.

To those of the genre of this gentleman, who are today clamouring for punishment to those officers who lived and died for protecting our right to live without threats, I have only this to say: a society which worships false heroes, soon ceases to have any real ones. The choice is yours.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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