SC raps Centre for delay in taking call on Rajoana’s mercy petition
The bench, which included justices Vikram Nath and Sanjay Karol, took umbrage at the Centre’s indisposition to draw the curtains on the mercy plea despite several timelines and directives
Observing that there must be a decision one way or the other, the Supreme Court on Thursday pulled up the Union government for the delay in taking a call over the mercy plea of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who is on death row in former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh’s assassination case.
“Either you accept it or reject it, how can you keep sitting on it? This is in direct breach of our repeated orders,” a bench, led by justice BR Gavai, told the Centre after being informed that the government is yet to decide on a mercy petition filed 10 years ago for the commutation of Rajoana’s capital punishment to life imprisonment.
The bench, which included justices Vikram Nath and Sanjay Karol, took umbrage at the Centre’s indisposition to draw the curtains on the mercy plea despite several timelines and directives of the court in the last two years.
“On the face of it, this is contempt of our orders. We will call your home secretary and the CBI chief. This court has repeatedly said you have to take a decision irrespective of pendency of appeals by co-accused,” it told additional solicitor general (ASG) KM Nataraj, who represented the government in the matter. CBI was the investigating and prosecuting agency in the 1995 assassination case.
ALSO READ: Centre opposing Rajoana’s release illogical: Sukhbir
The court’s strictures came even as it reserved its verdict on a petition filed by Rajoana in 2020 for commuting his punishment in view of a communication issued by the Union ministry of home affairs in September 2019. In this letter, a decision was communicated by the Centre to the Punjab government for commuting Rajoana’s death sentence to a life term, coinciding with the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.
Senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi, arguing for Rajoana before the top court on Thursday, emphasised that not only his client was entitled to a commutation in the light of the 2019 communication, the very fact that he has been on death row for 15 years would be sufficient to grant him the reprieve.
“They have repeatedly defied the orders of this court and their own decision. But now, I am not relying on their decision any more. I am entitled under the judgment of this court that someone who is on death row for 15 years is entitled to remission. He has been in jail for more than 26 years,” he said.
Rohatgi cited the case of another terror case convict Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, whose life term was commuted by the Supreme Court in 2014 over an inordinate delay by the government in deciding his mercy plea.
“In Bhullar’s case, his death penalty was confirmed by the Supreme Court and his review and curative petitions were also dismissed by this court. Then, a writ petition was filed on the ground that his mercy remained pending for seven years. This court allowed commutation. My client is better situated than Bhullar,” Rohatgi asserted.
He also countered the Centre’s submissions regarding a possible law-and-order situation if Bhullar’s plea was decided because Punjab happened to be a border state. “There are 10 border states in this country. Can the law be different for a border state?” Rohatgi asked.
The senior counsel added that he is entitled to commutation at once and later a final release due to the inhuman treatment meted out to him by keeping him on death row for 15 years. Rohatgi also asked for parole for the time being.
The ASG opposed Bhullar’s plea, saying the convict never filed any mercy plea himself. “Such representations only came from organisations like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Many organisations had even written against the proposed move. There is no representation from him at all. Where is the question of seeking a right to be released?” contended Nataraj.
The law officer further said that the September 2019 decision by MHA (ministry of home affairs) did not confer any right on Rajoana since it was not a final decision and the President is yet to take the final call.
The court then proceeded to reserve its order in the matter.
Rajoana, a former Punjab Police constable, was convicted for his involvement in an explosion outside the Punjab civil secretariat that killed Beant Singh and 16 others in 1995.
A special court had in July 2007 awarded the death sentence to Rajoana, along with another convict Jagtar Singh Hawara, in the assassination case. Rajoana was the second human bomb in case the first one failed in killing the Congress leader. Rajoana was scheduled to be hanged on March 31, 2012.
However, the execution was stayed on March 28, 2012, by the then UPA government at the Centre after Sikh religious body SGPC filed a mercy petition with the President. The Shiromani Akali Dal, which was then in power in Punjab, also campaigned against his execution. The President had at that time forwarded the mercy plea to the MHA. Since then, the petition has been pending.