Updated: January 26, 2021 7:17:11 am
Terming it as a last chance, the Supreme Court on Monday directed the Central government to take a call within 14 days on the mercy plea of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was awarded death penalty for his role in the assassination of then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh on August 31, 1995. Singh was killed in a suicide bomb attack by Dilawar Singh. Rajoana was the backup option in case Dilawar failed. The explosion killed 16 people apart from Beant Singh. Rajoana has been in jail for over 25 years now. Earlier, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde had on January 8 said that decision on the plea should be taken before January 26 which was a “good date”.
Who is Balwant Singh Rajoana?
A resident of Rajoana Kalan village in Ludhiana district, Rajoana was a police constable who had joined the Punjab Police on October 1, 1987. Currently lodged in Patiala Central Jail, he was sympathetic to the views of Babbar Khalsa International. He justified Beant Singh’s assassination, blaming the CM for “extra-judicial” killings of Sikh youth. It was he who tied the bombs on Dilawar’s body.
In his judicial confession recorded under Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure Code on January 22 and 23, 1996, Rajoana stated: “Judge Sahib, Beant Singh assumed himself [to be the] angel of peace after killing thousand innocent people, compared himself with Guru Gobind Singh Ji and Ram Ji, thereafter we had decided to killed Chief Minister Sh Beant Singh.”
Rajoana had also expressed deep anguish over Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. He was angry about the “full liberty” given to agencies and police to “kill” young innocent Sikhs. He had also stated that these atrocities were inflicted by the Chief Minister of Punjab at the behest of “agencies in Delhi”.
The Punjab Police arrested Rajoana in December 1995, and a special CBI court in Chandigarh awarded him the death penalty on July 27, 2007. It also gave the death penalty to Jagtar Singh Hawara, and life imprisonment to Gurmit Singh, Lakhwinder Singh and Shamsher Singh. Hawara’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2010, after he challenged the trial court order.
Did Rajoana challenge the death penalty?
No. Rajoana didn’t even engage a lawyer during the trial. Rajoana had stated: “Yes, I was involved in this murder. I have no repentance of involvement in this murder. I and Bhai Dilawar Singh prepared this bomb.”
On August 10, 2009, he asked the Punjab and Haryana High Court Chief Justice for his death penalty case to be considered separate from that of his co-accused, who had challenged the conviction by the trial court. Rajoana had said the death sentence “for this act is justice” and a blessing, and refused to bow before such a “worthless system”.
“How can I say that I am innocent and why should I engage any advocate when my conscience does not allow me to do so,” he had stated in a letter to the High Court.
What happened thereafter?
Rajoana’s hanging was scheduled on March 31, 2012. But resentment and anger in some sections of the society led to the Punjab government, then headed by Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, making efforts to stop it. On March 28, 2012, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) filed a mercy petition before the President, and the Union Home Ministry ordered a stay on his execution.
First in 2016 and then in 2018, Rajoana went on hunger strike in Patiala Central Jail, demanding a decision on the mercy petition filed by the SGPC. He ended his five-day hunger strike in 2018 after SGPC president Gobind Singh Longowal assured him that his petition will be taken up expeditiously.
What is the background of the latest Supreme Court order on Rajoana’s mercy petition?
On the occasion of commemoration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder guru of Sikhism, the Centre in September 2019 decided to recommend cases of eight Sikh prisoners for special remission and release under Article 161 of the Constitution to the respective States (under which Governor can grant the remission). In addition, it also recommended processing the case of Rajoana for commutation of death sentence under Section 72 of the Constitution (under which the President is empowered to commute death sentence). A correspondence to this effect was sent to respective States/UT in September 2019 by the Union Home Ministry. In December 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, however, stated in Lok Sabha that no pardon had been granted to Rajoana after Congress Member of Parliament Ravneet Singh Bittu, who is the grandson of Beant Singh, during the Question Hour sought a response from Shah as to why “Rajoana was pardoned”.
In 2020, Rajoana filed a Writ Petition (Criminal) seeking direction for expeditious disposal of MHA’s proposal to commute his death sentence. Hearing this plea, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered that the mercy plea be decided in 14 days’ time. Earlier, in December last year, the court had questioned the delay on the part of the Centre in sending a proposal related to Rajoana’s death sentence to the President.
What is the status of the other eight cases recommended for remission?
Two convicts, Subeg Singh and Nand Singh who were sentenced to life imprisonment in a murder case at Chandigarh in February, were released from Patiala Jail after their cases were cleared by UT Chandigarh. They had served 24 and 23 years in prison, respectively. A TADA convict who was awarded life sentence, Lal Singh was also released from Nabha jail.
Among those whose cases were also recommended for special remissions and release but are still pending include Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, who was convicted in the 1993 Delhi bomb blast case and whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court on March 31, 2014; Gurdeep Singh Khaira who was sentenced to life in case where he was booked for murder and under Explosive Substances Act at Bidar police station in Karnatka in July 1990 (In another case, Khaira was awarded life imprisonment in another case registered at Trilokpuri police in Delhi in 1990 under Section 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC and sections of TADA and Explosive Substances Act. He was also sentenced to six years in prison in a case registered at Krishna Nagar police station Delhi in 1990 under Section 387 (Putting person in fear of death or of grievous hurt, in order to commit extortion) of the IPC); and Waryam Singh who had “absconded from parole from July 7, 2009 to April, 2, 2010”. Waryam Singh, a resident of Seoli village under Lalru police station in Mohali district and was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in a murder case dating back to April 3, 2003. The case was registered at Raipur Rani police station in Haryana.
Also in the list of eight was Balbir Singh who was already out on bail in the case where he was convicted in Punjab in a case involving offences under IPC and under Sections of Explosives Act. The case was registered at Raikot police station in Ludhiana in June 2009.
Intriguingly, the list of eight prisoners recommended for remission/release also had the name of a man acquitted by the Supreme Court in January 2017. Harjinder, a native of Lalton Khurd village in Ludhiana district, and others were accused in a Rs 5.7-crore bank robbery case of 1987. In the same case, Harjinder also faced charges, including under sections of TADA. But he was acquitted of all charges. However, the list of prisoners recommended for special remission by Centre read Harjinder Singh who was sentenced 10 years rigorous imprisonment, was currently on bail granted by the SC on January 12, 2017.
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