Simply put: 36 years on, a hijack lands back in dock

The hijackers were arrested on September 30, 1981 after Pakistani commandos entered the plane. There were no deaths or injuries. The men spent three years in a military prison, and were put on trial for the hijack in 1984. They were sentenced to life imprisonment on January 20, 1986.

Written by Navjeevan Gopal | Updated: July 31, 2017 9:54 am
1981 hijackers Satnam Singh (extreme left, in dark blue turban), Gajinder Singh (third from left, in maroon turban), Tajinderpal Singh (fifth from left, in white shirt) and Jasbir Singh Cheema (extreme right) at Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore in this picture that the Dal Khalsa says was taken around 1986.

On September 29, 1981, five radical Sikhs hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft to Lahore, and were jailed in Pakistan until 1994. Two of them returned to India, and all five were subsequently charged with sedition. A Delhi court will hear the investigating officer today, setting the stage for a likely trial. Navjeeval Gopal recounts a fascinating story of twists, turns and long legal delays.

What happened in September 1981, and why are those events back in the news after 36 long years?

On September 29, 1981, five activists of the radical Sikh organisation Dal Khalsa hijacked a New Delhi-Srinagar Indian Airlines flight to Lahore. The hijackers — Satnam Singh, Tajinderpal Singh, Jasbir Singh Cheema, Gajinder Singh and Karan Singh — demanded the release of Sikh preacher Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had been arrested on September 19 that year for involvement in the September 9 murder of Lala Jagat Narain, editor of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers. The men also wanted the release of Sikh prisoners, and compensation for the deaths of Sikh protesters killed in police firing at Amritsar’s Mehta Chowk after the arrest of Bhindranwale.

The hijackers were arrested on September 30, 1981 after Pakistani commandos entered the plane. There were no deaths or injuries. The men spent three years in a military prison, and were put on trial for the hijack in 1984. They were sentenced to life imprisonment on January 20, 1986. In 1994, after they had spent 13 years and one month in prison, the men were released. Two of the hijackers who subsequently came back to India — Tajinderpal Singh and Satnam Singh — now face the prospect of being tried for sedition by a court in Delhi.

How did the situation of a new trial arise?

In September 2011, Delhi Police filed a supplementary chargesheet before a Delhi court, charging the men with sedition, waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India, and criminal conspiracy. The prosecution alleged the hijackers had raised slogans of “Khalistan Zindabad”, “Indira Gandhi Murdabad”, Sant Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale Zindabad, Bharat Sarkar Murdabad”, “Raj Karega Khalsa”, and other anti-India slogans during the hijacking. The Dal Khalsa, to which the men belonged, wanted an independent state for Sikhs, the prosecution said.

The court took cognizance of the charges in August 2012, and issued non-bailable warrants (NBWs) against all five hijackers. Tajinder and Satnam approached Delhi High Court in December that year, seeking the quashing of the supplementary chargesheet and cancellation of NBWs.

On May 18 this year, the High Court converted the NBWs into summons and ordered Tajinder and Satnam to appear before the trial court and seek bail. This they did on July 18, and got two days’ interim bail. On July 20, the court granted them regular bail, and fixed July 31 — Monday — as the date of hearing, asking the investigating officer to present his report.

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What happened between their release from prison in Pakistan and the Delhi Police action in 2011?

Gajinder Singh flew to Germany in 1996, but was refused entry and deported back to Pakistan. Karan Singh and Jasbir Singh Cheema travelled to Switzerland in 1995, and got asylum there. Tajinderpal, who is 64 now, sought asylum in Canada, but was deported back to Pakistan. He then went to Nepal, and crossed into India in December 1997. Satnam, who is now 66, knocked on the doors of the US in 1995, and was detained on arrival. After three years, his request for asylum was rejected, and he was deported to Pakistan. He arrived in India in 1999 through Nepal.

On August 9, 1999, Satnam surrendered before a court with an appeal that he be discharged in the hijacking case that was registered at Delhi’s Palam Airport police station. His counsel invoked the principle of double jeopardy, arguing that “having served a sentence decided by a court of competent jurisdiction, the net effect of the sentence is that the offence is wiped out”. On February 11, 2000, the court ordered his “discharge”.

On July 17, 2000, Tajinder too approached the court, seeking similar relief. But this time, the court said it was not under compulsion to follow its previous order, and asked the prosecution if both Satnam and Tajinder should be investigated and tried. After seven years of dates and adjournments, on January 16, 2007, the prosecution submitted that it would investigate the case and submit a report. It took another four and a half years, until September 2011, to file a supplementary chargesheet, accusing the men of sedition.

What have Satnam and Tajinder said on the fresh charges?

Both have invoked double jeopardy, saying they have already been tried and punished for the hijacking, and that putting them on trial again violates the Vienna Convention, to which India is signatory. The defence counsel argued in court that the men have already spent 35 years in litigation and served a life sentence in Pakistan. “The instant is a classic example of double jeopardy… their entire life will go facing trial after trial for [the same offence]. They were first tried for hijacking in Pakistan and sentenced; thereafter they were again tried for same incident by Indian Court and discharged; now you can’t change the denomination and try for the same incident under a different name… it is per se illegal,” the counsel argued.

And what did the court say?

In Satnam’s case, the trial court had accepted the plea of double jeopardy; the successor judge of the same court who heard Tajinderpal’s plea, however, took a different view. Taking cognizance of the supplementary chargesheet in August 2012, in which the investigating agency had slapped charges of sedition, the trial court ruled that the five hijackers would have to face trial for offences other than those of which they had been convicted, and sentenced in Pakistan. A fresh case of sedition was made out on the basis of the slogans the hijackers had raised, the magistrate said. According to Kanwarpal Singh, spokesman of the Dal Khalsa, Indian investigators reached their conclusion on the basis of the Pakistan court’s judgment, which listed the slogans the hijackers had raised. The investigators have told the court that they have not been able to trace any of the passengers or crew of the hijacked aircraft.

How is the case playing out in Punjab?

Tajinder now runs a shop selling Sikh religious literature in Jalandhar, while Satnam lives in Chandigarh. His wife is a teacher who has recently retired.

The Amarinder Singh government offered legal help to the hijackers, but the Dal Khalsa rejected the offer; it wants the state government to tell the Centre to call off the trial. Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal, which was once headed by Bhindranwale, too, has reacted sharply against the fresh trial.

Dal Khalsa has also alleged “double standards” — Bhola Pandey and Devendra Pandey, who hijacked an aircraft to protest the arrest of Indira Gandhi on December 20, 1978, had gone on to become MLAs after Indira returned to power, it has pointed out. “If the case against them could be withdrawn, why should Satnam and Tajinder face retrial after 36 years after undergoing a 14-year jail term?” Kanwarpal Singh asked. He also pointed to the pro-Khalistan slogans that are frequently raised by an assortment of groups at the Golden Temple, and said that Kashmiri militant Hashim Qureishi, who had hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft to Lahore in 1971, had been “mainstreamed” by the Indian intelligence agencies after he had served a sentence in Pakistan. Qureishi now lives in Srinagar, Kanwarpal said.

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