The case of a mother and daughter

Print edition : October 28, 2000

The CBI investigation into the death under suspicious circumstances of SGPC president Jagir Kaur's daughter holds some dire pointers.

FOR the daughter of one of Punjab's most important political and religious figures, Harpreet Kaur had a curiously unceremonious cremation. Kaur's mother, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president Bibi Jagir Kaur, chose to have her daughter 's funeral pyre lit before the scheduled time of 11-30 a.m. Very few mourners had reached Jagir Kaur's home village of Begowal when the cremation began, minutes after the arrival of Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, one of Jagir Kaur's closest p olitical associates. Harpreet Kaur's ashes were immersed in similar haste. Rather than waiting a day, as conservative Sikh custom mandates, Jagir Kaur dispatched the last remains of her daughter immediately.

SGPC president Jagir Kaur with Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal.-

Six months after the April 21 cremation, the reasons for the hurry to obliterate the young woman's last physical traces are becoming clear. On October 4 and 5, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Dalwinder Kaur Dhesi and Paramjit Singh Rai pur, a Phagwara-based couple, on charges of forcing Harpreet Kaur to have an abortion against her will, conspiring to murder the young woman, culpable homicide and destruction of evidence. The couple's driver, Harminder Singh, and their domestic helpers, Satya Kumari and Sanjeev Kumar, were also arrested on similar charges. There is no doubt where the CBI is heading, for the first information report (FIR) lists the SGPC president herself as the principal accused in the case of her own daughter's murder. Kaur has been claiming to be the victim of a political plot.

Harpreet Kaur, the older of two daughters, fell ill on the night of April 20, and died hours later. From the outset, there were conflicting reports on just what had happened. Family members and household staff who spoke to local reporters contradicted ea ch other. Some said Harpreet had died of "severe food poisoning", while others insisted that she had been afflicted by "extreme dehydration owing to a sunstroke". Jagir Kaur, for her part, let it be known that her daughter had died en route from P hagwara to Ludhiana's Christian Medical College Hospital. This explanation was bizarre, for there was no reason why a critically ill Harpreet Kaur should have been driven all the way to Ludhiana, given that first-rate medical facilities were available le ss than 20 km away, in Jalandhar.

Local authorities, however, seemed determined not to resolve any of these mysteries. No inquest, no post-mortem was carried out, both of which are legal imperatives in all cases of suspicious death. Kapurthala Senior Superintendent of Police Iqbal Singh, who was present at the early morning funeral, told journalists that "since there was no suspicion of any foul play, there was no necessity for a post-mortem or an inquest". Despite a series of public protests, notably by Punjab-based women's organisatio ns, no FIR was filed by the police. Badal, for his part, stuck by the SGPC president. On April 26, unmindful of the controversy that had begun to build up, he attended ceremonial bhog rites at Begowal. Clearly, the Chief Minister felt Jagir Kaur h ad nothing to explain.

Kamaljit Singh, a young resident of Begowal, felt otherwise. On April 27, he filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, claiming that he had been secretly married to Harpreet Kaur. That marriage, Kamaljit Singh claimed, had been the reason fo r Harpreet Kaur's death. Their unborn child, he said, had been forcibly aborted just a month before his wife was murdered. The man insisted that he had "irrefutable documentary and photographic evidence" of Harpreet Kaur's pregnancy and their wedding. Th e next day, the High Court directed Jagir Kaur, the State of Punjab and four individuals "to show cause as to why the matter should not be entrusted to the CBI when high ups in the State of Punjab holding power are said to be involved in suppressing the truth".

Under pressure, the Punjab government responded by ordering a police inquiry, led by the Inspector-General of Police in charge of crime, Kamal Kishore Attri. No FIR was filed, but Attri's Special Investigative Team (SIT) appears to have done the best it could under the circumstances. Leaks from the SIT made clear that traces of a pesticide had been found on the carpet on the floor of the room where Harpreet Kaur had died, suggesting at least suicide. Even more damning, Kamaljit Singh's family produced v ideotape images of an engagement ceremony they had held for the young couple late last year. The video images show a joyful Harpreet Kaur in full bridal finery, obviously excited at the event. These new disclosures provoked outrage, and on May 10, women' s rights activists from all over Punjab blocked traffic in Chandigarh, demanding Jagir Kaur's arrest.

But no real action was taken, and many people believed that the issue had, like Harpreet Kaur, been disposed of for good. Then, on June 9, the High Court ordered a CBI probe into the affair. The court directed the central agency to complete its investiga tion within four months, and told the Punjab Police to hand over all the documents and materials it had collected. After some administrative confusion, the CBI began a preliminary inquiry in June. Apparently restless over the delay, Kamaljit Singh again petitioned the High Court, now demanding that the CBI be ordered to register an FIR. On the morning of October 4, when this fresh petition was scheduled for hearing, counsel for the CBI handed over to Justice V.M. Jain a copy of the FIR it had registered . Outside the courtroom, the arrests began.

Moving with remarkable speed over the next two days, CBI investigators made five arrests. Jasdil Mansion, the palatial Phagwara mansion where Dhesi and Raipur were alleged to have imprisoned Harpreet Kaur for several days before the death, was raided. On ly one key participant in the affair has so far not been arrested or interrogated. Jagir Kaur's official escort, Nishan Singh, failed to answer summons by the CBI to appear for interrogation. The Punjab Police claim this is because the CBI's notice did n ot reach him on time, and that he has been ordered to honour fresh summons. The CBI has not yet chosen to act against Kaur, but agency officials in Chandigarh say they wish to have a cast-iron case before moving for her arrest. Nishan Singh's interrogati on, officials told Frontline, would prepare the way for action against the SGPC president.

CBI investigators believe they have a fairly clear idea of the events which led to what many people believe to be one of the most ugly crimes in Punjab's recent past. Kamaljit Singh had first met Harpreet Kaur during his work as a campaign worker in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Although he is from a poor home, the alleged reason for his unacceptability to Jagir Kaur as a son-in-law, the romance blossomed. Late last year, the two were engaged, in the ceremony recorded on videotape. Jagir Kaur, Kamaljit Singh told investigators, was bitter about her daughter's choice, but promised to arrange a marriage for the couple at a later stage. In December, mother and daughter left for the United States, during a tour which included a visit to South Africa. It w as from the U.S. that Harpreet Kaur called her fiance to say she was pregnant. Both resolved to marry immediately after her return, and, according to Kamajit Singh, did so in secret at a gurdwara.

Harpreet Kaur and Kamaljit Singh, an image from a videotape.-

In February, their marriage behind them but still hidden from public view, the couple visited a diagnostic centre in Chandigarh's Sector 17. Tests confirmed that Harpreet Kaur was indeed pregnant. When Jagir Kaur was told of this event, Kamaljit Singh cl aims, she said she would help arrange for the couple to have a quiet formal marriage and leave the country as soon as possible. But Harpreet Kaur was moved to Jasdil Mansion, and held incommunicado. On March 19, after being allegedly served a sedative in a cup of tea by Satya Kumari, the Phagwara couple's maid, she was moved to a clinic. There, Dr. Satpal Singh, who has been questioned by the CBI, is alleged to have carried out an abortion, removing a 27-week male foetus. Harpreet Kaur briefly succeeded in escaping from Jasdil Mansion later that month, and told her husband about the sequence of events.

With nowhere to run to, however, Harpreet Kaur was forced back into Jasdil Mansion. CBI investigators believe she was repeatedly beaten by those there, to coerce her into terminating her relationship with Kamaljit Singh. Officials are not saying what the y have learned about the actual circumstances of her death, but two broad possibilities have been considered. The first is that sustained abuse and terror led the young woman to commit suicide. The second is that she was poisoned following her stubborn u nwillingness to disown her husband. Investigators believe the reason why Harpreet Kaur's face was kept covered before her cremation was to conceal severe bruises on her face and neck. Media photographers at the cremation were not allowed to use their cam eras, a fact which had fuelled suspicion even at that time.

Should Jagir Kaur be finally arrested for her daughter's murder, the political consequences will be dramatic. As SGPC president, she has played a key role in securing Badal's control of the Sikh religious establishment. In recent years, she has been inst rumental in warding off successive attempts by Akal Takht jathedars, the heads of the Sikh faith's supreme source of temporal and spiritual authority, to take control of the SAD politicians. Now, the religious Right smells an opportunity for revenge. Mor e important, the murder has generated widespread public revulsion against Kaur, who as SGPC president holds the Sikh faith's most important institutions in trust. For the Congress (I) and other Opposition forces, notably the SAD's own dissident factions, Harpreet Kaur's murder has provided a vivid emblem of the Badal regime's character.

More important than politics, however, are the larger lessons the murder holds out about society in Punjab, and similar societies still dominated by feudal social values. The most tragic part about Harpreet Kaur's murder is that few of the SGPC president 's many critics would themselves allow their daughters to marry of choice, particularly across caste or religious lines. Sadly, many people in Punjab believe that the young woman deserved death for her defiance of parental authority, and that the executo rs of the deadly deed were merely acting in defence of personal and community honour. While such honour killings have been relatively rare in Punjab, neighbouring Haryana has seen dozens of killings and beatings in recent years of couples who have defied traditional caste boundaries (see 'Caste and kangaroo courts', page 92). While Harpreet Kaur's death is being used as a political instrument, it is yet to provoke any real social introspection or questioning of public morality and values.

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