By- Jasdev Singh Rai-Medical Doctor, with MA in politics, human rights activist and community worker
For a country that brands itself on Gandhi, non violence and cow protection, the death penalty in India and Balwant Singh Rajoana’s imminent hanging on 31 March might appear to be an aberration. Not quite so when Balwant Singh’s statement in the court is heard. He accepted being party to the assassination of the Chief Minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, on 31st August 1995. In court he said he had no faith in Indian justice and refused legal representation. He refuses to plead for clemency. This puts many Sikhs and indeed Punjabis who don’t want a hanging in Punjab in some quandary.
The death penalty is a retrogressive step in Punjab. Before any European countries got around to abolishing the death penalty (Portugal 1867), the Punjab under the Sikh ruler, Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1801-1839), had removed capital punishment. British colonialism restored the death penalty.
India has inherited a penal and judicial system from its colonial past. With the best it has also continued with the worst of laws. Laws and rules that were meant to prop up colonialism, such as prolonged detention without charge, laws against sedition (Scottish leader, Salmon, would have been incarcerated if not hung in India by now) and death penalty among others.
But India went further by enacting laws that assumed guilt until proven otherwise (TADA) and a constitutional amendment (59th ) for 2 years which removed the primary responsibility of the State (Article 21 Indian constitution) to protect life and liberty. Until the UN reminded Indian legislators of the State’s Raison d’eter. However plenty other Indian legal cocktails violate human rights.
In court Balwant Singh questioned India’s commitment to its own constitution, human rights and the law citing the assassinated Chief Minister’s actions. The Chief Minister, Beant Singh, won the election in Punjab in 1992 on a mandate of 9% of the potential electorate. Peaceful Sikh nationalists were detained and banned from standing.
The rest of Punjab reacted by boycotting the elections. India spun this by asserting the boycott was due to threats from Sikh militants. Repeated evidence and subsequent elections show that Sikh populations don’t get intimidated by such threats.
Beant Singh’s 9% electoral backing was hailed a return to democracy by many western countries and media. In Syria the west would call this overwhelming rejection of the regime! India obviously has a way with the west.
Beant Singh immediately gave the police force free reign to continue a policy of extrajudicial executions, torture and illegal detentions even more aggressively. During his four years, it is estimated that over 10000 young people were killed by police death squads given rewards for ‘eliminating suspects’, despite India’s repeated claims that there were only 300 armed Sikh Nationalists. Question, who were the other 9700 killed?
Balwant Singh, the assassin, said that someone had to stop the Chief Minister. The west mitigated Beant’s crimes with words such as ‘democratic mandate’. The Indian State gave him constitutional cover. In India, not only religious texts, but even the constitution can have schismatic interpretations depending on who it is interpreted for.
Meanwhile the Indian Supreme Court, priding itself with ‘judicial activism for human rights’, ostriched itself through this period despite daily press reports of ‘encounter’s, called ‘fake encounters’ by Amnesty and UN. India has even acquired a wikipedia page for this ‘incredible’ activity. In India everyone is equal before the law but the law is not equal before everyone.
Following the Chief Minister’s death by a human bomb, Dilawar Singh, Balwant’s accomplice, the ‘encounters’ fell dramatically. Real democracy returned and the police was largely reigned in.
Balwant Singh questioned the court about Indian justice. During the attack on the Golden Temple in 1984 over 3000 innocent pilgrims, mostly children, elderly and women were killed by the Indian armed forces. A 16,000 strong army using helicopters, tanks and heavy artillery called these ‘collateral damage’ fighting a mere 200 armed Sikhs. The Army Officers got promotions for ‘gallantry’. The Indian Army has always been too willing to kill its own citizens. Another colonial habit hard to give up.
When the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the attack on the Golden Temple, was assassinated in November 1984, about 4000 innocent Sikhs in Delhi were massacred by a mob fed with addresses of Sikhs, petrol, iron bars and tyres by the political establishment and the police. Burning people alive with tyres around their necks (necklacing) was started by ‘Non-violent’ India in November 1984 beating South Africa by a year.
Balwant Singh asked the judge what was Indian justice doing about the politicians and police who had masterminded or been responsible during the four days of massacres. In fact they climbed the ladder. Tytler, directly implicated, became Union Minister while Narahsima Rao, then Home Minister, went on to become India’s Prime Minister. Rao had failed to call in the army stationed only half an hour away.
Underneath the veneer of Gandhi and cow protection is a State whose mindless cruelty against minorities is baffling to an innocent observer. Perhaps that is the ironic ‘incredible’ in ‘Incredible India’ the slogan India uses to promote tourism. Killer police squads and non violent sadhus, all in one country.
India’s crimes against its own citizens and the silence of the ‘ethical west’ do not mitigate Balwant Singh’s actions. Like many Sikhs in history, he took full responsibility for what he did. He has refused anyone to plead on his behalf. But he has thrown a challenge to India and the world. ‘Show the same commitment to constitutionality, law and human rights when the Indian State, its forces, its bureaucrats and its politicians commit heinous crimes against humanity’.
The removal of death penalty from the penal code inherited from its colonial past could be the first step towards convincing ordinary people that non-violence is not merely rhetorical propaganda but really embedded in the culture of Indians. Or perhaps cows are more sacred than humans in India. ‘Incredible India?’, of course!
March 22, 2012 at 8:55 pm
“The death penalty is a retrogressive step in Punjab. Before any European countries got around to abolishing the death penalty (Portugal 1867), the Punjab under the Sikh ruler, Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1801-1839), had removed capital punishment. British colonialism restored the death penalty.”
Thank you for this! Great point.