Justice Ajit Singh Bains, the “people’s judge” of Punjab, passed away on February 11, months short of his centennial birthday. He had witnessed and influenced critical moments in Punjab’s history since colonial times and left an indelible mark during the decade of the bloodiest conflict in the state: standing for the people and against the will of various politicians in power, refusing to kowtow, even behind bars himself.

Last week, my new book on human rights defenders, Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict :The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, was published in India. Justice Bains is one of its central protagonists, seen on the cover in a grey beard: his decades of human rights work had followed on the immediate heels of his retirement from the Punjab and Haryana High Court. His tenure as a citizen-activist after is what is most prominently remembered today.

The future justice hailed from a well-known family of freedom fighters in Hoshiarpur –nestled in the regional heart of Doaba, two-waters, as the land bracketed between the Beas and Sutlej rivers is known.

His father Gurbaksh Singh, my book explains, “looked for other outlets that would walk the Congress’s talk. By 1946… he had become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of India”.

Raised in large part by his mother, Amrit Kaur, Bains went to Lucknow to study law and eventually returned to partitioned Punjab to join Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar, as a lecturer in 1950. He was dismissed within three years for supporting a group of leftist students in the college. While he came to be offered a position in civil service, Bains “thought it was now time for me to go back home to Hoshiarpur, and perhaps do something with my law degree!”

He eventually became a High Court judge. By the time Bains retired from the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 1983, Punjab had been declared a “disturbed area” amidst Center-State tensions and increased Sikh protests for federalism, and brought under President’s Rule.

The events of 1984 with the Indian Army storming the Darbar Sahib (or Golden Temple, to foreigners) and other gurdwaras across Punjab in June, and the pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi and other places across India after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in November 1984, brought about a sea change in the man earlier known as a “communist judge.”

Outwardly, he stopped trimming his beard. Inwardly, he began a private journey: “I began studying the lives of all Sikh Gurus…Baba Nanak had called Emperor Babar a Jaabar, a Tyrant, and was jailed too. Through his life, he openly scorned the rich and power hungry and sided with the poor and hungry. So the things the Comrades popularized later, Guru Nanak had already said!”

While extrajudicial killings were accelerating in the Punjab countryside under another army operation called Operation Woodrose, those whisked away during 1984 were still in jail. Justice Bains became the unlikely north star for these political prisoners through his work in the 1985 Bains Committee, detailed in the excerpt below.

In the years that followed, he championed the causes of those in far-flung villages and towns: joining protests outside police stations when Sikhs boys were abducted without process; attending and speaking at bhogs of those killed in police custody; interviewing women abused in police stations and respectfully listening to their self-selected euphemisms about sexual violence; working alongside his closest colleagues in conducting human rights fact-finding missions across Punjab and beyond, including when Sikh students were singled out and killed in an Engineering College in Bidar, Karnataka.

In 1988, he wrote Siege of the Sikhs, one of the first accounts that revealed information that was hard to find from the cordoned off Punjab countryside.

In 1992, Bains was kidnapped from outside the elite Chandigarh Golf Club and joined the multitudes of Punjab’s “disappeared.” He would be charged under the notorious law he had protested countless times, TADA, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.

There was an outpouring of support – local, national, international – for Bains. An April 18, 1992, report released by the Delhi-based Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab highlighted clear evidence of foul play in the case against Bains.

Protesting against the detention of Bains, the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar went on strike from April 6, joined by several other bar associations across Punjab. On May 8, 1992, the lawyers called off their strike, following Bains’s directive from jail that a working bar association was especially necessary in the state, given the multitudes pleading for human rights relief.

He knew his privilege had saved his own life. He would be credited with saving countless more lives after his release from jail, always operating under his unflinching belief in human rights for all.

Here is an extract related to Bains from my book.

The newly elected Chief Minister of Punjab [in 1985], SS Barnala, decided to quickly appoint a judicial committee on the volatile issue of political prisoners. The communist-leaning retired Justice Bains had never been known as a Sikh judge. He was at that time the safe choice for committee chair.

Rajvinder remembers, “Daddy told us one day that Barnala came to him and said ‘Let’s appoint a committee to look into these detainees.’ And Daddy said something like ‘Why do you want to appoint a committee – go free them!’”

The already anxious and uninspired Barnala could hardly throw open jail doors.

“Barnala told Daddy, ‘No, we are going to have to appoint a committee and you can recommend whatever, we’ll keep you for the term.’ And what they were hoping was that it will take time, like all committees, three to four years and then the storm will pass. And they would coolly, slowly move along, releasing a few prisoners at a time, strategically. This way, Barnala wanted to get the goodwill of the Sikhs, without the anger of the central government,” says Rajvinder. “But what Barnala had not bargained for, was the breakneck speed at which Daddy proceeded.”

Much more had changed in Justice Bains beyond the longer strands in the beard he had always trimmed short before 1984.

His impatience and impertinence were heightened by the time the four-member Bains Committee convened in the first week of October 1985 to “review the cases of convicts, persons facing trial and all persons under investigation in connection with the political agitation from 1981 to September 1985.”

“The other members were Mr. Sabharwal, a senior advocate of Jalandhar, Mr. Gurdarshan Singh Grewal, advocate general, and Mr. Midha, joint director of prosecution,” says Justice Bains. “There was, however, little expectation that the committee would be doing anything anytime soon. So there was no steno, no office, no staff, no timeline. So, I did it all here.”

Rajvinder elaborates. “The committee went into action on day one. We had this house. And Daddy just found his own steno. It was someone who had a government job otherwise, but volunteered to do this for free on the side. So everything was set.”

Justice Bains’s letter to Punjab & Haryana High Court Bar Association. Credit: Bains private archives.

Writing in 1987, Justice Bains noted:

“[The committee] started from Amritsar district, since most of the detainees and persons affected were from there. It called on the police officials, along with the District Attorney, to produce the materials implicating those who were under trial or under investigation. Likewise it reviewed the cases of all the detainees belonging to the other districts and completed the bulk of the review in about a month’s time. It recommended the release of about 6000 detainees against whom there was no credible evidence, ruling that they were falsely implicated. …

“The police officials who appeared before the committee admitted that most cases were trumped up – especially the alleged encounters. Even in serious cases of murder, like the murder of Harbans Lal Khanna in Amritsar the month before Operation Blue Star, the officials admitted that the persons arrested were innocent.”

The committee travelled to Punjab’s jails. “Once, I also went inside,” says Rajvinder who was often the committee’s volunteer driver. “To a Hoshiarpur jail. And Daddy told the jail superintendent to bring out all persons lodged under TADA-shadaa, he said. And so they brought them all out and collected them in a big hall and Daddy talked to all of them individually too. He had no business going to the jail, but all complied with his orders and no one stopped him. He was behaving as he had been used to, like a judge, because he had only recently retired. This way, he got direct input from the inmates. I don’t remember the stories, though most of these were from Bluestar and Woodrose.”

Former Bains Committee member and Punjab Advocate General Grewal notes, “We visited at least seven or eight jails and saw the miserable situation. I remember Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Patiala, Amritsar, Jalandhar. We also told the boys, ‘You behave, and we’ll work on getting you released from this false imprisonment.’”

The committee then submitted its final report on January 15, 1986. “In just two and a half hours. I mean, months!” Rajvinder laughs. “Though really, in the Indian system that is like two and a half hours in fact!”

The Bains Committee’s recommendations were unanimous. “In not a single case was there a difference of opinion,” wrote Justice Bains. “The committee came to the conclusion that the origin of the violence was State oppression, that the police force itself started killing innocent youth in fake encounters, giving rise to retaliation by some of the youth who took to arms.”

Says Rajvinder, “And now various officials started protesting so Mr. Barnala had to set another committee of police officers, and they went through the recommendations, adding delay. And then Daddy went public, saying ‘the Chief Minister had promised no one would lord over my committee and yet they are.’”

While the Bains Committee report was never made public, the Barnala government had to release 3,000 detainees due to the publicised debate.

“Justice Bains became a household name by the end of 1985, when I probably first met him” says Baljit Kaur. He was now the “People’s Judge,” and letters and visitors from across Punjab arrived at the Bains home, hoping for relief. Justice Bains convened a human rights group. 

He says, “There was no State Human Rights Commission at that time or no human rights body even at the central level. [Inderjit Singh] Jaijee saab was an MLA then, but Bibi Baljit became our secretary, and General Narinder Singh our vice president, and Bibi Sukhjeet Kaur, and many, many other people were part of that first human rights organization in Punjab.” Names he cannot now recall. Altogether, they constituted a miniscule percentage of similarly situated, relatively elite Sikhs.

“You know, from before Bluestar, I had many friends, some in the police also,” remarks Baljit Kaur. “As I started traveling and doing this work, they would say, ‘What are you doing? You will get killed!’ And soon they began saying, ‘What was your recent trip like?’ And I would say, ‘Very successful.’ And just smile.” She breaks into a soft laugh, gracefully recrosses her legs. “I think some people felt their own guilt at not doing anything, others hoped they were safe and didn’t want attention. From our social circle, people naturally backed away. And later, my social life, really, became my colleagues in this work.”

Mallika Kaur is a writer and lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia and teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law.