Tarna Dal

By Jaideep Sarin, Chandigarh, Mar 12, 2004 (IANS):

Out on bail hours after his arrest earlier this week, a leader of a religious sect in Punjab widely seen as a dreaded criminal has launched a counter-attack on his opponents threatening to take them on physically.

Ajit Singh Phoola, who heads the Tarna Dal, a sect of religious Nihang Sikhs, was arrested Sunday, capping what was seen as a reign of terror in the state's border areas.

However, he was released only a few hours later and has reportedly been on the rampage since then. With the ruling Congress government deliberately looking the other way, Phoola and his gang of armed supporters have started intimidating villagers again.

Armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons including machine guns, carbines, AK-47 and AK-56 assault rifles, pistols, revolvers and other guns, Phoola and company have reportedly again laid siege to two Sikh temples.

Phoola, who helped police eliminate many terrorists during the decade long terrorism in Punjab in the 1980s and 90s, allegedly enjoys the patronage of senior officers in state police.

The names of two inspector generals of police, Sumedh Singh Saini and Suresh Arora, appeared in newspapers last year as Phoola's brothers in obituary advertisements of his father.

Saini and Arora were at the forefront in the fight against terrorism in the state.

The Tarna Dal has become notorious for its illegal activities in Punjab.

Allegations of murder, abduction, intimidation and trespassing are mounting against Phoola.

Many residents in village Phoola near the border city of Amritsar had joined an agitation against the Nihang leader and the reign of terror let loose by him.

Though police said it has recovered all weapons from Phoola and withdrawn armed police protection, his supporters are still heavily armed.

Rise in tension in the village has led to district authorities imposing prohibitory orders to curb any violence.

His release under controversial circumstances within hours of his arrest by police left people baffled.

The release was allowed by a junior police officer without even getting court orders. The case against Phoola was itself made mild to facilitate his release, sources said.

G.S. Sandhu, who formed a Phoola eviction committee, said he had lost all faith in the Punjab Police. "They are blatantly trying to shield Phoola and his terror activities."

State police chief A.A. Siddiqui had ordered action against Phoola and recovery of sanctioned weapons. The Nihang, however, still walks freely with patronage of police officers at other levels.

Police in Punjab's various districts had officially issued him 37 deadly weapons.

These included a light machine gun, a general purpose machine gun, AK-47 and AK-56 assault rifles, several self loading rifles, .303 bore rifles, carbines, pistols, revolvers and .30 bore Springfield guns.