It was a little before 1pm on Sunday when the phone of Sumedh Singh Saini, until then the Punjab Police chief, rang. The message was brief: Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal want to see him.
By then Saini, who is liked and loathed in equal measure, had sensed the end of his 42-month-long innings under the most unforeseen and adverse circumstances.
The meeting lasted 15 minutes but not before Badal Junior, sounding apologetic gave a bear hug to his “trusted friend”. A blunt Saini in turn gave a final piece of advice to the chief minister. “Please don’t succumb to the demand of certain elements, including those in the Cabinet, who are pressuring you to arrest cops allegedly responsible for the Kotkapura firing in which two Sikh youths died. There will be a revolt in the police if this action is taken,” the top cop told Badal Senior, a political source privy to what happened in the run-up to the shunting out of Saini told Hindustan Times.
Another piece of advice to the CM was to prepare the politicians and police for “the radical elements will not rest. They will make every possible effort to create tension between Sikhs and followers of Sirsa Dera Sacha Sauda.”
How it unfolded
When the soon-to-be-ousted Saini settled for the meeting, the chief minister, as a preface, began by referring to their first meeting in 1990 when militancy was still alive in Punjab and the Shiromani Akali Dal was a non-entity.
However, a shrewd Saini cut Badal short, saying: “Today, please let me speak first and there is no need to feel bad. Please take it easy.”
Saini urged Badal to cross-check with Sukhbir that on October 21 and October 16, he had himself told the deputy CM that “now I must move out as DGP” given the talk in Akali circles that his removal would cool tempers of radical elements.
Saini went a step ahead and told the CM and his deputy that besides his removal as the DGP, he was even ready for “suspension” if the step could arrest the unrest across the state.
‘Shunt out Saini’
The radicals had been seeking Saini’s scalp after the Kotkapura fiasco on October 14. A section of Cabinet ministers, including an “extra-constitutional authority” in the Badal clan, backed by bureaucrats loyal to Punjab’s ruling family, had been pushing to “get rid of Saini”. They believed he was to blame for the unrest.
The very mention of Saini’s name evokes extreme reactions. Reviled by his critics, who see him as a cold-blooded violator of human rights during the militancy days, the DGP finally emerged as the fall guy.
In fact, one minister was so keen to see Saini out that he even persuaded pro-Saini leaders such as Balwinder Singh Bhunder and Sikandar Singh Maluka to mount pressure on the chief minister to “shunt out Saini and save Punjab”.
Pressure on Sukhbir
The pressure was mounting on Sukhbir, who had been sticking his neck out to back Saini. The DGP’s transfer is seen as an attempt by the Akali government to blunt the radicals’ attack, mollify Sikhs and reconnect with the Panthic constituency. Saini’s removal is part of a larger damage-control strategy and an attempt to regain control of the situation that has been spinning out of control in the state.
The countdown to Saini’s exit began after the two Sikh youths were killed in the police firing at Kotkapura. Next, the government forced the police chief to withdraw cases against the protesters and book cops responsible for the shooting.
Top political sources say a key cabinet minister of the Badal family, who calls the shots in the police department even though Sukhbir holds the home portfolio, had been pressuring the chief minister to ask Saini to register a case against the cops. However, Saini dug in his heels, annoying the Badals.
Sukhbir, who seems to have lost control over the party, reportedly asked Saini: “Please swallow your pride for my sake and register the case against the cops to ease the pressure.” The case was registered.
Now the powerful Cabinet minister and his coterie have begun asking for the arrest of the cops who have been booked for murder in the Kotkapura firing.
The message was clear for Saini: Either fall in or fall out.