Why this fasting octogenarian may be a rebel without a cause

Surat Singh Khalsa wants the Punjab government to release 82 prisoners prematurely. But there are laws, and a case in Supreme Court, that do not allow this.

Written by Kanchan Vasdev | Chandigarh | Updated: July 23, 2015 9:03:31 am
Surat Singh Khalsa, Punjab government, Punjab prisoners, Punjab jail prisoners, Punjab life convicts, Balwant Singh Rajoana, Beant Singh assassination case, punjab news, indian express explained, ie explained Surat Singh Khalsa has been on a hungerstrike since January. (Source: Express photo)

Since January 16 this year, 82-year-old social activist Surat Singh Khalsa has been on hungerstrike in Ludhiana, demanding that the Punjab government grant premature release — or PMR — to 82 prisoners who he claims have “completed their sentences”.

Also Read: The man behind the list: Jaspal Singh Manjhpur

Police moved Khalsa from his home in Ludhiana’s Hasanpur village to hospital this week, even as the activist — called ‘Bapu’ by supporters — intensified his agitation, claiming he had now given up even water. The fast has been backed by hardline Sikh groups.


But the problem is this: The government can’t decide on remitting sentences of life convicts until the Supreme Court takes a view on the matter. And, more significantly, as a scrutiny of police records of all 82 prisoners by The Indian Express shows, there is no one on that list who has “completed their sentence”, or who could be considered for PMR.

[On Tuesday, Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, the hardline former member of the Sikh Students’ Federation who drew up the original list of 82, deleted 25 names and added 7. Manjhpur now says 20 prisoners on the original list have got bail or have been released. He has also deleted 5 names that police have always claimed are fictitious.]

List of problems

Out of the 82, only 19 have got life terms, and only two have served the minimum sentence prescribed for PMR: Hardeep Singh (52), booked under TADA, Arms Act and IPC for murder, has done 17 years, and Baz Singh (47), sentenced to life for killing a Head Constable on duty, has done 19.


However, Baz Singh has been out on parole 25 times and on furlough 10 times since September 1990, and has effectively spent 18 years and four months in jail.

The other 17 life convicts include Dilbagh Singh alias Bagha, jailed for terrorist activities, Swaran Singh, a TADA convict, and Balveer Singh Bhutna, convicted under the Explosives Act. All three are at the high-security Nabha jail.

The remaining 14 were tried in other states, and when they complete the years required for PMR, the decision to grant it would be that of those states. Two in the list of those serving life sentences, Gurmeet Singh Fauji and Naginder Singh, are in Bikaner jail.

Among the other 65 prisoners, Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted in the Beant Singh assassination case and the only one sentenced to death, does not qualify for PMR. Two on the list, Subeg Singh and Nand Singh Nandu, have completed 17 and 20 years respectively, but are undertrials in other cases.

Twenty-four have been giving varying terms. Eight convicts in the 1987 Ludhiana bank dacoity are yet to finish jail, and don’t qualify for PMR. Three of the remaining 16 have been acquitted; another three released on bail. The rest will be released on completion of their terms. “They have not been awarded life imprisonment. Their sentences vary from 7 to 10 years. Legal redressal of bail pending appeal is available to all persons who are old and sick etc.,” said a police official.

As many as 25 are undertrials. They can only be granted bail by the courts.

One in the list of 82 is dead. Four have been acquitted. Police are yet to trace eight.

Shackled by the SC

On July 9, 2014, the Supreme Court restrained states from remitting sentences of life convicts. The decision came on the Centre’s appeal challenging Tamil Nadu’s decision to remit the sentences of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The court is in the process of deciding if state governments can grant remission in cases probed by central agencies like the CBI.

Punjab has moved an application asking to be made a party in the case, seeking modification of the July 9, 2014 order, and permission to remit the sentences of Sikh prisoners. But as of now, the state’s hands are tied.

“It would attract contempt of court if we did so [released a life convict prematurely],” ADGP Intelligence Hardeep Dhillon said.

Khalsa and his supporters argue that the convicts could be pardoned by the Governor. But police say that would send the undesirable message that they were innocent.

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