83-year-old Surat Singh continues his lengthy fast to gain release of elderly Sikh political prisoners he says have completed their jail sentences.
This week, Punjab police arrived at his house in Hassanpur and cordoned off the property. An ambulance was stationed outside, generating fear that the activist may once again be taken to a hospital and confined for force-feeding.
Singh began his protest on January 16, 2015. After the first three weeks, he was removed from his home by authorities and placed under preventive arrest for treatment. Allegedly, in an effort to force-feed him, food pipes were stitched to his forehead in an unhygienic manner and an infection developed.
The country’s largest civil rights organizations, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), said that if the allegations are true, they amount to inflicting torture and inhuman, cruel, degrading and illegal treatment, and that the state is denying Surat Singh his right to indulge in a non-violent, democratic act of protest.
His son, Ravinderjit Singh, a U.S. citizen, who visited India to look after his father, was held under Indian police custody for two months while charged as being “likely to commit a breach of the peace”. After his release on April 27, Ravinder says, he was tortured multiple times and felt that his life was in danger. He has alleged that the police blackmailed him to manipulate Surat into stopping his protest.
Sumedh Singh Saini, the Director General of Police in Punjab, said in a press conference that a list cited by Surat Singh contained 82 names, some of whom have been arrested as recently as 2014, and that several were undergoing trial. The Supreme Court had stayed the release of life convicts across the country with an order in July 2014, and in some cases, the prisoners were jailed in other states.
But Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, the lawyer aiding Surat Singh, said that the list discussed by the DGP contained 200 names, of which an estimated 70 to 75 prisoners have indeed served over 15 to 20 years of their jail terms.
Arjun Sheoran, a lawyer associated with PUCL, said that the Punjab government’s claim that the state was unable to act because of a Supreme Court stay on release of life prisoners in 2014 was inaccurate and that an interim application could be filed.