Magazine| Oct 01, 2007 punjab ex-terrorists Paws And Claws They were 'cats' then, ex-terrorists hunting with Punjab's cops. An unholy nexus now. CHANDER SUTA DOGRA Kitty Litter Here's how the 'cats' continue to hound the people of Punjab: Given fresh identities, these former militants often operate as henchmen for their police handlers Involved in crime ranging from extortion, land grabbing to smuggling narcotics Around 300 cats at large even now It is only this month that the police-cat nexus has been officially acknowledged ***In the dark days of insurgency, the Punjab of the '80s, they were referred to as 'cats'. They still are, former militants turned police informers declared dead or missing, given fresh identities and put under the care of police handlers. With terrorism a thing of the past, the cats have long outlived their utility. But they continue to haunt the land, some of them as phantom henchmen of police officials engaged in crimes ranging from extortion to land-grabbing to narcotics smuggling. In fact, some figures say there are close to 300 militants with new identities still operating in the state. The modus operandi is simple. Since the cats have 'immunity' from the law, they operate at will. According to police sources, several officers are known to have encouraged the criminal activities of former militants and even used them for personal profit. Says leading human rights lawyer R.S. Bains: "For long, we have been saying that disputed properties in and around Chandigarh are being bought up by police officers with the help of henchmen. The very anonymity the cats enjoy gives them a certain immunity...and most are still violent in their approach." In recent times, there have even been several instances of former 'cats' going back to their criminal ways. Kulwant Singh 'Kanta', a typical militant-turned- informer and inducted into the police force as a reward, was involved in kidnapping a businessman's son two years ago. He died in jail this year. Another 'cat' is the infamous Gurmeet Singh who rose to become a police inspector. He is currently in jail after being convicted for murdering a Ludhiana resident. Paramjeet Singh 'Pamma' from Ajnala was booked two years ago for dealing in narcotics. Other former militants like Rana and Ravinderjit Singh too face similar charges. Police officers admit the 'rehabilitation' of those who followed the cult of the gun has not been very successful, post-militancy. But they add that it was a risk which had to be taken. Many like Bains, though, feel the cats and their handlers in the police should be reined in. He says: "This was a lethal force at the command of the police used for the highest purpose in national interest. But now they are spilling out like rats, only because the handlers are not exercising sufficient discretion. Also, some of the cats were active terrorists...and not mere informers. It makes them all the more dangerous." Sukhwinder Singh 'Sukhi', ex-terrorist, helped Virk grab land from a war widow All along, the criminal activities of these 'lapsed' militants were not subjected to any detailed investigation. It only came under the scanner when there was a public outcry against a murder or a kidnapping. In fact, the police-militant nexus was officially acknowledged for the first time this month in the FIR filed by the state vigilance bureau against recently disgraced ex-DGP S.S. Virk. A much celebrated cop, a "terrorist buster" and part of K.P.S Gill's crack team that put down militancy in Punjab, Virk grabbed four acres of land from a war widow with the help of Sukhwinder Singh (Sukhi), an ex-terrorist. To quote from the FIR: "He (Virk) kept a private group of former terrorists to grab and retain such ill-gotten properties." During the days of militancy, Sukhi had been arrested by the police in Ludhiana.Virk abused his official position to get the terrorist released. In police records, Sukhi, wanted for several killings, was falsely shown to have escaped from custody and given the fake identity of Harjit Singh Kahlon. His present arrest has led to him threatening to reveal the names of other 'cats', who he says have been 'rehabilitated' by the police. And Virk, far from pleading innocence, had this to say after his arrest: "Cats are a reality and cannot be written off now. But action is not being taken against all officers, why am I alone being targeted?" Needless to say, the vigilance case against Virk has virtually set the 'cat' among the pigeons and made public one of the dirtiest secrets of the Punjab Police. Many fear that if a detailed investigation is launched into the police-militant nexus, it could expose more skeletons than the authorities would like. Even police sources admit Virk is not the only officer to have misused the 'cats' for personal benefit. The state's security establishment is currently divided and in turmoil. Some police officers feel that militants should be protected and their identities kept a secret. A senior officer offered this policing rationale: "If they are exposed, it can affect anti-terrorist operations in other parts of the country where a similar strategy is in operation. The police will find it difficult to get informers in fighting crime in the future." But there are others who feel surrendered militants should be offered no immunity from the law and they should be prosecuted for any breach. Former DGP K.P.S. Gill, while coming out in support of 'cats' as invaluable tools in fighting terrorism, says that no one should be above the law. As he puts it, "If some of them are indulging in unlawful activities now, they should be booked and legal action taken against them." Adds another former DGP of Punjab Police, Sarabjit Singh: "The use of 'cats' for tactical purposes is fine but there is no justification in using them for personal gains. And anyway, what is the use of 'cats' now that terrorism is over?" But 'cats' are the mysterious remnants of militancy that cannot be wished away. They are reviled by some but protected by the police as one of their own for the sterling role played by them in the '80s. The first 'cats' made their appearance in 1986 at a time when even the state police was reluctant to take up arms against terrorists. Explains a police officer: "It was a strategy evolved by a small group of officers led by the then DGP J.F. Ribeiro. All I can say is that the strategy was successful in inspiring the rank and file of the police to finally turn against the terrorists." Later, the cats were useful as spotters and became the terrorists' bane as they knew their bases and the tactics they employed. An officer who had recruited several cats told Outlook, "It was one of those unconventional strategies used in counter-terrorist operations and select officers were part of it. Since it was not official government policy, the recruitment, deployment and protection of 'cats' became the responsibility of individual police officers who 'handled' them. Many of them had to be rehabilitated by giving them fake identities to protect them from retribution. Several were also given jobs. Till today, I attend to the problems of my 'cats' and use my influence as a police officer to help them." Kanwarpal Singh Bittu, of the pro-Khalistan Dal Khalsa, has this interesting observation: "Three kinds of people were recruited as cats. The first were those terrorists who broke down during interrogation and agreed to cooperate with the police. Then, there were anti-social elements who were mere mercenaries. The most motivated were people from families affected by terrorist violence.Since they and their families had suffered, the thinking now is that it is only fair if they collect a little money, by hook or by crook." Police officers also admit that some of the best cats, who provided exceptional intelligence, were generally known criminals. It now transpires that they never really turned over a new leaf. Amidst the heightened emotions in police headquarters where the hounding of Sukhi and Virk is being seen as damaging 'national interest' to serve petty political gains, the few voices of reason are in danger of getting drowned. As Bains points out, "This is pseudonationalism being used by vested interests within the police to deflect attention from the corruption cases against Virk. What justification is there for using the likes of Sukhi to grab land, no matter how great a role he performed during terrorism?" No one, as he reiterates, can be above the law.