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Changing Lifestyles : Endless War and Disarray: The Plight of the Punjab : Even the police are outside the law in what was once India's most prosperous state.

May 07, 1991|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMRITSAR, India — Police in the war-ravaged Indian border state of Punjab insist they were merely trying to prove a point when they assembled five captured bank robbers before the local press at a recent news conference here: Law and order finally returning to the strategic state after a decade of civil war that thrust Punjab to the top of the list of the world's bloodiest and most intractable armed conflicts.

A bank had been robbed in this holy city of the Sikh religious sect. The criminals were caught, and, the police told the press that day, the 45,000 rupees (about $2,300) in cash and three pounds of gold jewelry that the robbers had taken from the bank's safe-deposit vault had been recovered.

Just one problem: The numbers were wrong. The jewelry owners and bank managers had put the value of the loot at nearly double that figure. Using war as their cover, it appeared, the Punjab police had pocketed half the loot.

Few here were surprised a few weeks later when, on the day the robbers were scheduled to appear in court for the first time, they were killed at a remote spot along Ram Tirath Road.

Acting as judge, jury and executioner, the police put the five young men in chains, forced them to lie face-down near a sewage canal and, one by one, shot them to death. Their justification: They were concerned that the robbers would get out on bail and kill key prosecution witnesses.

"They were shot, OK. There's no denying it," Senior Police Superintendent Sanjiv Gupta told a handful of Western journalists gathered in his office the other day. But "that is a different issue," he said, betraying the moral damage war has wrought on this once-robust and fertile land. "The question in this case is whether the police took the money or the owners got the money--not whether the police shot these men. And I can assure you, the owners got everything back."

After 10 years of numbing violence that has left a death toll some experts calculate at 50,000 or more, including 2,000 this year, the case of the Amritsar bank robbers indicates how a state that once was India's wealthiest has become something of a laboratory for the corrosive social consequences of a war without end--a war waged ostensibly to transform fertile Punjab into an independent Sikh nation called Khalistan, or "land of the pure."

From police corruption, torture and summary execution by officials to brutal weekly massacres, extortion and theft by the Sikh insurgents, the war has made Punjab a virtually lawless state where India's vaunted democracy is a fading memory.

The war has even altered crop patterns in a state where agriculture is so productive that it has supplied India with more than 80% of its grain in recent years. Police have banned sugar planting in many regions because insurgents used the tall cane to launch ambushes.

Movie theaters, the staple of India's rural family entertainment, have all but closed after a rash of terrorist bombings scared viewers away. And even nature has suffered. Scientists say the bird population of a nature sanctuary at the confluence of Punjab's two most important rivers has fallen from half a million to below 100,000, with the rest frightened off by nightly gunfire and bomb blasts.

So pervasive is death and destruction in Punjab that national elections scheduled for the rest of India late this month cannot be held here until next month--if then--because thousands of extra paramilitary troops are needed to guard the polls.

Among the candidates for office are prominent insurgents, terrorists, extortionists, kidnapers and secessionists--a rogues' gallery of criminals that is testimony to how a once-idealistic crusade for Sikh autonomy has been transformed into little more than a cynical cover for crime by both lawbreakers and lawmakers.

"The line dividing politician, criminal and terrorist is very thin now," said Police Superintendent Gupta. "Many of the terrorists are very ambitious. Power, I think, is a great motivator, and everybody wants to gain respectability. . . . But the Khalistan movement has been taken over by common criminals. Khalistan for them is just a public stand now. In private, they say something else."

For pro-Khalistan politicians and militants, who insist that their movement remains pure--and, indeed, for most of Punjab's ordinary farmers and businessmen often victimized by the war--the police are no less sullied. Armed with extraordinary powers under India's Terrorist and Disturbed Areas Act, police concede that there has been rampant corruption and abuse. They also concede, often brazenly, that they have imprisoned suspected terrorists for weeks or months without charges and, like the bank robbers in Amritsar, executed suspects without trial.

In short, the police themselves have become an integral part of the lawlessness and corruption they accuse the rebels of spreading.

Gupta likened the situation in the state to that of the Clint Eastwood film, "Dirty Harry."

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