Amritsar, February 14
Though the issue of the release of the “Bandi Singhs” ndash; the term used for the Sikh prisoners who were convicted over their alleged involvement in militancy in Punjab ndash; has gained momentum, neither the Centre, nor the state governments under whose jurisdiction they are jailed have responded to it.
Prerogative of the state
Constitutionally, no one could be put behind bars if he or she has successfully served the sentence awarded by the law in normal cases. Yet, in most of the Bandi Singhs’ cases, the death sentences have been commuted to life sentences, which could be meant for ‘whole life’. It will solely be the prerogative of the state to set the prisoner free or not, keeping in view any threat to the security or integrity of the state. Sandeep Gorsi, a Supreme Court lawyer
Militancy was eliminated in Punjab in the early 1990s and Sikh bodies and activists have argued that the convicts should be released because many of them have already undergone imprisonment lasting decades. Several among them are old and suffer from physical or mental ailments.
Out of a total of 22 prisoners, nine have spent 25-30 years behind bars while the rest have been in jail for six to 10 years.
The SGPC has undertaken a signature campaign to involve the masses in its cause of getting them released. Also, different Sikh organisations such as the Hawara Committee have organised the Qaumi Insaaf Morcha, which is spearheading the protests at the Chandigarh-Mohali border.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has also entered the fray in a desperate attempt to resurrect its standing on the Panthic pitch.
SGPC president Harjinder Singh Dhami said that so far, around 13 lakh forms seeking the release of the prisoners have been signed, including 18,000 forms signed overseas. “We aim to get at least 30 lakh people involved before submitting them to the President of India through Punjab’s Governor,” he said.
In February 2022, Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had promised a “positive response” in this matter. Interestingly, he too had signed a form for the prisoners’ release during his meeting with Akal Takht officiating Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh on January 25 at Takht Damdama Sahib in Talwandi Sabo.
“Yet, neither the Centre nor the governments of the states where the convicts have been lodged responded positively. More than the legalities, it is political will that is required to get it through,” Dhami said.
On October 11, 2019, the Union government had issued a notification ndash; on the eve of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev jindash; for the release of eight prisoners and the commutation of the death sentence of one to life imprisonment. The eight to be released were Lal Singh, Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh, Waryam Singh, Harjinder Singh alias Kali, Devinderpal Singh Bhullar and Gurdeep Singh Khera. The one whose death sentence was to be commuted to life imprisonment was Balwant Singh Rajoana.
This notification was partially implemented with the release of three prisoners — Lal Singh, Nand Singh and Subeg Singh. It was also pointed out that out of the eight, three ndash; Balbir, Waryam and Harjinder — were erroneously mentioned in the notification as they were already out of jail.
Rajoana has been in Central Jail, Patiala. He was given a death sentenced after being convicted of the assassination of former Punjab CM Beant Singh.
Khera and Bhullar are still languishing in jail, though they are regularly granted parole. Bhullar, undergoing a life sentence in Amritsar jail in the 1993 Delhi bomb blast case, is currently admitted to Guru Nanak Dev Hospital in Amritsar as he is suffering from a mental ailment. Khera is out on parole at present.
The SGPC had submitted a list of the convicts with the Prime Minister’s Office and sought an appointment on three occasions — on May 20, 2022, May 26, 2022, and June 8, 2022 ndash; but they were not granted time.
Among the names on this list is that of Gurdeep Singh Khera, who has served the longest, 32 years in various jails. The others on the list are Prof Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar (27 years), Balwant Singh Rajoana, Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh and Shamsher Singh (all in different jails for 27 years each), Jagtar Singh Hawara (26 years) Paramjit Singh Bheora (25 years) and Jagtar Singh Tara (17 years).
Sandeep Gorsi, a Supreme Court lawyer, said normally a life sentence is understood to be ’till life’, though imprisonment is generally awarded for 14-20 years, depending upon the severity of the case and the conduct of the prisoner during the jail term. He said under Article 161 of the Constitution, on the recommendation of the state government, the Governor of the state could grant pardon and remissions to prisoners. Those given a life sentence could be released prematurely only as per the discretion of the state legislature.
“Constitutionally, no one could be put behind bars if he or she has successfully served the sentence awarded by the law in normal cases. Yet, in most of the ‘Bandi Singhs” cases, the death sentences have been commuted to life sentences, which could be meant for ‘whole life’. It would solely be the prerogative of the state to set the prisoner free or not, keeping in view any threat to the security or integrity of the state,” Gorsi said. He cited the example of the murderers of former PM Rajiv Gandhi. Their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and they were released prematurely after Tamil Nadu declared that they posed no security threat to the state.
Key convicts in Delhi, Karnataka bomb blast cases
Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar
Bhullar, a former professor of chemical engineering at Guru Nanak Engineering College, Ludhiana, belongs to Dialpura Bhai Ka village in Bathinda. He was arrested in 1995 and was convicted by a TADA court in a case pertaining to the killing of nine people and injuring 31, including Congress leader MS Bitta, in a bomb blast in 1993 in New Delhi. He was awarded a death sentence in 2001, but it was commuted to life imprisonment by the SC in March 2014. He is lodged in Central Jail, Amritsar.
Gurdeep Singh Khera
Khera, a resident of Jallupur Khera village in Amritsar district, was arrested in 1990 in connection with two bomb blasts, in New Delhi and Karnataka, and sentenced to two life terms by courts in Delhi and Karnataka. While in the Delhi case he got a remission in 2011 under the Sheila Dikshit regime, he remains in jail for the Karnataka case. In June 2015, he was transferred to the Amritsar jail on humanitarian grounds as his family lives there. He has been regularly out on parole.
Convicted of Beant’s assassination
Balwant Singh Rajoana
Rajoana, a cop-turned-militant, belongs to Rajoana Kalan village of Ludhiana. Arrested in 1995, he was given a death sentence in connection with the assassination of former Punjab CM Beant Singh in 1995. His death sentence was stayed by the Home Ministry on March 28, 2012. The Centre issued a notification for converting the death sentence to life imprisonment on the eve of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. He is currently lodged in Central Jail, Patiala.
Jagtar Singh Hawara
A native of Hawara village in Fatehgarh Sahib district, he was associated with the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI). He was arrested in 1995 in connection with the Beant Singh assassination case. In 2010, the Punjab and Haryana High Court commuted the death sentence he had been given to life imprisonment. He is currently lodged in Tihar Jail, Delhi. He and two other accused had fled from Chandigarh’s Burail Jail in 2004 but he was re-arrested in 2005.
Lakhwinder Singh Lakha
Lakha, a resident of Guru Nanak Nagar, Patiala, was posted as a Punjab Police driver at Civil Secretariat, Chandigarh. He was an accomplice in the Beant Singh assassination case and had done a recce of the murder spot. He has been serving a life imprisonment since 1995 at Chandigarh’s Burail Jail. He has been granted parole many times.
A resident of Guru Nagar, Patiala, Gurmeet had an engineering background and helped in devising the bomb that was used to kill CM Beant Singh. He was arrested in 1995 and has been undergoing a life imprisonment in Burail Jail. He has been granted parole on a number of occasions and his plea for premature release is pending with the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Shamsher, a resident of Ukasi Jattan village in Patiala district, was a truck operator and co-conspirator in the Beant Singh assassination case. He and Hawara had brought RDX across the India-Pakistan border from Ajnala sector of Amritsar and transported it to Ropar, where it was hidden. He was arrested in 1995 and has been undergoing a life sentence in Burail Jail. He has also been granted parole numerous times.
Jagtar Singh Tara
Jagtar belongs to Dekwala village in Ropar. He was a key convict in the Beant Singh assassination case and has been lodged in Burail Jail for 17 years. Arrested in 1995, he ndash; along with Hawara and Bheora ndash; managed to escape in 2004. He was arrested in Thailand after a decade and extradited to India. In December 2017, he confessed to his crime in the District Courts of Chandigarh and was awarded a life sentence on March 17, 2018.
Paramjit Singh Bheora
Paramjit, a resident of Bheora village in Ropar district, is also a convict in the Beant Singh assassination case. An aide of Hawara, he was a member of the BKI. He was arrested in 1997 and was awarded a life sentence. He is currently lodged in Burail Jail. After escaping from the jail in 2004, he was re-arrested in 2006.