New Delhi: The Sentence Review Board (SRB) in Delhi has deferred its decision on the release of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a former member of the Khalistan Liberation Force who was convicted for a bomb blast in the national capital in 1993.
A senior government official told ThePrint that the SRB deferred its decision for its next meeting because of “inadequate discussion” among the members of the board in its Wednesday meeting. The date for the next meeting is yet to be decided.
Wednesday’s development has already caused a sharp reaction against Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal. His government has administrative jurisdiction of Tihar Jail, where the 57-year-old Bhullar is registered as an inmate, even though he has been lodged in a Punjab jail under a special arrangement since 2015, for health reasons.
In a series of tweets Wednesday, SAD leader and former Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal said Kejriwal had “bared his true anti-Sikh and anti-Punjab fangs by blocking S Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s release again”, despite “promises”, and that the Akali Dal would “carry on the fight”.
Delhi CM @ArvindKejriwal has bared his true anti-Sikh and anti-Punjab fangs by blocking S Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar's release again. We will make him face the consequences of his communal mindset. Bhagwant & entire @AAPPunjab have a lot to explain to Sikhs now. 1/3
— Sukhbir Singh Badal (@officeofssbadal) March 2, 2022
BJP leader Manjinder Singh Sirsa also trained his ire on Kejriwal, calling him a “liar” and a “hypocrite” for deferring the decision to release Bhullar.
Deferring decision for release of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar by Delhi govt once again proved that @ArvindKejriwal is a liar, cunning, deceitful & hypocrite
We will not let his style of politics encroach over human rights. We will approach Supreme Court for #JusticetoBhullar@ANI pic.twitter.com/Hja28SCI8A
— Manjinder Singh Sirsa (@mssirsa) March 2, 2022
AAP spokespersons did not respond to calls and text messages from ThePrint about the matter.
In the run up to the Punjab polls, there were protests for Bhullar’s release both in Delhi and Punjab, where the AAP has high stakes in the assembly polls, and contested all 117 seats. The AAP accused other parties of politicising the issue and said the SRB has multiple stakeholders and the state government alone cannot take major decisions on its own.
Kejriwal, on 29 January, told reporters that his government had called an SRB meeting, but had not specified the date.
‘Decision deferred, not rejected’
A second senior government official described Bhullar’s name being on the list for Wednesday’s meeting as a “routine” affair.
“Roughly 80-100 prisoners are released by the SRB every year. Barring those on death row, convicts who have completed at least 14 years in jail without remission [sentence reduction], or 20 years with remission, are considered for premature release. Bhullar is an eligible candidate for being included in the lists tabled for SRB meetings under the rules,” the official said.
He added that Bhullar’s case was part of the SRB’s agenda on 11 December 2020 too, but the board decided against his early release.
“Usually, names that are rejected in one SRB meeting are not included in the list for the next meeting. Bhullar’s name did not surface in the last SRB meeting held on 27 August 2021, so it was supposed to be included this time,” the official said.
According to the official, 28 convicts were on the list for Wednesday’s meeting.
“The cases of 27 were discussed but there was hardly any discussion on Bhullar. Now that the decision on him has been deferred by the board, and not specifically rejected, it will be taken up in the next meeting,” the official added.
There is no specific schedule for SRB meetings, which are usually held with the consensus of all stakeholders. In general, two to four meetings take place each year.
Delhi’s home minister is the ex-officio chair of the Sentence Review Board, and the other members are the director general (prisons), the state home secretary, state law secretary, a district judge, a senior officer representing Delhi Police, and the director of the Delhi social welfare department.
ThePrint called and messaged the office of Delhi Home Minister Satyendar Jain for his comments on why no decision was taken on Bhullar, but did not receive a response.
The 1993 Delhi bomb blast
On 11 September 1993, a car bomb exploded outside the office of the Indian Youth Congress in New Delhi’s Raisina Road, killing nine people and leaving at least 31 injured. Former Youth Congress president M.S. Bitta was believed to be the main target of the bombing, but he survived the attack.
Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, who was associated with a separatist outfit called the Khalistan Liberation Force, fled to Germany after the blast and later sought political asylum there. However, his plea was rejected and in 1995, he was extradited to India under charges of terrorism and arrested on arrival, according to police records.
Bhullar, who once worked as a chemical engineering professor in Ludhiana, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2011 by a special court dealing with terrorism cases. In March 2014, however, the Supreme Court commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment owing to his ill health and a delay in the trial. In 2015, he was shifted to the Central Jail in Amritsar due to his health issues.
Bhullar’s wife, Navneet Kaur, has been fighting a long legal battle in connection with his conviction, initially for the commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment and then for premature release.
Politics over Bhullar
In 2009, when Bhullar’s lawyer had once moved a petition for being shifted to Punjab, the SAD-BJP government in Punjab had refused to accommodate him. However, when a campaign run by Bhullar’s family and Sikh bodies to commute the death sentence started gaining popular support, former Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal took a U-turn on the issue in 2013 and asked then-PM Manmohan Singh to commute Bhullar’s death sentence.
Arvind Kejriwal also wrote to former President Pranab Mukherjee seeking clemency for Bhullar in 2014 — around three months before the Lok Sabha elections in which the AAP ultimately won four seats from Punjab in its first polls in the state.
Notably, when Sikh groups in Punjab took up the issue of Bhullar’s premature release with Kejriwal ahead of the 2022 polls, the AAP chief claimed on 29 January that he was “not aware of the matter” as “all things don’t reach the CM”.
A senior AAP leader told ThePrint that Bhullar’s case is a “tough one” for Kejriwal, who has been accused of sympathising with militant organisations.
“[Such accusations] happened in 2017, and were believed to be one factor that stopped the party from winning more seats in Punjab. This year, it happened again. Kejriwal has to be diplomatic, especially at a time when he is preparing to be the face of the opposition in the national political canvas. Any decision taken in haste can have political repercussions,” the AAP leader said.
In 2019, when the BJP and SAD were still in alliance, the Union government announced that to mark the 550th Parkash Purab (birth celebration) of Guru Nanak Dev, it would give special remission to some prisoners who were sentenced to life for crimes committed during the Punjab militancy. Bhullar’s name was on the list, but the Supreme Court put a stay on the Centre’s decision.
During the 2022 polls in Punjab, the Bhullar issue was reignited at a time when the AAP was aggressively investing in expanding its footprint in the state and clearly aiming to elevate itself from the principal opposition to the ruling party.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)