Towards the end of the trial in his case, Assa Singh had to be carried into the court-room by two people. Taking pity on him, the TADA court in Ludhiana had exempted Assa, already into his 90s, from personal appearance.
However, in November 2012, that didn’t stop the additional judge from sentencing Assa, by then 93, and 11 others to 10 years for a two-decade-old bank dacoity. Among those sentenced was 83-year-old Harbhajan Singh of Sarin village in Jalandhar.
The dacoity, at Punjab National Bank’s Industrial Branch in Ludhiana in 1987, was the biggest in India at the time, with the robbers taking away Rs 5.70 crore. The judge held that while Assa, then 68, was not directly involved, he was one of the conspirators and that some of the looted currency had been found on him.
In June 2013, Assa was injured following a brutal attack by fellow inmates, and had to be hospitalised. Given parole later, he remained bed-ridden for two months at home. Finally, when he showed signs of mental disturbance, the Supreme Court granted him bail. Singh remains on bail since.
On February 12, 1987, over two dozen alleged Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) militants dressed in police uniforms had come to the PNB branch in a truck. Over the next three hours, they had emptied the Rs 5.20 crore from the bank’s strong room, filling it in quilt covers, pillow covers and sacks. The case was handed over to the CBI within a week.
Most of the accused, including alleged associates of General Labh Singh of the KCF, were killed later in police encounters. Two of them, Sukhwinder Singh Sukha and Harjinder Singh Jinda, were hanged to death in 1992 for the assassination of General A S Vaidya, the chief of army staff at the time of Operation Blue Star.
Assa had been arrested soon after the robbery and spent a year and a half in jail before getting bail. His re-arrest, after the sentencing, came 25 years later.
Assa’s counsel Puran Singh Hundal believes Singh was convicted due to his alleged sympathy towards Khalistan, and says his arguments — that Assa couldn’t have been involved in a dacoity as he was from a well-to-do family — were ignored. The family lives in a palatial house in Badala Mahi.
A big farmer and former executive member of the Akali Dal Mann, he was picked up by police several times during the militancy years, from early ’80s to early ’90s.
Assa’s wife Jasbir Kaur accepts their family “was quite close to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his organisation Damdami Taksal” but adds that they were never involved in any militant acts.
In those years, Jasbir adds, militants would roam the villages and extort help from people, and Assa was picked up by police several times and “tortured mercilessly”. However, she argues, people like them had no choice. “Families would be asked to prepare food in bulk by gurdwara people and we didn’t know to whom that food was to be served.”
At Assa’s sentencing, Jasbir says, “We pleaded a lot to the court. We said he could not look after himself. But no one listened. My sons struggled for months to get him bail from the Supreme Court.”
Of Assa’s five children, including two daughters, all are settled in Canada, except his youngest son Ajaib Singh, who lives with his parents in the village.
Assa claims to remember little of the dacoity now, only “what police have told me” — “That I was a salahkaar (adviser) and that loot money was recovered from me.” Ask him how he got that money, he says, “I don’t know anything. Police should know.”
He remembers the attack on him in the Hoshiarpur jail more clearly, including being “beaten and pushed around by
Assa’s wife and daughter-in-law Kamaljit Kaur say they often find him rummaging through things kept under his bed now. “When we ask him what he is looking for, he says his eatables,” says Kamaljit, adding they believe that while in prison, that’s where he hid food stuff sent from home from other inmates.
Assa, who is eager to talk, suddenly starts reciting ‘Japuji Sahib (a religious discourse)’. He keeps repeating it, till Kamaljit gets up and stops him. “He is a highly optimistic person,” she smiles indulgently. “That’s why he could survive all the atrocities on him.”