Chapter 1: Emergency in India (26 June 1975 – 21 March 1977)
During Indira Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, India witnessed its darkest phase since independence, when a state of emergency was declared under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, thereby suspending elections and civil liberties of its citizens. Emergencies were declared when someone claimed that Indira Gandhi had practiced electoral fraud to win the 1971 elections.
It was during this time, that the leaders of opposition parties and other activists were arrested and thrown behind bars. During the 21 months of emergency, of 140,000 people who were arrested without any trial – 40,000 were Sikhs. The police had direct orders to arrest anyone who raises the call of “Jo Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal”.
Chapter 2: Operation Blue Star (3–6 June 1984)
Post emergency, the historic Khalistan movement became more and more violent. These separatists demanded a separate nation of Khalistan on Sikh principles. A prominent Sikh leader who emerged during these times was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a leader of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh religious group. Interestingly, he neither supported nor opposed the formation of Khalistan.
Bhindranwale, among many other Sikhs, was of the opinion that if the government and judiciary would not prosecute perceived enemies of Sikhism, taking extrajudicial measures could be justified. Soon there were massive campaigns of civil disobedience directed at the Central Government. Amidst the civil unrest, and strong resistance by the government, in July 1982, Bhindranwale took shelter in the Golden Temple compound with a large group of his armed followers. Within a year, the Golden Temple had become a fortress with heavy stockpiles of weapons.
On 3rd June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi initiated Operation Blue Star which mobilized about 11,000 Indian armed forces to raid the Golden Temple complex in order to remove the armed militants. Bhindranwale did not survive the operation. 800 Soldiers of the Indian army and more than 5000 Sikhs were killed. The Government later instigated further campaigns to eradicate the separatists from the countryside of Punjab.
As a mode of protest, thousands of Sikhs, including soldiers and policemen resigned across India. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984, by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
Chapter 3: The Sikh Massacre (31 October 1984 – 3 November 1984)
What followed the death of Indira Gandhi was utter chaos. Armed mobs (particularly congress members) attacked Sikhs and their properties in a backlash. CBI said it was a well organized plan by the government. Congress party officials provided assailants with voter lists, school registration forms, and ration lists to find the location of Sikh homes and business places in Delhi.
The death toll varies with versions. While government claimed the death of 2,700 Sikhs; there exist claims of up to 20,000 deaths and at least 50,000 Sikhs who left their homes and fled.
Since then, Punjab never rested. The President’s Rule, from 1987 to 1992, was checkered by militancy and heavy police crackdown. Elections in Punjab were postponed twice. Finally in 1992, elections were held, winning which Beant Singh of Congress was elected the Chief Minister.
Chapter 4: The assassination of Beant Singh (August 31, 1995)
It is alleged that during Beant Singh’s tenure, tens of thousands of Sikhs were killed and their bodies cremated by the police in extrajudicial executions. Balwant Singh Rajoana, a police constable at that time, conspired with Dilawar Singh Babbar, another police officer, to kill Beant Singh.
Based on a coin toss, Babbar was chosen to be the suicide bomber, with Rajoana as a backup. The attack on 31st August 1995 resulted in the death of Beant Singh and 17 others. In December 1997, Balwant confessed his involvement.
Chapter 5: Balwant Singh Rajoana (25 December 1997 till date)
During trial, Balwant refused counsel, asking instead to be allowed to represent himself. He did not cross-examine witnesses and was subsequently awarded the death penalty. Balwant refused to appeal against the death penalty administratively through a mercy petition to the Governor or President.
Balwant has been on death row since August 2007. His execution was scheduled for 31 March 2012 and since then, the state of Punjab has witnessed huge protests condemning the execution. On 23 March 2012, he was awarded the title of “Living Martyr” by the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Khalsa. Many in Punjab, consider him to be the contemporary Bhagat Singh.
On March 28, 2012 India’s Home Ministry stayed the execution. 17 years since his surrender, the fate of Balwant Singh Rajoana is yet to be decided.
Chapter 6: An eye for an eye
It is obvious that Balwant’s execution can lead to further violence in Punjab. From Indira Gandhi, through Bhindranwale, to Beant Singh, this country has continuously held one person’s ego more important than the life of a common man, who gets killed from both sides. In both 1975 and 1984, thousands of Sikhs suffered, but they are still remembered as standoffs between Jayaprakash Narayan and Indira Gandhi or between Indira Gandhi and Bhindranwale.
While the ego and assassination of both Bhindranwale and Indira Gandhi led to the death of thousands, the very idea of Balwant Singh being hanged has led to violence and deaths in Punjab already. Shouldn’t the life of that protester who was killed by mob be equal to that of Balwant in a democracy?
Furthermore, Indian courts have awarded a total of 1,338 death penalties in the last decade, although there has been no execution since Dhananjoy Chatterjee in 2004. I seriously don’t understand why Balwant Singh’s case is any different from others? Simply because it makes more political sense and a reason to contest elections on sensitive communal and sentimental matters like these?
Surely some introspection is required when an individual seeks political expression in the rejection of the democratic government itself even at the cost of his own life, but more importantly, it is high time, that politicians and community leaders stop spilling blood in the name of these sensitive issues, which will only lead to more bloodshed.
We don’t want bloodshed. We don’t even want another hero. I guess even Balwant Singh’s actions and silence points towards the same sentiment. It is more than obvious that Balwant Singh will not be executed. Neither of the political parties of India have the mettle to do so in the current political setup of India.
Balwant Singh may or may not be justified in what he did. He may or may not become a Sikh hero tomorrow. But how does that even matter in the life of a common Sikh? Hasn’t enough blood been spilt on this battle of ego, community and religion that has been fought since the times of Mughals in India?
Why can’t we then, set the man free, considering he has already been behind bars for 17 years? This may even win some goodwill for the government in Punjab, and bring down the temperature there. Can’t for once, personal egos be shed for the benefit of the people who want peace and just that!
Photo credit: panthicdal.com
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