The period of militancy in Punjab left in its wake immense suffering. The era marks state terrorism by the incumbent Congress regime in its most notorious form. A 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.
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, most of the detainees were interned on the basis of an act that is no longer relevant.
Political Opportunism in the Name of Bandi Singhs
Many political parties and Sikh Panthic (religious) organisations have been raising a demand for release of the Bandi Singhs. 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. A deep research does not bring out any concerted effort in the direction of their release.
The latest in political opportunism is the ongoing Quami Insaaf Morcha that has listed release of Bandi Singhs as the first of its many demands. This group has never raised a voice for the Bandi Singhs, and as such, this sudden interest is indicative of a hidden agenda. There is every reason for the government to investigate the credentials of the Morcha leaders and ensure that there is no involvement of inimical foreign powers.
Myths and Realities of the Issue
Undoubtedly the Bandi Singh issue has the imagination of the people as a case of excessive punishment. There are, however, certain myths that are being perpetrated which need to be countered with the reality on ground.
The first myth is that the Bandi Singhs are interned in an extra judicial manner even after their imprisonment term is over. The reality is that most of those who are still in prison have been served with a life imprisonment sentence and this in the Indian law implies imprisonment for the whole life unless remission is granted by the courts on merit. In some instances of those still in jail even the court cases have not culminated, so, for any government to secure their release under law is very difficult.
The second myth is that the BJP led Government of India is dragging its feet in the release of the Bandi Singhs after having committed to do so in 2019. The reality is that, in the first instance, the incumbent Government had nothing to do with the militancy and consequently the arrest and conviction of the Bandi Singhs. It happened during the Congress regime and the Congress remained in power for much of the time that these Singhs have remained interned. It is, therefore, the Congress that dragged its feet. While the Congress holds a posture of not having any problem with the release of the Bandi Singhs, their senior Member of Parliament from Punjab, Ravneet Singh Bittu who is the grandson of Beant Singh, is contesting the release with all his might. It is quite apparent that the Congress is playing a duplicitous game.
Policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is sensitive about the period of terrorism and insurgency in Punjab. It feels that Punjab, Punjabis and Sikhs have suffered immensely due to the wrong-doings of some vested political interests. Consequently, BJP governments have made a conscious effort to mitigate the suffering of the people of Punjab by whatever means possible.
The incumbent Government of India under the premiership of Shri Narendra Modi has taken a number of affirmative steps to undo the wrongs committed and alleviate the suffering that the people feel. It has opened cases of the Genocide of Sikhs in 1984 and meted out punishment to many offenders, more action is underway. It has removed from a blacklist 350 Sikhs living abroad, who the Congress government kept in virtual exile for their perceived role in the militancy. Now, they can come back to India at will.
Among the many initiatives taken by the government in the aforementioned direction, the release of Bandi Singh’s forms an important element. The Government has expressed a willingness to do whatever is feasible under the law and the Constitution to secure the release of such Sikhs and thus meet the ends of justice.
The Case Presented to Government of India
Against the backdrop of the positivity exhibited by the Government , in 2019, several Sikh religious organisations and local political parties of Punjab (mainly Shiromani Akali Dal) approached the Union Government with a list of interned Bandi Singhs and a request to release them in commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. The Union Government immediately agreed to take appropriate action. On October 11, 2019, the Union government issued a notification, for release of Sikh prisoners as follows:-
- Lal Singh
- Nand Singh
- Subeg Singh
- Devinderpal Singh Bhullar
- Gurdeep Singh Khera.
The Outcome of the Notification
- Lal Singh, Nand Singh and Subeg Singh have since been released
- Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Gurpreet Khera, have not been released despite the Ministry of Home Affairs, on September 29, 2019, informing Chief Secretaries of the concerned states (Delhi and Karnataka) about its decision to give special remission to them.
- The list provided to the centre included the names of three Bandi Singhs – Balbir Singh, Waryam Singh and Harjinder Singh who had already been released.
- 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.
Hence, in effect, the centre had already facilitated the release of seven Bandi Singhs as follows:-
- Lal Singh
- Nand Singh
- Subeg Singh
- Balbir Singh
- Waryam Singh
- Harjinder Singh
- Hardeep Singh
The decision has been welcomed by Sikhs worldwide as a step that would assuage the sentiments of the community.
The Case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar
Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar was involved in a 1993 car bombing in Delhi intended to kill the Congress Youth wing leader Maninderjeet Singh Bitta, after which, in December 1994, he fled to Germany and sought political asylum. His plea was rejected by the German government and in 1995 he was extradited to India.
Upon his return he was arrested, charged for the bombings in Delhi, declared guilty under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of killing nine bystanders and sentenced to death by hanging.
On 31 March 2014, a bench of the Supreme Court commuted Bhullar’s death sentence to life Imprisonment on the grounds of inordinate delay in deciding his mercy petition and the fact that he was afflicted by schizophrenia. The Union Government has also given permission for the release of Bhullar as mentioned above.
The last Sentence Review Board (SRB) by the Aam Aadmi Party led Government of Delhi in which the case of Bhullar came up was held in March 2022. Some SRB members, including Law and Home Secretaries of the Delhi government and a Joint Commissioner of Police, opposed Bhullar’s special remission and early release on the ground that he is a “dreaded terrorist.” The decision was then deferred in order to examine the legal position of the board regarding its call on a matter and whether the issue should be directly placed before the Lt. Governor for a final decision.
If a state has received permission for release of a prisoner from the centre then the SRB becomes a mere formality. It seems that the entire proceedings were stage managed to defer the decision. The Government of Delhi is needlessly delaying the release of Bhullar possibly due to some sensitivities in Punjab where the same party is running the Government.
The Case of Gurdeep Singh Khera
Gurdeep Singh Khera, a resident of Jallupur Khera village near Rayya in Amritsar district was booked under TADA and sentenced to life imprisonment in two different cases registered in 1996, in New Delhi and at Bider in Karnataka.
He remained in Karnataka’s Gulbarga jail from 1990 to June 2015 when, on the initiative of the BJP led Union Government, he was transferred to Central Jail, Amritsar. He got his first parole of 28 days in 2016 and has been given regular relief ever since. In 2017, he married Gurjeet Kaur of Anandpur Sahib while on Parole.
As in the case of Bhullar the Union Government has issued a notification for release of Gurdeep Singh Khera in commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. The Government of Karnataka too has yet not cleared his file.
Beant Singh Assassination Case
The remainder seven, Balwant Singh Rajoana, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Gurmeet Singh, Lakhwinder Singh, Shamsher Singh, Jagtar Singh Tara and Paramjit Singh Behora are involved in the assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh
Balwant Singh Rajoana
Balwant Singh Rajaona was pronounced guilty for the assassination of former 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.
The MHA had said the mercy petition could not be considered as it was filed by another organisation and not Rajoana himself , but the hanging was deferred. Later, in 2019, his death sentence was recommended to be commuted to life imprisonment by the NDA Government. However Union Home Minister Amit Shah has clarified in the Lok Sabha that the death sentence has not been commuted yet. In the latest developments, the petitioner has claimed that the “delay caused by circumstances beyond the prisoners’ control mandates commutation of the death sentence.’ Interestingly, Rajoana has not challenged his conviction or sentence.
To summarise, Rajoana continues to be on death row for more than 26 years now. In order to stop any sort of speculation, it is necessary for the Government to take a clear stand on the case
Jagtar Singh Hawara, Jagtar Singh Tara and Paramjit Singh Behora
On the night of 21-22 January, 2004, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Jagtar Singh Tara and Paramjit Singh Behora along with one more inmate, Devi Singh, escaped from the high security Burail Jail by digging a tunnel under the Jail. This was their third jail break attempt.
Later, Jagtar Singh Hawara was rearrested in Delhi by the special cell of the Delhi Police on July 7, 2005 in the course of its investigation into the incident of blasts in Delhi on 22 May 2005 in which two people were killed.
Paramjit Singh Bheora was arrested on March 23, 2006, by the special cell of the Delhi Police while planning to set up a base in Delhi. The police had traced him after he contacted Harjeet Singh Gill, Babbar Khalsa chief in the US. Four kilograms of RDX, pistols, ammunition and other war like stores were recovered from the party travelling in a stolen car.
Both Hawara and Bheora had revived their links with the terrorist organisation Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) after the jail break which points towards a complete lack of remorse with regard to the brutal terrorist acts that they had been involved in earlier. They are being tried for both murder and sedition.
Jagtar Singh Tara, was arrested from Thailand in 2015 after having been on the run for 11 years on January 7 this year.
Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh
Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh are also in Burail jail undergoing trial for their involvement in the assassination of the former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh.
The names of the persons involved in the Beant Singh assassination case were not included in the list forwarded to the Government of India for release in commemoration of the 550th Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak dev.
The Present Position
The present position can be summarised as follows:-
- Of the nine Bandi Singhs who qualified for remission of punishment in commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, seven have been released and two are pending release.
- For the two Bandi Singhs pending release the Government of India has issued the necessary notification for special remission. The respective state governments need to be approached to expedite the release.
- The two Bandi Singhs pending release have been shifted to jails in Punjab where they can be closer to their families and are being given liberal parole according to law.
- The remaining seven in Jail who are defined as Bandi Singhs by various organisations are undergoing court proceedings for the assassination of former chief minister Beant Singh which is a criminal act. There is not much that the Government of India can do except appealing to the concerned courts to put the case on fast track.
In 2015, when the SAD lost power to the Congress party, 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.
It is accepted that the Sikhs who took the path of militancy in the 1980s and 1990s were not criminals. They were misguided and misled youth who wished to further their political and community beliefs and give a violent 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 be 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 could have been given clemency. Such clemency, however, has to be based on an assurance to live in accordance with constitutional norms and a commitment to abjure violence of any kind.
The incumbent BJP led Union Government has exhibited sensitivity and taken a humanitarian action by facilitating the release of most of the Bandi Singhs on merit and under provisions of the law and the Constitution. Action can be taken to expedite the case of the remainder also. For those who are in jail for an assassination the Government can, at best, request for leniency on humanitarian grounds and give such remission which is in its power as decreed by law. Support to the Government from all parties and institutions that goes beyond politics for a common humanitarian cause can assist in expediting the process