Proposal to commute Rajoana’s sentence yet to be sent to President, Centre tells SC
Fourteen months after it declared that Balwant Singh Rajoana will not hang in former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh’s assassination case, the central government has revealed in the Supreme Court that the papers related to the commuting of the sentence are yet to be placed before the President of India.
Additional solicitor general KM Nataraj informed a top court bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, that the file was yet to be sent by the Cabinet to the President for granting Rajoana pardon under Article 72 of the Constitution, despite a recommendation of the ministry of home affairs (MHA) to the effect in September 2019.
Article 72 empowers the President to grant pardons and issue other orders to suspend or remit the remaining part of the sentence of convicts.
Beant Singh and at least 16 others were killed in an explosion outside the Civil Secretariat in Chandigarh in 1995. Rajoana was sentenced to death in 2007 by a special court.
While he refused to file a mercy petition, Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex religious body of the Sikhs, filed a petition on his behalf before the President in 2014.
The decision to commute his death penalty was taken ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev in 2019, but with the decision yet to be implemented, Rajoana moved the Supreme Court in September this year, asking for clarity.
In the apex court, ASG Nataraj submitted: “No decision has gone to the President. The Cabinet has to send the file to the President but it hasn’t happened so far.” He pointed out that appeals by some of the other convicts in the former CM’s murder case are still pending in the top court.
Unconvinced by this submission, the bench said that someone in the government seems to be “highly mistaken” that appeals by other convicts have anything to do with Rajoana’s clemency.
“This petitioner has not filed an appeal in this court. Your letter in September 2019 to the Punjab government says that commutation has to be processed under Article 72 which has nothing to do with pendency of any appeal. You answer a question in law. Once the central government has decided to commute the death sentence, it had to proceed,” the bench told the law officer.
It emphasised that a deputy secretary in the MHA must have written to the Punjab government’s chief secretary about the decision to commute only after such a decision was taken by someone competent.
“Now we are asking you why has this not been processed so far? Your argument about pending appeals by others is untenable. If you have communicated to Punjab that you have commuted his sentence on Guru Nanak Jayanti, it means you have already decided to do it,” added the court.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, representing Rajoana, pressed for an early hearing since the convict has been in jail for more than 25 years now. The court accepted his request and fixed the matter for a hearing in the first week of January.
Former SGPC president Bhai Gobind Singh Longowal and its honorary chief secretary Harjinder Singh, criticised the government for dragging its feet in spite of publicly announcing the decision to commute his death sentence.
“SGPC has been repeatedly making requests to all authorities in the government to end this injustice but nothing seems to be moving while Rajoana’s sufferings prolong. SGPC is providing the best legal assistance to him and we hope the Supreme Court will come to his rescue,” they told HT