January 26 violence: Soldiers, farmers... and now suspects
Until Saturday, the families of the two men, Gurmukh Singh and Jeet Singh, did not know each other despite them having served the army in the same regiment -- the Sikh Regiment -- for over two decades.
They live 120km apart in two villages of Punjab, and each owns a one-acre plot of farmland on which they grow wheat. Once soldiers in the Indian Army, the farmers now carry the tag of suspected criminals, having been picked out by Delhi Police as participants in the violence that marred Republic Day celebrations in the Capital.
Until Saturday, the families of the two men, Gurmukh Singh and Jeet Singh, did not know each other despite them having served the army in the same regiment -- the Sikh Regiment -- for over two decades. Gurmukh Singh retired in 1984, Jeet Singh in 1989 after nearly two decades in the force.
Events in Delhi on January 26, when a tractor rally by protesting farmers took a violent turn and chaos reigned on the streets of the Capital and at the Red Fort, brought them together.
The two men are now united by FIR No. 31 registered at the Mukherjee Nagar police station for one act of violence that they were allegedly part of; they have been accused of assaulting police personnel and preventing them from performing their duty.
Lodged in Delhi’s Tihar jail, Gurmukh Singh,80, and Jeet Singh, 70, are the oldest among the 122 people arrested by Delhi Police for the violence. Gurmukh Singh is also the oldest prisoner within the high-security jail.
Tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping at Delhi borders for over two months, demanding a complete roll back of the three agricultural laws. The farm unions say there are more than 150,000 farmers from Punjab. Kulwant Singh Sandhu of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha said several hundred army veterans are among them.
When a team from HT visited the homes of the two men in Punjab on Wednesday, the families did not deny the two were part of the protest, but said they could not have attacked or stopped the police from doing their duty.
“My brother has fought in the 1965 India-Pakistan war. He served the army for more than two decades. He would not have attacked men in uniform,” said Gurmukh’s younger brother Gurcharan Singh outside his house in Fatehgarh Sahib.
On Saturday morning, a neighbour called one of the village elders with the news “Fauji fadya gaya (soldier has been arrested”. Gurmukh is now a local supporter of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann faction) and is known as Fauji in his Samaspur Singha village.
A video clip of Fauji, who retired as a subedar naik, leading a march- past of ex-servicemen near Singhu on the Delhi border on the morning of January 26, is also being widely circulated on the WhatsApp group of the villagers.
Some say Gurmukh may have taken part in the rioting. Others believe the police saw him as a leader among the ex-servicemen protesting against the laws and arrested him.
“He was an aggressive man for his age. Maybe this was because of his years in the army. We have been told that he fought against Pakistan and China. He joined politics and was a supporter of SAD (Maan). But considering his age, the police should have released him,” said a neighbour who did not wish to be named.
Gurmukh Singh’s family members said he had left for Singhu about a month ago. He told his family he would only return once the farm laws were repealed.
“A man who fought for the country is now behind bars. But we are not feeling sad or bad. This is Punjab. If one family member dies in the line of duty, arrested while protesting in this case, another will go and take his place,” his brother Gurcharan Singh said.
In Sangrur district’s Khanouri Kalan village, retired lance naik Jeet Singh’s house has now become the new haunt of villagers. It is at this two-storey house that villagers come together to discuss the case of Punjab residents arrested by Delhi Police.
Jeet Singh’s wife, Balbir Kaur, 65, prepares tea for the young men from the village who have been coming to her house since the news of her husband’s arrest.
“I am sure, the other elderly soldier’s (Gurmukh Singh’s) wife must also be busy dealing with such charged-up youngsters at her house,” Kaur said in her kitchen on the first floor.
Outside the kitchen, a group of young men have gathered and are standing on the stairs. They claim they are here to tell Kaur that they are proud of her husband and would willingly join the protesters.
Jeet Singh’s family too heard the news of his arrest on Saturday. A jail officer called Jeet Singh’s son Veer and explained that his father had been booked .
“My father served the army till his retirement in 1989. At a time during the 80s when many (Sikh) soldiers had deserted the army (after Operation Bluestar in 1984), my father proudly served the country. Yes, he was there at the protest, but he could not have indulged in violence,” said Veer Singh, who works at the local sub-divisional magistrate’s office as a guard.
Veer Singh’s friend, a clerk at the SDM’s office, who asked not to be named because he is a government official, said: “ We are ready. We will work for the Punjab government from Monday to Friday. But weekends will be spent in Delhi.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the villagers held a panchayat to encourage more young people to join their elders in the protests on the Delhi borders.
Advocate Amar Veer Bhulkar, one of the lawyers who visited Tihar jail to meet the arrested protesters and is helping them fight the cases pro bono, said: “Two elderly men aged 80 and 70, who may physically not be able to assault anyone and yet (being) behind bars for alleged assault, is a travesty of justice. We have formed a team of lawyers in each district and will fight their cases right till the end.”
Deputy commissioner of police (north west) Urvija Goel did not respond to requests for comment.
The two families are not worried about the police case. They say they will join the other farmers at Singhu this weekend and won’t return until the government repeals the three laws.
But one thing upsets them. Veer Singh said: “Our fathers fought for this country in their youth. The government disrespected them by putting such veterans in jail. This doesn’t hurt much. We are a race of fighters but when the media calls us Khalistanis and terrorists, imagine the feeling.”