Brand of Shame

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Twenty-four years after four women from Punjab were branded on their foreheads as pickpockets, the guilty policemen have got away with a mild punishment by a CBI court

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

THE 1975 blockbuster Deewar catapulted Amitabh Bachchan to stardom and immortalized some of his dialogues from the film. Among these were: “Jao jaake pehle us aadmi ka sign lekar aao, jisne mere haath par yeh likh diya…(Mera baap chor hai).”

Bachchan had the benefit of being a hero and his director, Yash Chopra, made sure that he generated huge public sympathy with the disclosure about how his arm was tattooed with the words “mera baap chor hai (My father is a thief)” and how it impacted his life. In real life people are not so lucky.

Eighteen years after the film’s release, a few policemen from Punjab appeared to have taken all the wrong lessons from the film. They caught hold of four women, whom they suspected of being pickpockets, and tattooed the word jebkatari (pickpocket) on their foreheads. The crudely inscribed tattoo on these women, who belonged to the Sansi tribe which is considered a criminal one, ruined their lives and those of their children but failed to evoke the kind of public sympathy the case deserved.

The policemen from Punjab caught hold of women and tattooed the word jebkatari (pickpocket) on their foreheads. The women belonged to the Sansi tribe.

Now, 24 years after the gruesome incident at Rambagh police station in Amritsar, a CBI special court has awarded three year’s rigorous imprisonment (RI) to Superintendent of Police Sukhdev Singh Chinna and Sub-Inspector Narender Singh Malhi who was then the Station House Officer (SHO) of Rambagh police station. The court of CBI judge Baljinder Singh also awarded one year RI to ASI Kanwaljit Singh. They denied that they had branded the foreheads of the women and said that it was done by the women’s neighbors who were fed up by their habit of pickpocketing.

MILD CHARGES

The policemen were prosecuted by the CBI under Sections 326 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt), 342 (Wrongful confinement), 346 (Wrongful confinement in secret) and 34 (Common intention) of the IPC. Obviously the charges slapped against them were too mild, which helped them get away with a comparatively minor penalty. The victims neither had the means nor the support to pursue the case, argued a CBI lawyer.

Two of my married daughters faced divorce while no one was prepared to marry my third daughter.—Parmeshwari Devi, one of the branded victims

As per the victims, they had a spat with some local policemen over the running of an illegal distillery. This annoyed the then SP and SHO. The women were caught on December 8, 1993, from near the Golden Temple and taken to the police station. They alleged that Malhi, the then SHO, ordered some policemen to tie them to chairs and wrote the word “jebkatari” on their foreheads with a black pen. He then ordered his colleagues to get a machine used for inscribing utensils and got the word branded on their foreheads.

After about a week, they were presented before a local court in Amritsar with their foreheads covered with cloth but one of the women displayed the tattoo in the court. Though the court did not take cognizance, the local media picked up the story and highlighted the atrocity committed on the women who were then in their 30s.

HC ORDER

The National Human Rights Commission took up the case and approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court on January 17, 1994. It sought compensation for the victims as well as a CBI investigation into the incident. The High Court subsequently ordered a compensation of Rs 50,000 each towards the cost of plastic surgery for removal of the tattoo on their foreheads. It also ordered a CBI investigation which later took place. The case lingered for 24 years and the perpetrators of the atrocity finally got away with a comparatively mild sentence.

In the meantime, the trauma that the victims underwent not only affected them, but their children and extended families as well. It took them nearly one-and-a-half years to undergo surgery for removal of the tattoo but the scars remain even today.

One of the victims, Parmeshwari Devi, 65, says her family life was disrupted after the word jebkatri was inscribed on her forehead. “Two of my married daughters faced divorce while no one was prepared to marry my third daughter.” She said that her only son, who was humiliated by his peers, died of depression. She admits that she was involved in petty crimes but asks whether it is justified for anyone to brand her forehead.

The policemen were prosecuted under Sections 326, 342, 346 and 34. The charges slapped against them were too mild.

Another victim, Mohinder Kaur, 64, said the incident still haunts her. She recalls that shopkeepers would tease her and all her neighbors would keep away from her and her children. She said her husband died due to the humiliation meted to the family. Her son, 33-year-old Pappu, who was in Class VI when the incident happened, recalled that he was always the suspect if anyone lost a stationery item or pencil in his classroom. He said his classmates made fun of him and, later in life, police from neighboring areas would pick him up for questioning if any petty crime took place in the area.

Although the victims have expressed shock and dismay at the courts letting off the accused so lightly, there is little likelihood of the sentence getting challenged. The victims are too poor to hire a lawyer to challenge the verdict and the CBI has shown no inclination of taking it up further. No human rights organization has come forward to pursue the case. Some newspapers in the region did carry a few stories in the inside pages but the story was completely ignored by the electronic media. It would not have fetched any TRPs as it was not related to the national capital, the middle class or celebrities.

Unlike the character played by Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar, the victims will have to forget about the incident and learn to live with it.

Lead picture: The three women who were branded pickpockets went through severe trauma that affected their families as well. Photo Courtesy: Facebook