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.
The insurgency in Punjab lasted from the early-1980s to mid-90s. Beant Singh was the CM from 1992 to 1995 and is credited with virtually ending the insurgency. However, in those 15 years or so, an estimated 40,000 people — terrorists, security personnel and many innocent people — died. Rajoana’s brother, Harpinder Singh, was one of those killed in a “police operation”, a phrase often synonymous with a fake encounter.
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.
The hanging controversy needs to be seen from the backdrop of the Punjab problem and the rise to prominence of an obscure Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Till about 1980, the Congress government, led by Indira Gandhi, had handled Punjab deftly. The first major mistake was to try and use Bhindranwale to divide the Akalis. The puppet got out of hand, broke its strings and turned into a veritable Frankenstein’s monster. The events led to Bhindranwale holing himself up in Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, along with armed and expertly trained militants. The Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and its ‘high priests’ then played a cowardly and shameful role in refusing to confront Bhindranwale’s violent hate campaign against Hindus (it’s the same SGPC that has now ordered Badal to ask the president for clemency for Rajoana).
Operation Bluestar, an assault by the army, followed. In two days and nights of pitched battle, the fiercest engagement by the army against its own people since Independence, hundreds of soldiers, militants and innocent pilgrims caught in the crossfire, died.
The Akal Takht, the highest spiritual and temporal authority for the Sikhs, was left in ruins — it was a colossal miscalculation, for which Indira Gandhi paid with her life. The assassination led to horrific anti-Sikh riots, particularly in the Capital, in which at least 4,000 Sikhs were butchered.
None of the main parties concerned — the Akalis, the BJP, the Congress and the SGPC — has emerged with any credit in the Rajoana business. The Akalis who scored such a spectacular electoral victory, mainly through their “development” agenda, seem to be going back to ‘Panthic’ politics. As for their ally, the BJP, how does it reconcile its clemency plea for Rajoana with hanging for Afzal Guru?
Nobody, except the lunatic fringe and the most fanatical extremists, wants a return to the bad old days of the 1980s-90s. But while all these parties are showering sympathy on the unrepentant assassin, Rajoana, what about the 16 innocent people who died with Beant Singh? What about Singh’s family? Don’t they deserve closure of the case after 17 long years?
If Rajoana is indeed hanged on March 31, it is the duty of the Akali-BJP combine to maintain law and order, not to virtually blackmail the Centre by talking of how “volatile” the mood is in Punjab. The public wants firm governance — not emotional politicking. Perhaps this is also the time to review capital punishment and to abolish it, as most civilised nations have done.
Rahul Singh, a former editor of several publications, was based in Chandigarh as resident editor of a national paper during the mid-1980s
The views expressed by the author are personal