Demands for releasing Sikh prisoners, Bandi Singhs as they are widely known, who are in jail for the past over three decades on charges of supporting a movement for the separate Sikh state of Khalistan or in militant activities in the middle of the 80s and later are getting shriller in Indian Punjab. More so, after Indian Supreme Court allowed the release of six Tamil convicts serving life imprisonment for the murder of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the western state of Gujarat cancelling the sentence of all 11 accused involved in the Bilkis Bano rape case during the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002.
The release of Sikh prisoners became an election issue in Delhi’s civic polls, where Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) were racing to take control of these bodies with an eye on Sikh voters.
In 2015, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) — a centre-right Sikh-centric political party – released a list of 120 prisoners, who have spent a large part of their lives inside jails. They included Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar who was convicted in the 1993 Delhi bomb blast and Balwant Singh Rajaona involved in the assassination of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995. Both of them were sentenced to death like the Tamil convicts and later sentences were commuted to life.
In 2001, Bhullar was convicted and awarded a death sentence by a Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) special court. While the death sentence is confirmed by the High Court, in the case of TADA, the appeal was allowed only in the Supreme Court. Interestingly, when his case came before a three-judge bench of the apex court, one learned judge acquitted him, saying all charges against him were manipulated by the police and there was no shred of evidence. But the two other judges found him guilty and upheld the trial court order. This case, where supreme court judges can hold two different and extreme views, based on the same evidence and in a case involving the life of an individual, is now taught in various law schools.
His mercy petition was later accepted by the President of India. In 2014, the Supreme Court commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment applying the principle that inordinate and unexplained delay in disposal of mercy petition by the President of India and mental illness as grounds for commutation. Bhullar who is 57 now is not in sound mental health. He has been in jail for three decades.
“His crime has been established, his punishment complete, why then is there a delay in setting him free? Bhullar in his current mental state should be released on humanitarian grounds,” said a professor from Punjab University, Chandigarh who had himself been a Khalistani activist during his youth.
Rajaona was scheduled to be hanged on March 31, 2012. However, his execution was stayed by the then Congress government on the basis that a mercy petition to the President was filed by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC). In 2019, his death sentence was recommended to be commuted to life imprisonment by the BJP Government. The Supreme Court on May 2, 2022, directed the Centre to decide on his petition in two months. He continues to be in Patiala jail.
Several Sikhs who had participated in a separate Sikh state movement continue to languish in jails. Paramjit Singh Behora, Jagtar Singh Tara Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, and Shamsher Singh are all presently in the Burail Jail. Gurdeep Singh Khera was held guilty by a court in Karnataka and is in Amritsar jail.
All these were booked under various sections of the TADA Act, which was put into force in 1985 to tackle insurgency in Punjab. The Act was later implemented in the rest of the country. The law was scrapped in 1995 following an uproar against its misuse.
The state of Punjab despite having a well-defined and active political and religious establishment has so far not met with much success in getting the Sikh prisoners released. The larger political sentiment is that if these Sikhs are released, they could be a threat to the political spaces of existing politicians. Instead, these political parties want to keep exploiting Sikh prisoners by keeping the political cauldron burning and harping concern for them every election season.
These jailed Sikhs who according to the government are terrorists are seen as political prisoners by a large section of the population in Punjab.
Official estimates reveal that more than 20,000 people were killed during the Punjab conflict including 11,690 civilians, 1714 policemen and 7,946 militants.
SAD which was in alliance with the BJP at the centre till last year, took no initiative for getting these men released while being in power. After the SAD-BJP alliance was called off, while campaigning for a by-election in the Sangrur assembly constituency earlier this year, Sukhbir Singh Badal, president of the party, raised the demand for the release of Sikh prisoners. Later Badal and his wife Harsimrat Kaur who is also a Member of Parliament held a token protest inside the Parliament of India premises seeking release of these Sikhs. Their efforts were however termed as a mere eyewash to mislead Sikhs who have been demanding the release of Sikhs prisoners.
SAD fears that releasing these Sikh prisoners would only increase their political challenge. Jagtar Singh Hawara who 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 is a staunch critic of Badal-led SAD. Hawara who is also a prominent member of Babbar Khalsa and was announced the interim head of Sikh clergy (Jathedar) of Akal Takhat the highest religious authority of the Sikhs in 2015 had from inside the prison extended his support to the anti-Sukhbir camp in the Sangrur by-elections. He alleged that Badals were using Sikh prisoners just to garner votes.
“If Shiromani committee (the apex body of the Sikhs) was serious about their release, it would not have gone out holding protests on the streets or making statements in public rallies. They should have explored the legal options and approached the Supreme Court of India for necessary intervention,” Professor Balkar Singh. Singh, who has retired from Punjabi University told The Friday Times.
“I feel sad for these men who are imprisoned today. They were misguided by the political class four decades ago. Today again, the same political class is exploiting them to keep their politics relevant,” he added.
Ahead of the civic body polls in Delhi, SAD- Delhi faction led by Paramjit Singh Sarna has announced that it was not going to contest in this election. Instead, SAD- Delhi will extend its support to the party that will bring up the issue of the Sikh prisoners. “Our support will go to the political party that is going to make Bandi Sikhs a part of their electoral campaign and will assure the Sikh community that they will fight for their release,” said Sarna. However, no political party wants to burn their hand in this issue.
AAP which is now in power in Punjab and Delhi and also has a mandate in the Delhi civic body has so far remained tight lipped on this issue. These Sikhs prisoners are locked up in Punjab and Delhi. Being in power in both states, where the state governments can take up the matter of releasing the prisoners, AAP has not made its position clear on the matter. But political analysts in Punjab feel that since SAD has spoken about this issue, if AAP takes up the matter and Sikh prisoners are set free, SAD will jump in to take the credit.
It looks like all political parties fear that the popularity of the jailed Sikhs in Punjab will shrink their political space. So to address public sentiment, they provide lip service and desist from taking any practical action.
The BJP which as of now has very little influence in Punjab does not want to upset its Hindu vote bank by being seen by the sides of Sikh prisoners. At the time of insurgency in Punjab, Hindus also became targets of atrocities and so siding with the Sikh prisoners might make BJP’s position uncomfortable. “The BJP has been trying to play Hindus against the Sikhs in Punjab. It goes from one assembly election to another with its Hindutva agenda. Now if it will speak for Bandi Singhs it might hurt the party in other states,” says Professor Kehar Singh of Punjabi University, Patiala.
He said the Panthic (religious) parties like SAD should at least be seen talking about the issue, even if they are not serious about their release. The Congress because of its role in Punjab at the time of insurgency will not speak about it, the BJP has nothing to gain from it, and the political and humanitarian cause should be taken up by SAD.
What is even surprising is that even after the release of those involved in Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, no suo moto cognizance has been taken up either by the political class or the civil society. SGPC which has held several closed-door meetings on the issue has announced starting a signature campaign for the release of jailed Sikhs.
“There are several senior lawyers, retired judges who are ready to take up the case of these Sikhs in the Supreme Court. SGPC has no dearth of funds. But instead of utilising all these resources, it plans to run awareness drives and signature campaigns. There is no will to seek justice,” added Professor Balkar Singh.
The issue may become a hot-selling cake before the General Elections of 2024. All these small public announcements and protests are small build-ups to create big election issues. “No political party picks up an issue till the time they see their political advantage in it,” adds Professor Kehar Singh. And so the only attempts being made is to keep the issue burning so that it can be brewed at a time that the political class feels suits them best. Till then the wait for Bandi Singhs does not seem to be getting over anytime soon.