Sikhs divided on issue as execution date nears; clergy bestows ‘living martyr' title on him

As March 31 approaches, when Balwant Singh Rajoana is scheduled to be hanged, divergent opinions have emerged from within the Sikh community, especially after the apex “Singh Sahiban” (clergy) at the Akal Takht bestowed the title “zinda shaheed” on him and decreed that Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who is president of the Akali Dal and chief of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), meet the President for clemency.

In 2007, the trial court awarded death sentence to Mr. Rajoana, a former constable in the Punjab police, and top Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) activist Jagtar Singh Hawara. They were convicted of carrying out an attack in which a suicide bomber, Dilawar Singh, killed the then Chief Minister Beant Singh and 17 others at the VIP entrance of the Punjab and Haryana Civil Secretariat on August 31, 1995.

Mr. Rajoana, who was the back-up bomber, refused to file an appeal against the conviction and instead sought an expeditious execution. Hawara's sentence was commuted to life in jail.

On March 23, coinciding with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, the ‘Singh Sahiban,' after deliberating on around 250 petitions from Sikh organisations, issued an edict from the Akal Takht, bestowing the title of “shaheed” (martyr) on Dilawar Singh and “zinda shaheed” (living martyr) on Mr. Rajoana. After the meeting, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the apex religio-temporal authority of the Sikhs, read out the “hukumnama” (edict) that directed the Chief Minister, the Akali Dal leadership and the SGPC to approach President Pratibha Patil to save Mr. Rajoana from the gallows.

The edict also mentioned that when a delegation from the Akal Takht met Mr. Rajoana, at the Patiala high security prison, he requested an early date for his execution and asked his family and the entire community not to seek clemency. However, the ‘Singh Sahiban' was unanimous that the Chief Minister and the Sikh community leadership should apprise the President of the injustices being meted out to the Sikh Panth.

They pointed out that the courts had commuted the death sentences of Kishori Lal and Dara Singh, who were convicted in the November 1984 anti-Sikh riots case and the killing the Christian missionary Graham Staines. The Akal Takht favoured abolition of death penalty as was done by many countries.

The ‘Singh Sahiban' also directed Sikhs settled abroad to refrain from work on March 28. Men have been asked to sport “kesari” (saffron) turbans and women drape in “kesari” dupattas to perform “ardas” (prayers) for the “chardikala” (high spirits) of Mr. Rajoana.

Meanwhile, at least a dozen Panthic outfits have given a bandh call for March 28, when Khalsa marches would be taken out to Patiala. The participants of these marches would sit in dharna outside the jail on March 30 and 31.

The Akali leadership has been cautious. Party president Sukhbir Singh, who is also Deputy Chief Minister, has convened a meeting of the party's core committee to deliberate on the edict. The Chief Minister has welcomed the statement of Beant Singh's family that it had no reservations if clemency was granted to Mr. Rajoana. But the family, including MP Ravneet Singh and MLA Gurkirat Singh Kotli (grandsons of the assassinated CM) wanted the State government to clarify its position.

However, some radical outfits, including the Dal Khalsa and the Panch Pardhani faction of the Shiromani Akali Dal, rejected the edict. Their leaders Kanwarpal Singh and Daljit Singh said it was a complete surrender before the state, in which Mr. Rajoana had no faith.