Chandigarh: On Wednesday, the president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Harjinder Singh Dhami, was attacked by a group of protesters at the Quami Insaaf Morcha, a permanent sit-in agitation started on the Chandigarh-Mohali border by a host of Sikh bodies to demand the release of “Bandi Singhs”, or Sikh prisoners, from jail.
For the past few years, a dominant part of Punjab’s Panthic politics has been centred around this issue.
The movement for the “Bandi Singhs” started in Punjab in 2013, when the demand was first raised to release Sikh militants who had been jailed during the state’s period of militancy in the 1980s and 1990s, and had been incarcerated for decades.
Over the years, an initial list of 119 such prisoners has come down to two dozen prisoners who are still facing life in jail. Many of those initially listed were released following the completion of their sentences, while some others were released as a result of the protests.
The latest protest, organised by radical Sikh organisations under the banner ‘Quami Insaaf Morcha’, is a united agitation demanding the release of nine of the two dozen prisoners.
All these nine prisoners barring one have already spent 25 to 32 years in jail. Seven of the nine were convicted for the assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, belonging to the Congress, in 1995, while two were convicted for carrying out bomb blasts.
United efforts for release
While the Quami Insaaf Morcha started on January 7 from the Amb Sahib Gurdwara in Mohali, the SGPC too last November started a worldwide signature campaign for the release of the nine Bandi Singhs.
Balwinder Singh, one of the prominent organisers of the protest, told ThePrint: “It was decided that all independent efforts in this direction should be united and this morcha was started. The morcha will not end till the nine Bandi Singhs are released.”
The SGPC chief, too, told a press conference in Chandigarh following the attack on him that “more than 10 lakh people have already signed the SGPC’s demand letter to the President of India, which is to be handed over to the Punjab Governor”.
Dhami – who was attacked for what the organisers of the protest called “pending Sikh issues with the SGPC” and the resultant resentment among the Sikh community – added that the SGPC would not be deterred from supporting the cause of the Bandi Singhs.
Also Read: Why radical activist Amritpal has ticked off Sikh preachers, politicians & ordinary folk
Who are Bandi Singhs?
“Bandi Singhs” are those Sikh prisoners who were arrested for various crimes committed during the days of militancy and have already spent the mandatory period in jail.
“Those who committed crimes during the days of militancy in Punjab did it out of emotion for a cause, an ideology. They are not criminals or a threat to society. Secondly, we are opposed to the pick-and-choose policy of the government regarding convicts,” said Balwinder Singh.
He added that “Gurmeet Ram Rahim of Dera Sacha Sauda is a convicted murderer and rapist and has been granted parole multiple times. Those convicted for the killing of Rajiv Gandhi have also been released, but Bandi Singhs continue to be in jail for over 25 years, some without even having been granted parole. It is unfair and unjust”.
The latest list of 24 Sikh prisoners who are facing a life sentence has been prepared by Ludhiana-based advocate Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, who has been fighting for the cause of the Bandi Singhs since 2014.
A life sentence means remaining jailed till death, unless a specific number of years are laid down in the sentence order.
“We are demanding that these prisoners be released on the basis of good conduct in jail in accordance with the provisions of the law,” said Manjhpur.
The nine ‘Bandi Singhs’
Seven of the nine Bandi Singhs whose release is being sought by the Quami Insaaf Morcha were convicted for the assassination of Beant Singh. Two of the seven were on death row.
Beant Singh and 16 others were killed on August 31, 1995, by suicide bomber Dilawar Singh Babbar in Chandigarh. In 2007, a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) awarded death sentences to Jagtar Singh Hawara and Balwant Singh Rajoana for the assassination.
Five others – Gurmeet Singh, Lakhwinder Singh Lakha, Shamsher Singh, Paramjit Singh Bheora and Jagtar Singh Tara – were sentenced to life.
Jagtar Singh Hawara: A resident of Hawara village in Fatehgarh Sahib, he is a prime accused in the assassination case and was arrested in December 1995. In 2010, his death sentence was commuted to life after he moved the Punjab & Haryana High Court.
The CBI then moved the Supreme Court against the order. Hawara too moved the apex court challenging his conviction. Both appeals are still pending.
As an undertrial, Hawara was lodged in Burail jail in Chandigarh. In January 2004, he along with a few other prisoners managed a sensational escape from jail by digging a 95-feet underground tunnel with their bare hands.
Hawara was rearrested in June 2005 by the Delhi Police. He has been lodged in Tihar Jail in New Delhi ever since.
“Hawara has never been granted parole. He was facing 37 cases, and has been discharged in 27 of these by various courts. He has been convicted in six, including the assassination. In five he has already completed his sentence. Of the four remaining cases, two are pending in Chandigarh, one in Kharar and one in Sohana, Mohali,” said Manjhpur.
In one of the Chandigarh cases, Hawara was asked to be produced in court last month. However, the Tihar Jail authorities told the court that he could not be brought to Chandigarh for security reasons.
In 2015, Hawara was announced as the ‘jathedar’ (central head of the Sikhs) of the Akal Takht by Sikh organisations during the Sarbat Khalsa. The Sarbat Khalsa was organised by radical Sikh outfits in the wake of incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Although Hawara was declared the ‘jathedar’ he is not the official ‘jathedar’ of the Akal Takht.
Hawara’s father formed the Jagtar Singh Hawara Release Committee which is now among the flag-bearers of the Quami Insaaf Morcha.
Balwant Singh Rajoana: A former Punjab Police constable from Ludhiana, Rajoana was the backup bomber in the assassination of Singh. He was arrested in December 1995 and awarded the death sentence.
Rajoana refused to appeal against his sentence and was scheduled to be hanged on March 31, 2012. But the hanging was stayed after a mercy petition was filed by the SGPC on his behalf.
The then President of India forwarded the mercy plea to the Ministry of Home Affairs to decide.
In 2019, on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikhs, the Centre decided to commute Rajoana’s death sentence to life. In 2020, citing the central government’s decision, Rajoana moved the Supreme Court for his release.
At the latest hearing of the case in October 2022, the Centre told the apex court that a decision on Rajoana’s mercy plea cannot be taken as it would impact the law and order situation in the border state of Punjab.
There are no other cases pending against Rajoana. He is in a jail in Patiala and has never been granted regular parole.
Rajoana’s sister Kamaldeep Kaur has been contesting elections in Punjab, including the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll in June 2022 as a candidate of the SAD. She, however, lost to Simranjeet Singh Mann of the SAD splinter group SAD (Amritsar).
Gurmeet Singh alias Meeta: A Patiala resident and an engineer, Gurmeet helped prepare the explosives belt worn for the assassination of Beant Singh. He was among the first few to be arrested in the case in September 1995 and was awarded a life term following his conviction.
While in jail, Gurmeet fought for additional facilities for inmates. He was also the first among the Beant Singh assassins to be released on parole in December 2013.
In November 2022, the Chandigarh administration rejected Gurmeet Singh’s plea for premature release from jail. The decision was taken after a report was received from the Patiala district magistrate that Gurmeet’s release could be dangerous to the peaceful atmosphere in the state. The opposition SAD alleged that the newly-elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab was opposing the release.
A month later, Gurmeet Singh moved the Punjab & Haryana High Court seeking premature release.
Lakhwinder Singh alias Lakha alias Hero: A resident of Patiala, Lakha was a driver in the Punjab Police and was posted at the Civil Secretariat in Chandigarh. He was convicted for being a conspirator in the assassination and allowed entry of the explosives-laden car.
He has been lodged in Chandigarh’s Burail jail since his arrest in 1995. He too was granted parole in December 2013.
Last year, Lakhwinder went on a hunger strike seeking his early release.
Shamsher Singh: A resident of Ukasi Jattan village in Patiala, Shamsher Singh is also serving a life sentence in Burail jail. He was a truck driver and he is said to have transported explosives from the India-Pakistan border to Patiala and Ropar to be used in the suicide bombing. He was first granted parole in December 2013.
Paramjit Singh Bheora: A resident of Ropar, Bheora was Hawara’s aide and had procured the car used in the assassination. Bheora was arrested in 1997 and remained in Burail jail till 2004, when he escaped with Hawara. He was rearrested in March 2006. Bheora has also never been granted regular parole.
“Apart from the Beant Singh assassination case, a case against Bheora is also pending in Jammu and we are trying to locate the papers of that case,” said Manjhpur.
Jagtar Singh Tara: A resident of Digwal village in Ropar, Tara was arrested in 1995. He was among those who escaped from jail with Hawara in 2004.
He was rearrested from Thailand in September 2015. In 2018, he was awarded life imprisonment in the Beant Singh assassination case. Tara has also never been granted regular parole.
“Apart from the assassination, there are two other cases pending against Tara – in Jalandhar and in Patiala. In the rest, he has either been acquitted or is serving concurrent sentences,” said Manjhpur.
Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar: A chemical engineer who used to teach at Guru Nanak Engineering College in Ludhiana, Bhullar was convicted for triggering a bomb blast in 1993 in New Delhi that killed nine people and injured 31, including then Congress leader Maninderjeet Singh Bitta.
Bhullar, a resident of Dyalpura Bhaika village in Bathinda, was arrested in 1995 and awarded the death sentence by a TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) court in August 2001.
His death sentence was commuted to life by the Supreme Court in March 2014 on grounds of ill health.
In June 2015, he was shifted from Tihar Jail to Amritsar’s Central Jail where he is currently lodged. He has been granted parole.
Bhullar was to be released permanently following the Centre’s notification of 2019, but the Delhi government under AAP rejected his plea in 2020. The Centre had asked the Delhi government to issue the release order since Bhullar was originally jailed in Tihar.
Maninderjeet Singh Bitta too filed a petition in the Supreme Court against Bhullar’s release, which was dismissed in December 2021. The Sentence Review Board of the Delhi government took up the matter again in March 2022 but put it off.
In May 2022, Bhullar moved the Punjab & Haryana High Court for his premature release.
“Bhullar is on bail in another case registered against him in Ghaziabad in 1994,” said Manjhpur.
Gurdeep Singh Khera: A resident of Amritsar, Khera was convicted for life by a TADA court in two different blast cases registered in 1996 in New Delhi and Karnataka.
He was arrested in December 1990 from Karnataka. He remained in the state’s Gulbarga jail till 2015 when he was shifted to the Amritsar jail.
In the Delhi case, the state government under Sheila Dikshit accepted his case for premature release in 2011 but he continued to remain in jail for the Karnataka case. He has been granted regular parole.
“Khera has spent over 32 years in jail. Following its 2019 notification, the Centre asked Karnataka to release him. But Karnataka refused,” said Manjhpur.
Pioneers of ‘Bandi Singhs movement’
The cause of the Bandi Singhs was first taken up by Sikh activist Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa in November 2013. Khalsa, a resident of Kurukshetra in Haryana, went on a 44-day hunger strike at Amb Sahib Gurdwara. He ended his fast following an assurance from then Akal Takth Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh that they would take up the issue with the government.
Khalsa had demanded the release of seven Sikh prisoners – Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh, Waryam Singh, Lal Singh Akalgarh, Gurdeep Singh Khera and Devinder Pal Bhullar.
In December 2013, following a meeting in Chandigarh, various Sikh radical organisations issued a list of 119 Sikh prisoners demanding their release. But when the Bandi Singhs were not released even after one year, Khalsa went on a hunger strike again in November 2014 at Lakhnaur village in Haryana. He ended the fast in January 2015 after he was hospitalised.
In March 2018, Khalsa killed himself by jumping off a water tank in his village. His family said he had chosen to die for the cause of the Bandi Singhs.
When Khalsa had ended his second hunger strike in January 2015, his cause was taken up by aged Sikh activist Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa who started an indefinite hunger strike at his village in Ludhiana. A month later, he was arrested from his village and taken to hospital where he was force fed.
Over the years, Khalsa continued with his hunger strike while on a forced liquid diet in hospital.
Now 89 years old, he ended his hunger strike last week after the Quami Insaaf Morcha started in Mohali, joining the common efforts.
In December 2014, the then chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal of the SAD, wrote to various state governments as well as the Centre forwarding a list of 13 prisoners and demanding their release.
Apart from the seven prisoners listed by Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa, the other names included were of Hawara, Bheora, Gurmeet Singh (Rajasthan jail), Daya Singh Lahoria, Subeg Singh and Nand Singh.
In January 2015, the Akalis and the SGPC met then Union home minister Rajnath Singh over the issue but were told that the matter required consideration.
In September 2019, the Centre announced that eight prisoners lodged in different jails in the country would be released on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev as a humanitarian gesture. These included Lal Singh, Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh, Waryam Singh, Harjinder Singh, Bhullar and Khera. The government also announced that through a special remission, Rajoana’s death sentence would be commuted.
Balbir Singh, Waryam Singh and Harjinder Singh had already been released by the time the Centre’s notification was issued. Lal Singh, Nand Singh and Subeg Singh were released subsequently.
Apart from the list of nine Bandi Singhs listed by the Quami Insaaf Morcha and the SGPC, Manjhpur has prepared a list of another 15 Bandi Singhs whom he says are political prisoners and should be released.
These include Satnam Singh, Daya Singh Lahoria, Harnek Singh Bhapp, Dayal Singh, Sucha Singh, Jagmohan Singh, Kulvir Singh alias Bara, Ranjit Singh, Satinderjit Singh alias Mintu, Arwinder Singh alias Ghoga, Jaspreet Singh alias Nihal, Gurpreet Singh Khalsa alias Baba, Gurpreet Singh alias Gopi, Ashok Kumar and Jaswant Singh alias Kala.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
Also Read: How top Sikh bodies SGPC & Akal Takht are taking a radical road to stay relevant in Punjab