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‘World Class Anarchy’ in Bloody Punjab Conflict : India: The seemingly mindless violence of a 10-year secessionist war has torn apart thousands of families.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dalip Singh could not plant his winter rice crop this year. At 70, the old Sikh farmer has long since lost his strength. He’s little more than a living skeleton now, his frail bones cracking beneath a shell of weathered skin and his shattered spirit now vanished along with his sons.

In the past, Dalip Singh’s boys helped him plant the rice each year at this time. But this winter, they’re gone, victims of a war almost without equal in a world struggling toward new visions of peace.

“I often ask God what have I done?” the old man said, his voice just a whisper and rattling with grief one recent morning in this remote mud village of 400. “I must have committed a sin, and I am being punished. Because once, I had three sons, and now, I have none.”

But if the old farmer is being punished for past sins, so, too, are the entire state of Punjab and its 20 million people, all now caught in the constant cross-fire of seemingly mindless murder and disappearances in a war that seems unending.

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One of Dalip Singh’s sons was killed by police; a second disappeared in police custody months ago and is feared dead; the third fled into hiding with the underground. They are just a handful of the mounting casualties in the brutal, secessionist struggle in the northern Indian state of Punjab that has claimed more than 5,300 lives this year alone, including the 55 reported killed in an attack on a train Thursday near Ludhiana that also left at least 70 wounded.

Authorities said four men carrying AK-47 assault rifles boarded the train with 250 people aboard, forced it to stop at the farming village of Sohian and carried out the massacre. Most of the victims were Hindus, who are a majority in India but a minority in Punjab. Police blamed Sikh militants, who often conduct random attacks in their campaign for a homeland.

The war has torn apart tens of thousands of families like Dalip Singh’s during 10 years of guerrilla warfare that has spawned a culture of killing, kidnaping, extortion and police corruption in Punjab. With daily death tolls that routinely reach into double figures, it is one of the world’s bloodiest regional insurgencies.

For India, the 10-year secessionist war by its turbaned Sikh religious sect has been nothing short of epic.

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Twice, the Indian army has used tanks and artillery to attack and invade the Sikhs’ holiest shrine in an effort to rout the militants’ leadership. The first such assault in June, 1984, led to the assassination of India’s best-known prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who was gunned down by two of her Sikh bodyguards five months later. Her assassination triggered Hindu-Sikh rioting that left thousands of Sikhs burned, clubbed or hacked to death in an orgy of religious violence.

Fueled by such injustices against the Sikh minority in predominantly Hindu India, the war developed as a Sikh crusade to create a separate Sikh homeland in Punjab called Khalistan (Land of the Pure). Sikhs belong to a 500-year-old sect founded as a compromise between Hinduism and Islam, and they now make up about 60% of the population in Punjab state.

The conflict has degenerated in recent years into little more than a gang war without rules between a dizzying array of Sikh militant groups and the police. The militants are heavily armed former zealots now using Khalistan as a cover and the Sikh masses as human shields and pawns in a campaign more for personal profit and power than for Sikh independence.

And the police have run amok, often using torture, summary execution and abduction-for-profit rather than arrests, trials and due process.

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“We have a world-class anarchy in Punjab today,” said an Indian journalist who has covered the Sikh insurgency since its inception. “There are just no rules at all anymore. You can get away with anything, including murder. And the last people you call when you’re in trouble are the police. Chances are, they’re in on it.”

Behind that general picture are thousands of stories like Dalip Singh’s, tragic human byproducts of police atrocities that have become as commonplace as the daily killings and kidnapings by Sikh militants, who concede they are routinely armed and trained through Pakistan, India’s neighbor and traditional foe. Pakistan was sharply warned by Washington last month that it risks inclusion on the U.S. list of nations supporting terrorism if it persists in supplying Sikh militants.

During a journey through war-torn Punjab recently, a Times reporter documented many cases of mounting police abuse that human-rights groups have cited as the ultimate cause of continuing bloodshed. Among the recent victims:

* The family of 85-year-old Sikh farmer Malook Singh, whose 80-year-old wife, son, daughters-in-law and grandsons were chained to trees and stakes at their farmhouse in the remote village of Killi Bodhla and tortured for more than three hours by an armed police party, which burned them with hot diesel oil before killing all seven last October. Malook Singh’s 4-year-old great-granddaughter witnessed it all. The attack was carried out to avenge the deaths of two police officers shot by armed Sikh militants who had seized the Singh farmhouse hours before as an overnight hide-out.

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* The younger brother of suspected Sikh militant Jagir Singh and 17 of his wedding guests, who were massacred at Jagir’s wedding reception outside the Sikh holy city of Amritsar a few weeks ago when an undercover police agent with a reputation for assaults on civilians used automatic rifles supplied to him for counterinsurgency duty to settle an old family feud by firing on the marriage party.

* Dalip Singh’s son, Rajbir, who was executed by police after they kept him in chains for nearly a month, alternately using death threats and promises of freedom to extract information about militant groups that Rajbir said he had joined merely to avenge the rape and death of his elder sister years before.

After investigating a series of “extrajudicial executions of civilians” by both the police and Sikh militants earlier this year, the human rights group Asia Watch concluded: “Government forces operating in Punjab systematically have violated international human rights law, as well as the laws of war governing internal armed conflicts.”

The security forces “have engaged in widespread summary executions of civilians and suspected militants,” the U.S.-based group said in its 130-page report, adding that the Sikh militant groups similarly have used execution and kidnaping to extort financial and logistic support from innocent civilians.

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The Asia Watch report cited dozens of kidnapings by militants and police alike--unchallenged crimes that have soared since the August date of that report to a current rate of at least one kidnaping per day--as examples of the “terror tactics” used by both sides. But the group stressed in its conclusions that it found “a disturbing tolerance for lawlessness by the state as a means of fighting the militant threat.”

When asked about Asia Watch and other human rights groups that have documented similarly disturbing trends in Punjab in recent years, one senior police officer in the state said, “We like them as long as they don’t talk rot.” Then, he added, “Mostly, though, it is rot.”

But in the rural Punjabi villages now hostage to this war--strategic hamlets such as Dalip Singh’s village of Manawa--there is ample evidence of how far India’s counterinsurgency campaign has spun out of control. Things are so bad that federal authorities in New Delhi called out the army again in late November, deploying more than 100,000 soldiers throughout Punjab to restore order. Federal officials privately concede that the police are all but out of control.

A drama typical of the human price exacted by such anarchy is provided by the case of Dalip Singh’s son, Rajbir, and the senior police officer who ordered his execution seven months ago.

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Just days before his death, a Times reporter met 25-year-old Rajbir, sitting barefoot and cross-legged, his hands and feet manacled and chained, on the floor of Police Superintendent Sidharth Chattopadhyaya’s office in the embattled Punjabi town of Firozepur.

“My future?” Rajbir asked that afternoon, echoing a reporter’s question as he looked toward the senior police officer smiling awkwardly behind his desk. “My future is certain.

“Death.”

During an hourlong interview that day, under Chattopadhyaya’s watchful eye, the young Sikh said that at no time during the two years he admittedly fought in the guerrilla war alongside fellow Sikh insurgents did he embrace the concept of a separate Sikh state.

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“Whenever I talked to my seniors, I talked about Khalistan to them,” Rajbir said. “But in the heart of my heart, I knew Khalistan was not possible. So I didn’t believe in it.

“For me, it was all for the revenge of my sister, Rani Lakhminder Kaur. In 1981, she was raped by some man in the village, a relation of the village chief. She was well educated. She had just graduated the 10th grade. She could not take the shame. So she jumped in the village well and killed herself.

“But this man who raped her had a rifle. Our family had none. So, from the start, it was only my burning desire to get an automatic weapon to take her revenge that drove me.”

At first, it drove Rajbir to join the government’s “home guards,” a grass-roots village-defense network supplied with old police rifles. Then one night a group of militants came to Manawa, he recalled. They were running guns, and Manawa, only four miles from the India-Pakistan border, was the last stop before the long barbed-wire fence that India has erected along Punjab’s entire frontier to curb cross-border gun trafficking.

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The militants offered Rajbir an AK-47 assault rifle if he would accompany them on their mission that night, and, within minutes, the young Sikh changed sides.

Rajbir conceded that he made several more trips into Pakistan, bringing back with him such weapons as assault rifles, mortars, land mines and grenades, ultimately earning himself the rank of “lieutenant general” in one of the myriad militant groups.

He also conceded that he staged dozens of kidnapings throughout Punjab, bringing in 1.3 million rupees (about $65,000) in ransom to finance arms purchases. And, he said, he did order several executions of suspected police informants. But he insisted that he had never killed anyone with his own hand--not even the man who raped his sister, he said, because the man fled the village and went into hiding.

Whether Rajbir might ultimately have been punished by a court of law for his crimes will never be known. If Superintendent Chattopadhyaya had had his way, no one would ever have known that Rajbir had even been picked up by the police before his bullet-riddled body was discovered along a rural Punjabi road a few days after that interview.

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“You cannot say this man is in police custody,” Chattopadhyaya instructed the reporter that day as Rajbir sat in chains on the police officer’s floor. “Just say you interviewed him in his secret hide-out.”

“Why?” the reporter asked.

In reply, Chattopadhyaya smiled, reached for his telephone, dialed the number of a Sikh hide-out that Rajbir had supplied under earlier interrogation and ordered Singh to tell his fellow militants to meet him the next day--a meeting that would become a police ambush.

Later, a veteran of the Punjab insurgency who is close to both the police and militant leaders said that a standard police tactic in the state is to capture a suspected guerrilla leader such as Rajbir, squeeze him for all the information they can and at the same time attribute every murder in their district to him to justify increases in the reward on his head. Finally, the veteran said, they execute the guerrilla and collect the reward. In Rajbir’s case, the reward was $50,000.

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Asked about such a tactic, Chattopadhyaya, a professional officer who was trained at the Indian Police Service academy, spoke only in general terms.

“We are on the offensive now,” he said. “It’s a carrot-and-stick policy in which the stick comes first, and the carrot comes later on. For now, we’ve got to show them, ‘You’re either going to end up shot, or you end up in jail. You are being exploited. You are being misled.’ These points have to be explained to them.

“Only then will we take a very sympathetic attitude. Now, you see, it’s all just a matter of power. All this Khalistan is the talk of criminal elements. The masses don’t want Khalistan. Even if you ask the extremists, they probably can’t spell Khalistan.

“The masses have given up hope,” added Chattopadhyaya, who was promoted last week to senior superintendent in the larger metropolis of Amritsar. “The courts aren’t functioning. Everyone’s been victimized by the terrorists or by the police. So, at the same time, we have to move very carefully to win the masses to our side.”

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In Rajbir’s village of Manawa, though, such police tactics seem to have won few supporters.

As Manawa’s frightened farmers gathered one-by-one in the mud-walled compound of Dalip Singh’s small farmhouse to lend support to his tale of grief, each expressed a growing hatred and mistrust not only of the police but also of the entire system that now rules their lives--the system that arrested Rajbir’s elder brother, Jaswant, missing now for eight months, and forced his younger brother, Karaj, to go underground soon afterward.

The villagers complained about a shoot-to-kill curfew that prevents them from working their fields at night, of pre-dawn searches in which police herd all villagers out of their homes and loot them systematically and of the half-dozen other village youths killed so far in the seemingly endless war.

Most were afraid to declare their loyalties outright. But, as Dalip silently and tearfully shook his head, all made clear that the police stick had not worked here, at least.

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