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Rajoana and Sikh politics

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In the muddled politics over the death sentence to the assassins of the ex-CM of Punjab, Beant Singh, the actual events are no longer discussed. The killing happened in the wake of the decade of terrorism in Punjab, and was then widely reported. Here is the historical record from NYT:

The Punjab official, Beant Singh, who was 71 years old, held the post of Chief Minister in the state of 22 million people. Witnesses said the blast occurred as Mr. Singh was stepping into a heavily armored car at the the main government building in Chandigarh, the capital.

Accounts from Chandigarh said the explosion threw human remains and debris more than 100 yards, and wounded 23 people, some of whom were in critical condition.

Mr. Singh was the first major Indian political figure to be assassinated since the death of Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister who was killed by a suicide bomber at a political rally outside Madras in May 1991.

Mr. Gill, the Punjab police commander, named two banned Sikh militant groups, the Khalistan Liberation Front and the Babbar Khalsa, as suspects in the bombing.

Recent reports in Indian newspapers suggested that some of the groups that participated in the insurgency have been reorganizing abroad. After years in which normal life in the Punjab was paralyzed by the rebellion, the insurgency was greatly weakened in a crackdown in the early 1990’s that caused Western human rights groups to condem India for its tactics. Mr. Singh defended the actions as necessary.

HT reminds us of the details:

On August 31, 1995, just after 2 pm, Punjab chief minister Beant Singh was about to step into his car outside the secretariat in Chandigarh, when Dilawar Singh, a special forces police officer with the Punjab Police, bowed to touch his feet. Under Dilawar’s uniform were powerful RDX explosives tied to his belt. The explosion that followed after he triggered them was so powerful that it killed not only him and the CM but 16 others as well.

Standing nearby was Balwant Singh Rajoana, a police constable. He, too, had a similar explosives-laden belt, in case Dilawar was unable to fulfil his mission. Both men were members of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), one of several Punjab terror outfits that had sprung up in those troubled times. They were part of a conspiracy masterminded by Jagtar Singh Hawara, who was an aide of BKI chief Wadhawa Singh. Lakhwinder Singh, Paramjit Singh Bheora, Jagtar Singh Tara and Gurmeet Singh were the other conspirators. All were subsequently arrested. Tara, Hawara and Bheora managed to break out of jail. Hawara and Bheora were later caught but Tara is still at large.

Rajoana has admitted his guilt ever since he was arrested on December 22, 1995. When he was sentenced to death in July 31, 2007, he demanded that he be hanged. Ever since, he has refused to appeal for mercy. In fact, Rajoana has shown no remorse whatsoever, while heaping scorn on the Akalis, calling them “cheaters”. Yet, ironically, Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal has sought “clemency” for Rajoana.

In a separate article, HT quotes from a letter by Rajoana released to the press:

“I read it in newspapers that the Akali leadership, SAD-BJP government and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandhak Committee (SGPC) are making efforts to get me mercy. Let me make it clear that I don’t want or need any mercy of the leaders of an Indian State that I do not believe in,” said Rajoana, the Babbar Khalsa militant convicted in the Beant Singh assassination case and currently lodged in Patiala Central Jail, in letter sent to the media through his sister Kamaljeet Kaur.

He described the Akali leaders as “cheaters of Sikh religion”, who “deserted the original path of Sikhism under pressure of the Delhi-based central government”. For the denial of justice to several victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, too, Rajoana blamed the entire Akali leadership of Punjab.

Rajoana rejected Beant Singh’s family’s statements that he should be pardoned. “I don’t repent what I did,” he said, appealing to his supporters not to disturb communal harmony in the state and to support his cause by displaying saffron flags on the day of his hanging.

The Akali Dal has put its partner on the back-foot. Its mouthpiece, the Pioneer put things very clearly:

Refusing to take a clear position on whether Rajoana should be hanged or not, BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “We are clear on this issue. The rule of law needs to take its course.”

Badal had met top BJP leaders including LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley in the last two days seeking their support to the demands for clemency to Rajoana but could not extract a categorical assurance.

BJP feared that opposing Rajoana’s death sentence will open the Pandora’s Box and the party might have to give up its long standing demand that there should be no delay in hanging Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.

There was no ground-swell of support for Rajoana and the causes he stands for before the Akali Dal decided to file a clemency petition on his behalf. Rajoana has never appealed his conviction, so the case has never been taken to the High Court and the Supreme Court, where his co-accused are now pleading their cases. The issue has been constructed by the Akali Dal.

Why does the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) plead for clemency for a terrorist and a convicted assassin who does not even want the plea? The answer lies in the arithmetic of the recent elections which it won. Hidden behind that win is a disillusioned electorate: SAD’s vote share declined by 3%. So a cold calculation is played out, to align itself behind the last vestiges of political sympathy for the two-decade old separatist movement in order to get some extra votes in coming years.

Within the electorate, these vestigial sympathies are now moderated by a desire to get beyond the means that failed, and to seek development within the Indian context. Extremists like Rajoana understand this failure and dream the fanatic dream that death will revitalize the cause. The SAD calculation is that by commuting the execution of Rajoana, alternative Sikh politics will be denied a cause to rally around, and, as a result, SAD will become the sole political voice of Sikh identity. But this is the kind of razor’s edge thinking that the Akalis have cut themselves badly with several times over.

March 31, 2012

A careful political resolution of this issue is needed if the suspicions voiced in this article in Indian Military Review are correct:

Several Sikh militants related reports in the recent past point towards efforts being made to resurrect Sikh militancy.

Delhi Police arrested two suspected Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) militants, Sarabpreet and Jaswinder Singh, on 23 December 2011, with two pistols, 30 live cartridges, explosives and fake currency. Reportedly, Sarabpreet was tasked to eliminate Baba Ram Rahim of Ambala in Haryana, Baba Pyara Singh of Banihara at Ropar and Baba Ashutosh of Ludhiana, besides other political leaders in Punjab. Sarabpreet was allegedly in direct contact with the outfit’s Pakistan-based chief Wadhawa Singh through a contact, Kulbir Singh, operating in Hong Kong.

In August 2011, three Sikh separatists from BKI were arrested after several months of surveillance by the Malaysian police in Kuala Lumpur and deported. The three were operating various businesses after blending into the Sikh community there. Their main task was to provide financial and logistic help to their comrades who used Malaysia as a transit point.

German prosecutors charged five Sikh extremists with terrorist-related offences including the attempted murder of a Sikh guru in Vienna on April 21, 2011. The charges included membership of the banned KZF and the gathering of funds and weapons on its behalf. Four of five accomplices received jail terms of 17 to 18 years for complicity in murder and wounding, while the fifth was given a six-month sentence.

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