A Delhi court Monday acquitted Tajinderpal Singh and Satnam Singh — two of the five men from the radical Sikh organisation Dal Khalsa who hijacked the Delhi-Srinagar Indian Airlines flight IC423, with 117 on board, to Lahore on September 29, 1981. The trial was initiated under unusual circumstances, which the court described as “unique”.
Tajinderpal, Satnam, and the other three hijackers — Jasbir Singh Cheema, Gajinder Singh, Karan Singh — were arrested by the Pakistanis on September 30, 1981, tried, and jailed. Upon their release in 1994, the men knocked on the doors of several national governments. Satnam finally returned to India in 1999, and surrendered before an Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM). He submitted details of the Pakistani trial, and pleaded that since he had already served jail time in that country from September 30, 1981 to October 31, 1994, he could not be criminally prosecuted again. On February 11, 2000, the court, after seeking opinion from Indian government prosecutors, ruled that if put on trial, the case would be “hit by double jeopardy”, and ordered Satnam’s “discharge”.
In July 2000, Tajinderpal, who had returned to India in December 1997, moved an application for discharge on grounds of parity with Satnam’s case. But when the court asked for full records of the case, it was informed that the file had been destroyed, and the police submitted that there was nothing to suggest that Tajinderpal Singh had, in fact, been chargesheeted. The ACMM then directed police to investigate further, “especially under the charges of sedition as they were not the charges framed by the Lahore Special Court”.
On October 1, 2011, police filed a supplementary chargesheet, accusing all five of sedition and waging war against the state, and said they had raised slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabad”, “Indira Gandhi Murdabad”, “Sant Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale Zindabad”, and “Bharat Sarkar Murdabad”.
After the court issued non-bailable warrants against the men, Satnam and Tajinderpal moved Delhi High Court (Jasbir, Gajinder and Karan are abroad), which directed them to seek bail from the trial court. Hearings started last year, and the prosecution argued that the case against the accused had been proved “through their own admission” in their discharge applications. Additional Prosecutor S K Kain told the court that the accused could no longer “resile or backtrack from the admissions voluntarily made by them”. Counsel for accused Maninder Singh argued that “the prosecution must stand on its legs”, and “mere filing of applications by accused… does not relieve the prosecution to prove its case”.
The court focused on three main points.
* Whether the prosecution could prove proper application of mind in the grant of sanction to file a supplementary chargesheet: The police letter for sanction said they had the chargesheet, FIR and other records; however, “It has come in the order sheets of the courts that even the main chargesheet, FIR was not available and it could not have been sent to any authority seeking sanction”, the court said.
* Whether conviction in the absence of records and main chargesheet would be unjustified: The court described the case as “unique” in that prosecution proceedings were not launched by police, but had rather been initiated by the filing of the discharge application. The court said it was clear that the main chargesheet was not available with police or the court, and even the Ministry of Home Affairs had been unable to trace the documents relating to the first sanction for prosecution. Several things could be verified from the main chargesheet alone, and in its absence, “it would be unjustified” to convict the accused, the court said.
* Whether admissions of the accused in their applications could be acted upon: The court said it was “not bound” by the Pakistan court’s judgment — and even that record was unavailable. “Intention and purpose of filing of application for discharge was not to make confessions but was limited to seek discharge of the applicant. Reference of the earlier conviction by the Pakistan Court does justify reasoning in the order of conviction, but was only to highlight that the accused may not be subsequently tried in the court at India and is not ‘proof of positive facts’ required to proved by prosecution,” the Delhi court held.