Chandigarh: Fifty-two-year-old Balwant Singh Rajoana, the Sikh militant whose death sentence was commuted to life last week by the Narendra Modi government, seems to have carried a death-wish for long. Lodged in jail since his arrest in 1995 for assassinating former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, Rajoana has neither hired an advocate to fight his case, nor moved a mercy petition seeking clemency.
In commuting his death sentence, the Centre has met a long-standing demand of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) — the apex body that controls Sikh gurudwaras — and the BJP’s ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), apart from various radical Sikh bodies in Punjab.
The move is seen as a part of the series of “gracious gestures” by the Government of India ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, following the Centre’s move to erase a “black list” of Sikh foreign nationals who were involved in anti-India activities.
The Modi government also paved the way for the construction of the Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan, to facilitate Sikh pilgrims’ visit to the historic Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib where Guru Nanak Dev spent the last years of his life.
SAD claims credit, Congress guarded
Reacting to the government’s move to commute Rajoana’s death sentence, former Punjab chief minister and SAD patron Parkash Singh Badal said the move was “statesmanlike, far-sighted and humane”. He said such gestures would go a long way in assuaging the sentiments of the Sikh masses, which were hurt during successive Congress regimes.
The SAD is claiming credit for what the Government of India has done.
Days before Rajoana was to be hanged, on 31 March 2012, the Akalis had secured a stay on his hanging from the President on a plea filed by the SGPC. Then, in August last year, SAD president Sukhbir Badal and SGPC chief Gobind Singh Longowal had met then-home minister Rajnath Singh, demanding that Rajoana’s death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Sukhbir pointed out that Rajoana had already been incarcerated for 21 years.
Now, faced with the virtual erosion of the SAD’s core vote bank — the Sikh peasantry — the Modi government has come to its ally’s rescue.
The Congress, though, has been guarded in its reaction. Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said the party’s stand on Beant Singh’s killers had always been clear and consistent — that they should serve their full sentence. He, however, added that he was personally against the death penalty, something he had said back in 2012 too. In his personal opinion, all cases of death penalty should be commuted to life imprisonment.
Who is Rajoana?
Rajoana joined the Punjab Police in 1987 and was deployed as a security guard with a Patiala-based journalist in 1993. He bears the name of his village Rajoana, near Ludhiana, and is said to have joined the dreaded Khalistani separatist outfit Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) in the 1990s when Punjab was in the grip of Sikh militancy.
Rajoana, like many others, believed that the state government, then led by Congress chief minister Beant Singh, had resorted to killing innocent youth in order to crush the militancy, and these extra-judicial killings had to be avenged.
A grand plan to assassinate Beant Singh using human bombs was conceived. The masterminds — BKI chief Jagtar Singh Hawara and his associate Jagtar Singh Tara — chose Dilawar Singh, a dismissed policeman, and Rajoana, a serving constable, as human bombs. Rajoana was the “backup” bomb in case Dilawar failed.
On 31 August 1995, when Beant Singh was leaving office for the day and his cavalcade was still parked in the high-security civil secretariat in Chandigarh, Dilawar blew himself up, killing the CM and 16 others on the spot. At least 15 people were also injured in the powerful RDX blast.
Tara was the first to be arrested, followed by Hawara. Rajoana was arrested in January 1996 and admitted to being part of the conspiracy. He claimed he had no regrets for what he had done, but did apologise for the deaths of the innocents in the blast. He refused to hire the services of a lawyer to defend him.
The CBI filed three charge-sheets in the case against a dozen accused, including three Sikh militants believed to be in Pakistan.
During the trial, two attempts were made by some of the accused to break out of the Model Jail in Chandigarh. In 2004, Hawara, Tara and Paramjit Singh Bheora managed a sensational escape through a 110-foot-long tunnel dug from under their barracks. The Delhi Police re-arrested Hawara in 2005 and Bheora in 2006. Tara was arrested from Thailand in 2015.
The jail-break delayed the trial, but finally, in July 2007, the special CBI court awarded death sentences to Rajoana and Hawara and life sentences to the others. The court held that Rajoana was closely involved with the planning and execution of the assassination, having tied the belt with RDX on it around Dilawar Singh. A spare belt, which he intended to use, was in his scooter, which was recovered on his arrest.
The over 1,000-page judgment of the special CBI court of Justice R.K. Sondhi detailed the exact role played by each of the conspirators.
Adamant on dying
Hawara appealed against the judgment and his sentence was commuted to a life term in 2010, but Rajoana refused to appeal against his death. He wrote to the Punjab and Haryana High Court requesting the execution of his death sentence, which the court upheld later that same month.
Rajoana’s death warrants were issued by a Chandigarh court on 13 March 2012, a day before Parkash Singh Badal took oath as chief minister of the state for the fifth time. Rajoana was to be hanged in Patiala jail (where he had been shifted from Chandigarh) on 31 March.
As death warrants sparked protests in the state, Rajoana readied for the sentence, pledging to donate his eyes and other organs. He wrote to the jathedar (chief) of the Akal Takht (the supreme temporal seat of the Sikhs) wishing to take a dip in the holy sarovar of the Golden Temple. The then jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh met Rajoana in jail and handed him the holy water, also trying to convince Rajoana to appeal for clemency. But Rajona refused, handing him his “will” written in 2008.
Saved in the nick of time
The SGPC, in an emergent meeting of Sikh outfits, asked CM Badal to meet President Pratibha Patil to grant him pardon. Dilawar Singh was declared a “national martyr” and Rajoana a “living martyr” during the meeting.
Two days before his hanging, following a meeting with the President, Badal announced that Rajoana’s hanging had been stayed by the Centre on the SGPC’s plea. A joint secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs clarified that the Rajoana’s death sentence was stayed until the Supreme Court decided on appeals filed by the other accused in the case.
Rajona was in the news again in December 2015 when he attacked senior journalist Kanwar Sandhu, when the latter tried to meet him in Patiala jail for an interview. Rajoana was upset with Sandhu for reporting what he claimed to be a falsehood.