The nine prominent Bandi Singhs
The period of militancy in Punjab left in its wake immense suffering. The era marks the concept of state terrorism in its most notorious form. The most heart-rending story is that of the “Bandi Singhs.” These are Sikhs of Punjab who were arrested for alleged involvement in militant activities, charged under law, found guilty of various crimes and meted out sentences ranging from death to different terms of imprisonment.
These Sikhs were not criminals, they were misguided and misled youth who opted for militancy to further their political and community beliefs and give vent to their frustration on being given a raw deal by the Government of the day. Undoubtedly, their means were not correct and they deserved punishment, but, the same should have been of a nature that is given to political dissidents, not criminals. Also, once the period of militancy waned and gradually petered out, these Bandi Singhs too should have been given clemency, based on good behaviour, assurance to live in accordance with constitutional norms and a commitment to abjure violence of any kind. Very sadly, they were and continue to be treated like common criminals.
Presently, most continue to remain in jails even though they have, since long, completed their prison terms; they are now in advanced age, posing no threat of indulging in violent activity and in need of family support to look after their physical needs.
A movement for release of the Bandi Singhs has been going on for a long time now. Many political parties and Sikh Panthic (religious) organisations have been raising this demand from time to time. The efforts, however, have a sheen of political opportunism since they gain momentum for political ends and peter down once the political objective is achieved, only to be resurrected again.
This lack of interest is quite evident from the fact that a deep search on the internet does not bring out any concerted effort in the direction of their release. The organisations (religious, political, social) that have, from time to time, approached the Union Government with requests for release of the Bandi Singhs have provided incomplete and factually incorrect details, for which reason, the government’s response has not been holistic and all-encompassing.
The intention of this article is to represent the case of all Bandi Singhs but to ensure ease of understanding the most significant cases are being addressed first. If these cases find closure then the path for identification of others and their release will automatically open up.
The prominent Sikhs involved are identified as follows:-
- Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh were tried by the court of the Union Territory of Chandigarh. They were convicted and are presently in the Burail Jail.
- Gurdeep Singh Khera was held guilty by a court in Karnataka, he was lodged in a jail in the state earlier but is now reported to be in Amritsar jail.
- Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar was held guilty by a Delhi court, he remained in Tihar jail and is now reported to be in Nabha jail.
- Balwant Singh Rajaona was pronounced guilty for the assassination of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995. He was scheduled to be hanged on March 31, 2012. However, the execution was stayed on 28 March, 2012, by the then UPA government on the basis of a mercy petition to the President of India filed by the SGPC. Later, in 2019, his death sentence was recommended to be commuted to life imprisonment by the NDA Government. The Supreme Court on May 2, 2022, directed the Centre to decide in two months on the petition. He is presently in Patiala jail.
- Jagtar Singh Hawara was also found guilty of being a conspirator in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh and is presently in Tihar jail, Delhi. Hawara is also a high level member of Babbar Khalsa and has been declared Jathedar Akal Takth by the rival SAD (Amritsar) group. The declaration has been contested by the SGPC.
- Paramjit Singh Behora and Jagtar Singh Tara are in Burail jail, Chandigarh.
- Lal Singh was held guilty by a court in Gujarat and lodged in Nabha jail. He has since been released
- Waryam Singh was held guilty by a court in Uttar Pradesh and he is in Bareilly jail. He has since been released
Most had been convicted under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) that was first enacted in 1985, basically to tackle terrorism in Punjab. Since the act had a sunset provision of two years, it lapsed a number of times before being done away with in 1995 due to increasing public dissent. So, the detainees are interned on the basis of an act that is no longer relevant.
In the aforementioned cases there are contradictory reports regarding their status which again points to the inability of the handling organisations in creating a single point availability of all data which would assist the Union and state governments in decision making and also motivate media personnel, social organisations etc in taking up the case.
In 2019, several Sikh organisations approached the Union Government with a request to release eight/nine prominent Sikhs (most from among the list given above)in commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The Union Government immediately agreed to grant a special dispensation to the mentioned Sikh interns and also agreed to commute the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajaona to life imprisonment through a special remission.
Bandi Singh Rihai Committee
On October 11, 2019, the Union government issued a notification, for release of eight Sikh prisoners and took up with the Supreme Court the matter of commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment for Rajoana. According to this notification, the eight to be released were Lal Singh, Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh, Waryam Singh, Harjinder Singh, Devinderpal Singh Bhullar and Gurdeep Singh Khera. The decision was welcomed by Sikhs worldwide as a step that would assuage the sentiments of the community. A communication is believed to have been sent by the Union Government to the concerned states.
As regards the notification the following was noticed:-
- Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh, Harjinder Singh were not mentioned in the list of prominent interns (mentioned above) that the Sikh organisations are said to have handed over to the government.
- Balbir Singh, Waryam Singh and Harjinder Singh were wrongly mentioned as they were already out by then.
- Also, not in the list were Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Paramjit Singh Behora and Jagtar Singh Tara.
While this process was going on the world started getting into the grip of the COVID pandemic in December, 2019. Total lock-outs were declared in India in March 2020. In the midst of the COVID Pandemic , a massive political wave in the form of the Farm Agitation started gaining momentum in mid-2020. Then came the state assembly elections in February 2022 which occupied political time and space from mid-2021 onwards. In this time period only lip service was paid to the issue of release of Bandi Singhs.
Now that the elections are over and so is the COVID threat and the Farm Agitation, the issue is gaining centre stage once again. This attitude reinforces the perception that most political parties and religious organisations look at this matter more from the political prism than the humanitarian matter that it actually is.
On being asked by the media about the status of the Bandi Singhs on February, 11, 2022, Shri Gajendra Singh Shekhawat , Union Jal Shakti Minister and election in-charge for BJP in Punjab assured a “positive development” from the Centre on Sikh ‘political prisoners’ who were to be released as per a 2019 Union government notification.
In order to ensure ease of understanding the present situation is summarised below:-
- A total of 15 Bandi Singhs formed part of various lists floated by the Government and petitioners in 2019. They are Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh, Gurdeep Singh Khera, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, Lal Singh, Waryam Singh, Balwant Singh Rajaona, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Paramjit Singh Behora, Jagtar Singh alias Tara, Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh and Harjinder Singh.
- In due legal process and through the notification of the Union Government the six (06) Bandi Singhs released from 2019 to date are Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh, Harjinder Singh, Lal Singh,
- The death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana continues to be sub-judice with the Supreme Court.
- The Union Government has committed to process the case of two (02) Bandi Singhs Devinderpal Singh Bhullar and Gurdeep Singh Khera
- The remaining six (06) whose future is not known are, Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Paramjit Singh Behora and Jagtar Singh Tara.
- There is one more name, Hardeep Singh, that figured in a list provided by Bapu Surat Singh Sangharsh Committee. On December 25, 2015, the Punjab government released him from Amritsar jail.
In 2015, when the SAD lost power to the Congress party in the centre the SGPC came up with its own list of 120 Sikhs “languishing in various jails of the country despite having completed their prison term”. The then DGP Punjab Police, Sumedh Singh Saini, stated that only two persons on that list had completed their minimum sentence and cited a Supreme Court ruling of July 9, 2014 that no convict could be released prematurely by any state government.
Over and above the aforementioned, there is another list prepared by Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, Advocate District Courts, Ludhiana, doing the rounds in which 24 Sikhs are mentioned as political prisoners serving life sentences. Ten are among the names mentioned above. The remaining 14 are:-
- Daya Singh Lahoria, released on permanent parole since 13 December 2021. He has one case of 1987 pending in Ludhiana and is a fit case for permanent release.
- Harnek Singh Bhapp released on permanent parole since 12 December 2021. With no case pending he is a fit case for permanent release.
- Dayal Singh lodged in District Jail, Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh) for the last nine years with appeal pending in Supreme Court.
- Sucha Singh lodged in District Jail, Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh) for the last nine years with appeal pending in Supreme Court.
- Jagmohan Singh lodged in Central Jail, Jodhpur, Rajasthan for the last nine years with appeal pending in Rajasthan High Court (Jodhpur Bench).
- Kulvir Singh lodged in Central Jail, Ferozepur (Punjab) with no case pending
- Ranjit Singh lodged in Central Jail, Faridkot (Punjab) for the last five years. He has one case pending against him at Nabha under Section 52, that is bail-able.
- Surjit Singh lodged in Central Jail, Faridkot (Punjab) for the last five years. He has one case pending against him at Nabha under Section 52, that is bail-able.
- Arwinder Singh lodged in Central Jail, Faridkot (Punjab) for the last five years. He has one case pending against him at Nabha under Section 52, that is bail-able.
- Jaspreet Singh lodged in Central Jail, Ludhiana for the last five years. He has one case pending against him under Section 302 (IPC) pending at Patiala.
- Gurpreet Singh lodged in Central Jail, Faridkot (Punjab) for the last five years. He has one case pending against him at Nabha under Section 52, that is bail-able.
- Gurpreet Singh @ Gopi lodged in Central Jail, Ferozepur (Punjab) for the last five years with one case pending.
- Ashok Kumar lodged in Central Jail, Ferozepur (Punjab) for the last five years with one case pending.
- Jaswant Singh lodged in Central Jail, Muktsar (Punjab) for last five years with one case pending.
On 15 November 2014 Jaspal Singh Manjhpur had made public a detailed list of 80 detained political prisoners that included one case of death sentence, 17 cases of life sentences and 67 others who still had cases pending against them. In the interim, some have been freed and others are out on parole but the matter continues to remain unresolved in its entirety. His present list of approximately 25 may be the latest data.
Bandi Singh Morcha
Apart from Jaspal Singh Manjhpur there are many social workers and committed Sikhs who are selflessly working for this cause. Particular mention here can be made to Gurbaksh Singh, who has served a jail term himself on terror charges and Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, Both have not only approached authorities but also held a series of hunger strikes to press home the criticality of the issue. In their interactions they have specially mentioned Gurmeet Singh, Lakhwinder Singh and Shamsher Singh. All three were sent to prison for19 years and they have completed 22 years in jail, All formalities for their release have been completed so the government is committed to release them. It becomes necessary here for the government at both the centre and the state level to give reasons for the delay in their release.
In December, 2021, in the prelude to the State assembly elections, Sikh Diaspora once again stepped up their efforts to press upon the New Delhi to repeal the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana and release all Sikh prisoner’s, who have served more than twenty years in prison. They mostly spoke of Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Jagtar Singh Tara, Balwant Singh Rajoana, Gurmeet Singh, Lakhwinder Singh, Shamsher Singh, Gurdeep Singh and Paramjit Singh.
Legal experts say that while the Supreme Court has stayed the remission (or part relief) by state governments in the case of convicts sentenced to life terms, there are still two options available before the Punjab government in case it wants to extend some relief to prisoners. These are pardon or suspension of punishment (by way of parole or furlough).
That life imprisonment means till the death of the prisoner is clear, but different state governments have their own norms for premature release of prisoners who have completed 14, 18 or 20 years’ sentences. The state can recommend suspension of punishment or straightaway pardon a convict by taking the case to the Governor. In case of prisoners of other states, the state can get the sentence revoked by the President of India via the Union Home Ministry under provisions of Article 72 of the Constitution.
Since most of the Bandi Singhs have been interned for nearly three decades their cases are no longer sub-judice and yet they are in jail. Even their families have given up on them. Thus, the process of release is not being addressed adequately.
Sadly, successive governments have paid only lip service to the unfortunate plight of Bandi Singhs, Even the number of Sikhs in various prisons is not clearly known. The Union Government would be well within its rights to take a humanitarian viewpoint, it would be best for the Union Government to do so unilaterally by collecting all data centrally through its own resources and taking merit based decisions.
(Jaibans Singh is a social worker and columnist)
Note – The aforementioned details have been taken from open source information, they may not be entirely correct and updated. The intention is to create awareness about the sensitive issue.