Whistleblower Exposes India’s Murderous Cops

This review was originally published in Newsweek’s The Daily Beast

In 1994, a Punjabi cop filed a lawsuit against his colleagues accusing them of the secret torture and killing of innocents. Now, as his case is finally being heard by the Supreme Court, a new documentary traces his long fight for justice.

From 1991 to 1993, an Indian cop named Satwant Singh Manak claimed that he witnessed colleagues in the Punjab police force torturing and killing more than a dozen unarmed individuals. Corruption was rampant in the force at that time, and human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Ensaaf reported that the Punjab police disappeared and executed thousands of individuals. Finally, after the death of a teenager, Manak decided to report the killings to his superiors—and thus kicked off a two-decade process of retaliation and court cases that culminated in Manak’s appeal to the Supreme Court of India this April. Now, a new documentary, The Last Killing—out on May 23—traces the story of Manak and the lives of the alleged victims on whose behalf he’s fought for so long.

The film, directed by Satinder Kaur and produced by Ensaaf, follows Manak’s saga back almost three decades ago, when he decided to join the Punjab police force as a bright-eyed cadet. It didn’t take long for Manak to witness the rot at the core of the institution. From 1991 to 1993, Manak says he watched, horrified, as fellow officers brutally beat, tortured and executed some 15 individuals—including, he says, Kulwant Singh, a young Punjabi.

Manak decided to speak out and inform his superiors of the alleged killings—an act that led to his own detainment and, reportedly, his torture. After keeping him in illegal detention for 42 days, the Punjab police filed legal cases against him, accusing him of carrying an unlicensed weapon, theft, and firing on a police party with intent to kill—all false charges, Manak says. He was released on bail and promptly filed a lawsuit in October 1994 against his colleagues, accusing them of torturing and murdering 10 individuals.

As a known whistleblower on human-rights violations, Manak became a target for the police force’s ire. In the film, Manak describes how he spent the next several years on the run while the police persecuted his family back home. Officials picked up Manak’s father and detained him on trumped-up charges; Manak says they tortured him so severely, he ultimately succumbed to his injuries at home.

Despite all the threats and challenges, Manak refused to withdraw his case and continued to pursue his colleagues through the Indian justice system. In 2008, a judge from the High Court of Punjab & Haryana finally ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to look into the deaths. For the first time in many years, Manak had reason to hope. His relief was short-lived, however; the State of Punjab quickly appealed the decision and the case languished for another five years.

The Last Killing captures Manak’s interactions with family members of the Punjab police’s alleged victims and his efforts to organize these families to attend the hearings at the Punjab & Haryana High Court in 2013, nearly 20 years after he first filed his case. These moments in the documentary are particularly poignant, especially as family members reconcile Manak’s role as a former police officer seeking justice for their loved ones.

The hearings lead to a devastating turn of events: On November 26, 2013, a two-judge bench of the Punjab & Haryana High Court reversed the original decision, which had ordered the CBI to investigate the claims of extra-judicial torture and killings, and further ordered Manak to pay a fine to each of the accused officers.

In a particularly poignant moment in the documentary, after Manak has been ordered to pay the police for his claim, he states firmly: “I will not be intimidated. I will not be scared, nor intimidated, nor sold.”

Manak’s unwavering dedication, coupled with his insider knowledge about the human-rights abuses in Punjab, carry the viewer through the The Last Killing. The opening scene of the film illustrates the methodical and gruesome nature of the abuses. Manak describes how the police officers would dispose of the “disappeared” in order to avoid detection: before throwing a corpse in the river, the officers would sever the head and remove the intestines so the body would not float and be found.

This opening scene gives a sense of the unimaginable brutalities that Manak says he witnessed and has worked tirelessly to address. As the film follows Manak’s journey over the past two decades and chronicles the challenges he faces in finding justice for the families in his community, the viewer is left wondering about the state of justice in India and the independence of the judiciary. If the judicial system in the world’s largest democracy fails to punish illegal police killings in the light of overwhelming evidence and eyewitness accounts, one cannot help but ask questions about impunity, violence targeting minorities, and human-rights issues in modern India. As we learn in The Last Killing, these questions go beyond the so-called “Decade of Disappearances” that plagued the state of Punjab during late 1980s and early 1990s; the fact that Manak’s case remains unresolved reminds us that the stifling cloud of impunity continues to hang over the Indian state.

On April 2, 2014, Manak appealed his case to the Supreme Court of India. The appeal includes an affidavit that details Manak’s personal experiences of police torture as well as his account of his father’s death as a result of police torture. The Supreme Court’s decision on this case will shed light on how seriously India takes its obligations to protect human rights.

The image appeared in the original article.

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One thought on “Whistleblower Exposes India’s Murderous Cops

  1. 1) Nobody knows the condition of human rights in India better than me who has suffered my whole life and still suffering unparalleled violation of my human rights and fundamental citizens’ rights by the whole nation combined together. If you have a group who can shout for you, your voice will be heard. Otherwise there is nobody to listen to you, and this is same throughout the world – somewhere more and somewhere less.
    2) In Kashmir and N-E states of India, the reasons behind separatist activities are communal, political, economic and developmental issues, and when government forces start suppressing separatist activities, they may be violating human rights in some cases. But in states like Punjab which is one of the richest states of India and where the police forces are also Punjabi and Sikh, there is no question of discrimination or violation of human rights being behind the separatist movement that was seen there. The cause was just the opposite there – Punjabis wanted to enjoy their riches without sharing it with other parts of the country, plus the ambition of a few politicians to rule the separated new nation. Later, when forces started fighting the separatists there, violation of human rights might have occurred, but how can anybody blame the Sikh police force to be torturing Sikh public with communal feelings? This seems to be a baseless charge.
    3) The documentary film may not be depicting truth and may not be reliable. The practice of presenting false documents to prove one’s case is not new or confined to this country alone. Over and above that, Indians are one of the most dishonest nations in the world and the complainant in the said case is also an Indian, though I do not say that his case is not true when I have no knowledge of the happenings.
    4) Sikhs insist on carrying weapons as their religious symbol which is not justified. It was started by the Gurus with some purpose and that purpose is over now. There is no point in sticking to practices, which are not religious and which pose legal problems everywhere, in the name of religion. If we want to develop a just human society, we must give up unjust demands, think rationally and honor others’ rights rather than hankering for our own unjustified claims and demands.
    5) Again while talking of human rights and communal tortures, Sikhs are always one with Hindus in torturing me without once considering my rights to live peacefully. What human rights are they talking about? If they enjoy torturing others, will they not be tortured by others some day? Why should somebody fight for the rights of one’s community members and not of others? Will somebody join me in fighting for my rights?

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