Satwant Singh Manak
— Satwant Singh Manak
Satwant Singh Manak joined the Punjab Police to provide his family with a stable income. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to an insurgency, Indian security forces committed systematic and widespread torture, disappearances, and unlawful killings in Punjab. Manak silently witnessed the torture and executions of 15 unarmed individuals at the hands of his fellow police officers. The killing of Kulwant Singh, a teenager who had passed 10th grade, deeply affected Manak. No longer able to suppress his conscience and the horror of what he witnessed, he resigned from his job and filed a case against his fellow police officers. That case covers ten of the victims.
His courage came at a great cost. The police brutally tortured Manak, fatally tortured his father, and threatened his family. Despite such persecution, Manak has continued the fight for justice for almost 20 years. The film, The Last Killing, follows him as he organizes the families of the victims to attend a hearing at the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Will the court decide to open an inquiry into the murders of their loved ones? Can justice be served in the lifetimes of these survivors? The film examines these questions through interviews with victims’ families, Satwant Singh Manak and his family, and lead case advocate Rajvinder Singh Bains.
Satwant Singh Manak joined the Punjab Police in March 1985. From November 1991 through 1993, he served at CIA (Criminal Intelligence Agency) Staff in Moga. During that time, he witnessed 15 to 16 unlawful killings, and is now fighting a case on behalf of 10 of those victims’ families. “They would plant LMGs [Light Machine Guns], grenades, and assault [rifles] on these people,” Manak recounted. “They would take the assault [rifles] from their own necks and show on TV that they had captured these.”
The police responded to Manak’s refusal to participate in gross human rights violations while serving in the police force by torturing him for 42 days and filing false cases against him. Manak described his torture to Ensaaf: “I can show you this scar [points to thigh] of my thighs being ripped open. There is no body part that wasn’t touched.” He described the methods of torture his interrogators used against him, including stretching his legs apart more than 180 degrees, rolling a heavy wooden log on his thighs while three police officers stood or sat atop it, and water-boarding, among other methods.
Armed with detailed information on the abuses committed by the police, Manak filed a case in the Punjab & Haryana High Court in October 1994, asking the Court to order the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate the faked encounters. “Ordinarily, the case should have been immediately decided because ultimately, what is this case about? This case is about registering the crime and investigating it. Then putting the guilty person on trial,” human rights advocate Rajvinder S. Bains told Ensaaf. The case named the officers responsible for the torture and unlawful killings of each victim, as well as senior police officers who Manak had informed of the crimes.
POLICE ABUSE CONTINUES
When the courts acquitted Manak in the false cases and he filed the High Court case on behalf of the ten victim families, the police tortured his father and other family members, attempted to bribe Manak, and filed false documents in court to support their version, among other tactics.
The Punjab Police’s brutal torture of Manak’s father led to his death. “They picked him up on five occasions,” remembered Manak. “They would humiliate him and beat him. Then in 1996, the police interrogated him too much. As a result of complications from the interrogation, my father passed away.” Manak recounted his father’s support of the case: “He said this path I am traveling down is very difficult. However, take this battle to the fullest extent. He told me not to back down in this mission. When I came to collect his dead body, I swore to myself that this is my blood and I will ensure justice is served. I swore that I wouldn't be bought out with land or money…. He told me this is a path of Sikhism. He told me that someone who follows this path is blessed with good fortune.”
Manak described other inducements offered by the police if he would drop the case. “Many individuals came and promised pumps [water pumps], permits, 50,000 rupees, and enlistment for my brother,̶ he told Ensaaf. Bakshi Ram, then promoted to Inspector General of Punjab Police, offered Manak anything he desired. Manak responded to him, saying, “I want justice, if you can give that to me, then give it. If you can give back the…innocent lives taken, then give them back. Then I will withdraw it all.”
Because the police constantly monitored him and shadowed his movements in Punjab, and relentlessly harassed and persecuted his family, Manak had to flea to other parts of India and lived underground for nearly 8 years. Manak’s family has supported him throughout his fight for justice. “The way my wife and my in-laws’ family supported me, I pray to God that they always be blessed. Because my family was very poor, we did not have any property. We were day laborers and that’s how we spent our time.” His in-laws sold land to support Manak and his struggle, and took care of his children while he was on the run. “My wife responded to each brick with stone,” Manak said.
HIGH COURT CASE
In fighting for justice for the victims of the faked encounters, Manak faced severe judicial delay as well as a corrupt attorney. Manak filed the petition in October 1994, but the court did not admit the petition until May 15, 1995. In its reply, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) argued against Manak’s case seeking a court ordered investigation, stating that Manak’s petition was based on his personal grievances, his “allegations were vague in nature,” and there was no explanation given for why he waited “such a long time after the commission of the alleged offences.” The High Court gave no direction for a hearing of the petition.
In 2002, Manak filed a petition through his attorney Daljit S. Rajput for setting a hearing date, and notice was issued. During that time period, the police won over his attorney. Rajput filed an application to withdraw Manak’s petition without Manak’s consent. To reverse the damage, in January 2004, Manak himself had to appear in Court to state that he did not wish to withdraw the petition and that his attorney had acted against his wishes. The Court appointed another attorney, and Manak in the meantime secured the representation of human rights attorney Rajvinder S. Bains. In 2007, Bains filed an application for a hearing date.
In April 2008, Justice Ranjit Singh ordered an investigation by the CBI. Justice Ranjit Singh wrote, “The stand of the State continues to be to stone wall any attempt to have a fair and proper investigation by an independent agency…. Some of the respondents are holding high positions in the police department and even still are serving as police officers.” Further, Justice Ranjit Singh discussed the evidence and how the details in the post mortem reports indicated firing from a close range, as would not occur in encounter killings. Justice Singh stated, “The story projected by the police in all cases of death is almost identical.” The police subsequently appealed Justice Ranjit Singh’s order, and a judicial panel stayed the decision to investigate.
The merits of the appeal were finally heard on September 3, 2013, nineteen years after the original petition was filed. The Court decision is pending. “The way the Indian system operates is they actually do not, in theory, ever acknowledge that they don’t follow the law. But yet, they defeat the law by delaying it, by delaying it, by delaying it,” said Bains, reflecting on the Court’s failure to so far order a CBI investigation. Bains described the oral arguments to Ensaaf, “The judges were sold on the police officers’ argument…. They were not accepting even his statement that he is an eye-witness…. The real issue is when they were tortured and killed, [Manak] witnessed that episode. They killed, [Manak] witnessed that episode. They were saying he was not an eyewitness to the encounter. Our answer was the encounter is fake. The encounter as described has never taken place. [Manak] can’t possibly be an eyewitness of an encounter which has never happened.”
Despite these obstacles, Manak continues to work with the families to fight for justice for their loved ones.