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A protest in vain?

chandigarh Updated: Dec 17, 2013 23:36 IST
Gurpreet Singh Nibber

Don't draw Bhai saab into a conversation as it consumes energy, reads a message at a makeshift camp at Gurdwara Amb Sahib in SAS Nagar where 48-year-old former militant Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa has been sitting on a fast unto death for the past 34 days.

Khalsa, who looks a shadow of his former self and is surrounded by a group of supporters, has been demanding the release of six former miltants languishing in different jails despite having completed their sentences.

These are Lakhwinder Singh, Shamsher Singh and Gurmeet Singh lodged in the Burail jail in Chandigarh in connection with the assassination of Beant Singh. The others are Lal Singh lodged in Nabha jail, Waryam Singh in Bareilly jail and Gurdeep Singh Khaira lodged in a Karnataka jail. All three were booked in different criminal cases.

Khalsa, who hails from Kurukshetra in Haryana, was booked in 10 different cases, including a bomb blast in Sector 34 in Chandigarh in the 1990s. He stayed in jail for about 10 years and is currently out on bail.

"I am prepared to die and death would come any moment," said Khalsa in a feeble voice lying on the ground. Khalsa has signed his will and has also offered to donate his organs. He would send his will and the wish to donate the organs to the Akal Takht.

"Our government is not concerned about those languishing in jails and no one from the administration has come forward to enquire about my cause," said Khalsa.

On December 12, Khalsa was picked up by the police and taken to the civil hospital and then lodged in a Rupnagar jail. After being released after three days he resumed his fast.

"No law prevails here. Khalsa was unceremoniously picked up, taken to hospital and then to jail," complained a supporter.

Khalsa was released from Burail jail in 2010 after the Supreme Court granted him bail. "In the Burail jail, I met the three accused in the Beant Singh assassination and was moved to see their plight. Their families have been ruined; they have not been allowed to go out of jail for more than 18 years, so I decided to take up their cause," said Khalsa as to why he decided to go on fast unto death.

Legal angle

Referring to Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution, advocate Amar Singh Chahal, who contested the case of these militants, said there is a strong legal provision of premature release of those sentenced to life imprisonment after completing a jail term of 14 years. There have been cases when premature release was allowed even after eight years.

"Everyone who is sentenced to life imprisonment is released after 14 years, but why are these six being discriminated against as they have not been allowed to come home even once on parole for the past 18 to 23 years since they are in jail," said Chahal, adding that he had exhausted all legal and political channels for their release, but had failed.

Brief profiles

Lakhwinder Singh, 42, in Burail jail:
Charged of assassination of Beant Singh, sentenced to life imprisonment, in jail for 18 years, was never released on bail or parole

Shamsher Singh, 44, in Burail jail: Charged of assassination of Beant Singh, sentenced to life imprisonment, in jail for 18 years, was never released on bail or parole

Gurmeet Singh, 41, in Burail jail: Charged of assassination of Beant Singh, sentenced to life imprisonment, in jail for the past 18 years, was never released on bail or parole

Lal Singh, 52: Booked in TADA, Arms and Explosives act, in Nabha jail, previously lodged in Ahmedabad jail for 22 years, was allowed parole more than a dozen times, cache of arms and explosives was recovered from him when he was arrested in Gujarat. Sentenced to life imprisonment

Waryam Singh, 73: Currently in Bareilly, UP, has gone blind, never allowed bail or parole, was sentenced to life imprisonment under TADA and criminal conspiracy, was arrested from Pilibhit in UP. In jail for past 23 years, never allowed bail or parole; sentenced to life imprisonment

Gurdeep Singh Khaira, 48:
Currently in Gulbarga, Karnataka, jail, was wanted in a bomb blast in Bidar, Karnataka, in 1990, and was arrested in December 1990. Sentenced to life imprisonment; never allowed bail or parole.

Avtar Singh Makkar, SGPC president: We sympathise with Khalsa and the six Sikhs lodged in different jails. We are pondering the issue and hopefully will find a way out soon. But going on fast unto death is not the right way to protest. I think the Punjab government can't do much as all cases pertain to outside the state.

Manjit Singh GK, DSGMC president: A five-member committee of the DSGMC will meet Khalsa and the Punjab government for a possible way out.

Harpal Singh Cheema, chairman, Sikhs for Human Rights: The Punjab government can get them released in one day in case they have a strong will. But there is no one to take up their case at the political level. All those in jails are from humble families and are no threat to society. There are 124 Sikhs languishing in jails but we demand the release of only these six as they have completed their jail terms.

Govt in a spot

While Khalsa's fast has struck a chord with a clutch of Panthic bodies and Sikh radicals, it has put the Badal government in a tight spot because even Akal Takht jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh has supported his demand. What compounds the government's predicament is that the state security agencies reckon that the six prisoners whose release Khalsa is seeking are top militants convicted in high-profile terror cases - three of them in the Beant Singh assassination case.

Intelligence officials feel that commuting the said militants' life sentence runs the risk of emboldening radical elements and can have political repercussions for the SAD-BJP coalition. Despite swearing by its Panthic credentials, the Badal government has reasons - both political and legal - to tread cautiously on the emotive issue.

Speaking on this, SAD secretary Daljit Singh Cheema said the state government couldn't do much in the case as all six were lodged in jails outside the state.