Chandigarh/Mohali: “Hunn Taan Bandi Singha Nu, Rihai De Deyo (Release our captive Singhs now).” The lyrics of slain Punjabi singer Siddhu Moosewala’s hit number SYL were sung in a chorus, before the crowd started up a chant: “Release Jagtar Singh Hawara, release our brothers.”
It was a cool March morning in 2023, and several hundred protestors blocked the Chandigarh-Mohali highway leading out of the shared capital city of Punjab and Haryana states. Hundreds of tractors and tents blockaded the Mohali-Chandigarh road to demand the release of ‘Bandi Singhs’.
The ‘Bandi Singhs’, literally translated as jailed Sikhs, are political prisoners arrested or convicted in cases related to the decade-long insurgency in Punjab beginning in the mid-1980s. On 31 August 1995, the then Punjab chief minister, Beant Singh of the Congress party, was killed in a suicide bombing apparently instigated by the State’s sweeping crackdown on hundreds of young Punjabis protesting for a Sikh nation, Khalistan.
Hawara, the foremost of nine ‘Bandi Singhs’ who protesters demanded to be freed, was convicted to life imprisonment as the key conspirator in the Beant Singh assassination. Six of the other eight are convicts in the same case.
On 3 May, the Supreme Court rejected a plea filed by terror group Babbar Khalsa member Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted to death for the Beant Singh assassination, seeking commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment.
The demand for the Bandi Singhs’ release has been a religio-political issue in Punjab for several years now, with the Sikh community’s top religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandhak Committee (SGPC), as well as political parties such as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and others demanding their release, particularly of those who have spent more than 25 years in jail.
The demand picked up pace in recent months even as a worried Punjab government arrested and sent to Assam more than 100 associates of Amritpal Singh, the 30-year-old leader who has resurrected the demand for Khalistan.
The movement for the release of Bandi Singhs has “enormous political significance”, Sukhpal Singh Khera, a Congress legislator from Bholath constituency in Kapurthala district in the heart of Punjab, told Article 14.
He said the primary issue being raised is of life convicts who are eligible for remission. “Another crucial factor is that Sikhs as a minority wonder why our people are not being released when the Supreme Court has even freed the killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi,” he said.
State governments’ use of the power to grant remission has been a vexed matter. In August 2022, all 11 convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang rape case were released after the Gujarat government granted them remission of their life sentences. In Bihar, former member of Parliament Anand Mohan Singh, serving a life sentence for the 1994 murder of the then district magistrate of Gopalganj, G Krishnaiah, was granted remission in April 2023. In both cases, the state’s use of the right to grant remission was seen as being politically expedient (see here, here, here, here and here).
While militancy was eliminated in Punjab in the mid 1990s, freedom for the men jailed for militancy has become an emotive subject in the state. Over the years, the convicts have been widely lionised as warriors for the religion.
Former militants or their family members have found space in Punjab’s mainstream politics; Sikh bodies observe death anniversaries of some militants, and the SGPC-managed Sikh Central Museum houses a portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, venerated as ‘Sant’, the slain militant leader of the Khalistan movement who has a memorial and a few busts erected in his honour.
The Movement To Free Bandi Singhs
A political and legal movement to seek remission of life sentences handed to Sikh political prisoners convicted during the militancy years has been ongoing in Punjab for three decades now, intensifying in recent years.
While a life sentence is till the end of the convict’s natural life, the remission pleas are as per Article 161 of the Constitution, under which, on the recommendation of the state government, the Governor may grant pardon or remissions.
In mid-February, protestors and activists led by Sikh organisations under the banner of the Quami Insaaf Morcha blocked the Chandigarh-Mohali highway with tractors and tents. Some had been arriving to protest since early in January when a semi-permanent camp began to emerge at the spot on the highway.
Gurpreet Jhabbar of the SGPC said activists had appealed to the President of India and to various courts to secure the release of Sikh prisoners convicted in this and other cases related to militancy, particularly those currently serving life sentences.
“We met the President in March 2023 and submitted a letter demanding the release of the prisoners,” said Jhabbar. The SGPC has also been running a signature campaign appealing to the people of Punjab to support the demand. “We have collected over 30 lakh signatures, which will also be submitted to the President.”
Harpal Kaur, 40, said she visited the protest site on the highway everyday, travelling the 8-10 km from Mohali by bus or car. “Our people have lost a lot to violence,” she said. “Why aren’t they freeing our people now?”
Kaur said the Bandi Singhs had served jail time, and were common people who had spent much of their lives behind bars. They were not different from the people showing up at the protest, she said. “Their spirits are broken, their lives are over, they have suffered enough. Now, they must get justice.”
The Quami Insaaf Morcha, a Punjab-based organisation leading repeated bouts of protests in the Chandigarh-Mohali area since the start of 2023, is currently demanding the release of nine prisoners including Jagtar Singh Hawara, the chief conspirator in the Beant Singh murder. Additionally, there are approximately 21 other Bandi Singhs serving life sentences in prisons in Punjab, according to Hawara’s lawyers.
The nine convicts whose release has been sought in the recent protests have spent 25 to 32 years in jail. Seven of the nine were convicted in the Beant Singh assassination, the other two for carrying out bomb blasts in the 1990s.
‘There Are Double Standards On Grant Of Remission’
According to lawyers representing the Bandi Singhs, the campaign for the release of political prisoners is as much a matter of political will as of legal process.
Speaking to Article 14, Supreme Court lawyer Kawalpreet Kaur explained that though a life sentence is meant to continue until the end of the convict’s natural life, the state and central governments (depending on the laws under which the convict was tried and found guilty) have the discretion to review the sentence once the convict has served 14 years, and to recommend a premature release or remission. “That discretion was never used by the government for Sikh prisoners,” she said.
A state review board comprising representatives of the police, the jail superintendent, local non-government organisations and the state government may review cases of life sentence convicts who have served 14 years and more. The parameters that are considered include overall behaviour, chance of reform, whether they are capable of contributing to society, whether their release poses a threat, previous criminal antecedents etc.
“In our cases, the government is sitting over it, not using its discretion to release them though it has all the power to do so,” Kaur said.
The other basis for the demand, according to lawyers, families and activists, is the political context. “The decisions in these cases are heavily reliant on political will of the State—this boils down to an executive decision,” said Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, an activist and advocate representing Jagtar Singh Hawara and others.
He said there were instances of policemen convicted for fake encounter cases and sentenced to life imprisonment being released four-five years into their sentence.
“These are double standards,” he said. Life convicts sentenced under section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) should be treated alike, he said. “What about those who have spent 30 years in jail?”
Citing the 2022 remission of 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape and murder case of 2002, he said, “When convicts, murderers and rapists are being given space in law, why not those people who have committed crimes primarily owing to political circumstances in the state then?” Many of those whose release is being sought are old, and have spent most of their lives in prison. “Those protesting feel that the people of their community are being discriminated against.”
In 2007, a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) awarded the death sentences to Hawara. However, in 2010, his death sentence was commuted to life by the Punjab and Haryana high court.
Contesting the HC order, the CBI appealed to the Supreme Court in 2011. That appeal continues to be pending.
Jailbreak To Jathedari: Jagtar Singh Hawara’s Journey
In 1995, at the age of 25, Hawara was convicted as the key conspirator in the assassination of a sitting chief minister. Belonging to Hawara village in Fatehgarh Sahib district, he has spent over 25 years in jail.
Hawara’s mother, now in her 80s, is sick and barely able to speak. His father died in 1991. Hawara, meanwhile, is hailed as a hero.
Gurcharan Singh, popularly known as ‘Bapu’ and a foster father of sorts to Hawara, established the Jagtar Singh Hawara Release Committee in the year 2021. The group is now among the flag-bearers of the Quami Insaaf Morcha.
Speaking to Article 14, Bapu said he formed close ties with Hawara in 2004. In jail and with no family member to support him, Hawara found camaraderie and support in Bapu who has since provided him legal support.
Bapu said the clampdown on protests in Punjab, the suspension of Internet services and the crackdown on human rights and journalistic freedoms were a ploy by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, which is in power in the state), to suppress protests including those demanding the release of political prisoners.
“What we are demanding is legitimate, the current crackdown has meant that many who want to come out and peacefully protest are being intimidated,” Bapu said. “The channels and the YouTubers who covered us are being targeted.”
According to Bapu, the movement to release Bandi Singhs is deeply intertwined with the political context of militancy in the region in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when common Sikhs suffered discrimination and suppression while the State crushed the separatist movement.
On 11 January 2022, protestors marched to Fatehgarh Sahib, 43 km west of the protest site. “We had a meeting with the governor and we were assured that those who have spent over 25 years will be released,” he said. “But that has not happened.”
Manjhpur said Hawara was accused in 37 cases, discharged in 27 by various courts and has completed his sentence in four cases and served 28 years in the life sentence. Two cases are pending in Chandigarh, one in Kharar and one in Sohana (in Mohali). “It is astounding how technical difficulties have ensured that he is not eligible for remission,” Manjhpur said.
In a sedition case filed against him in Mohali in 1998, he was never arrested. “How will one then follow the process to get bail or continue the legal fight in this case?”
In January 2004, Hawara planned and executed a dramatic jail escape from Model Jail in Burail, Chandigarh. Hawara, along with fellow convicts in the Beant Singh assassination, Jagtar Singh Tara and Paramjit Singh Bheora, and a cook named Devi Singh, dug a 90-ft tunnel with their bare hands to escape the high security prison.
Hawara was rearrested in June 2005 from Delhi. He has been lodged in Tihar jail since.
Hawara enjoys a deep-rooted support among Sikhs, the enormous sympathy for him positioning him as an icon despite his criminal record.
On 10 November 2015, Hawara was declared by a ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ or an assembly of all Sikh factions, as replacement for Gurbachan Singh as interim jathedar (the leader of the collective) of the Akal Takht (the Golden Temple in Amritsar).
The Sarbat Khalsa was organised in Chabba village on the outskirts of Amritsar by various Sikh organisations. The declaration was of paramount significance, for the Akal Takht is the supreme temporal seat of Sikhism.
Bandi Singhs’ Pleas For Remission Rejected
One of the names on the Quami Insaaf Morcha’s list is Gurmeet Singh, 53.
Hailing from Patiala, all of 25 years in 1995, Singh was convicted for preparing the explosives-laden belt worn in the assassination of Beant Singh. He was among the first to be arrested in the case in September 1995 and has been lodged in Chandigarh’s Burail jail.
In October 2022, Gurmeet Singh moved the Punjab & Haryana high court seeking premature release on the grounds of having already served a long time in jail. The plea is pending in the Punja & Haryana high court. In February 2023, the Punjab administration led by the Aam Aadmi Party rejected his appeal for a premature release. A previous plea in November 2022 met a similar fate.
Gurmeet Singh was one of the first Bandi Singhs to be released on parole, in 2013.
Out on parole for 28 days in February 2023, he said the legal processes made it impossible to take up any professional work. “I come to my house, help my family run errands, I have nothing to do professionally,” he said. During the pandemic, when he was released on parole, he operated an e-rickshaw. He has an engineering degree. “I could do something better, but I am stuck legally.”
Gurmeet Singh said he and other Bandi Singhs had nurtured hopes that subsequent governments would release them. “What we are demanding is not illegal, we are demanding what is legally our right,” he said about the Bandi Singhs’ pleas for remission, adding that they want an opportunity to assimilate in society and restart their lives.
Five others besides Jagtar Singh Hawara and Gurmeet Singh were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Beant Singh murder—Balwant Singh Rajoana, Lakhwinder Singh Lakha, Shamsher Singh, Paramjit Singh Bheora and Jagtar Singh Tara.
Rajoana was a police constable in Ludhiana at the time of the crime. He was tried and convicted for being a back-up bomber to Dilawar Singh Babbar, another serving policeman who was the suicide bomber in the assassination.
Rajoana was sentenced to death on 1 August 2007 by a special CBI court in Chandigarh. Having refused to appeal against his sentence, he was scheduled to be hanged on 31 March 2012.
The execution was stayed after the SGPC filed a mercy petition on his behalf.
In 2019, on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the Union government decided to commute Rajoana’s death sentence to life in prison. In 2020, citing the central government’s decision, Rajoana moved the Supreme Court seeking remission of his sentence.
Arrested in 1995, Rajoana remains in jail. He has no other cases against him.
Rajoana recently distanced himself from the Quami Insaaf Morcha. Earlier, he had said he has no faith in the judicial system, and that a system of double standards protected those who perpetrated mass violence against Sikhs.
Lakhwinder Singh Lakha, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh and Paramjeet Singh Bheora are in Model Jail in Chandigarh. Gurdeep Singh Khera, who was in Central Jail, Amritsar, and Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was in Central Jail, Patiala, were recently released on parole.
Two Bandi Singhs Were Convicted Of Bombings
Apart from those convicted in the Beant Singh assassination, two other men were named in the Quami Insaaf Morcha’s list of Bandi Singhs. One of them is Devinder Pal Bhullar, an engineer convicted for bombings outside the Indian Youth Congress office in Delhi in 1993, causing the death of nine people including then Congress leader Maninderjeet Singh Bitta, a vocal critic of the Khalistan movement.
Bhullar was sentenced to death in 2011, but his sentence was commuted in 2014 by the Supreme Court to life, on grounds of ill health. Now 57, Bhullar was shifted from Tihar in Delhi to Amritsar’s Central Jail where he is currently lodged.
In September 2019, the Centre announced that eight prisoners would be released to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, as a humanitarian gesture.
Bhullar was to be released permanently following this notification, but the AAP government in Delhi rejected his plea for remission in 2020. The Centre had asked the Delhi government to issue the release order as Bhullar had been originally jailed in Tihar.
The final man on the list of Bandi Singhs whose release has been demanded is Gurdeep Singh Khera, who has spent over 31 years in prison. A resident of Amritsar, Khera was sentenced to life by a Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), 1987 court in two different blast cases registered in 1996 in New Delhi and Karnataka.
He was arrested in December 1990 from Karnataka and remained in the state’s Gulbarga jail until 2015 when he was shifted to the Amritsar jail.
In the Delhi case, the state government under then chief minister Sheila Dikshit accepted his case for premature release in 2011. Khera, however, continued to remain in jail in the Karnataka case. He has been granted regular parole.
“Khera has spent 32 years in jail. Following its 2019 notification, the Centre asked Karnataka to release him. But Karnataka refused,” said Manjhpur.
Speaking to Article 14, Amar Singh Chahal, a lawyer representing several Bandi Singhs, said, “The political prisoners have lost their families, several are in sickness and with many cases the appeals keep going in circles.”
He added that while the protestors were not condoning or justifying violence, the killing of Beant Singh should be viewed as a political act to stop more repressive State-sponsored violence and human rights violations. “The key aspect is that the decisions to be made legally are also borne out of a political struggle.”
Apart from these nine Bandi Singhs, Jaspal Singh Maunjhpur has created another list with 15 others implicated in various cases including cases of sacrilege-related violence. He said, “The current lists include those who are on life sentences, there are several other political prisoners, in hundreds.”
How Support Grew For The Movement
At the Chandigarh-Mohali border, the protests drew in thousands, continuing into April as well, with the Quami Insaaf Morcha hoping to build pressure on the Union and state governments to release the Bandi Singhs.
The movement actually dates back a decade, and over the years has found support from farm unions, political parties and also radical factions.
The demand for the release of Bandi Singhs was first raised in 2013 by a Sikh activist named Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa who hailed from Kurukshetra in Punjab. He undertook a 44-day hunger strike that led the then jathedar of the Akal Takht, Giani Gurbachan Singh, to promise that the cause would be taken up.
Soon after, Sikh organisations released a list of 119 Sikh prisoners. Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa led several such protests. In November 2014. He began a hunger strike that continued for three months, leading to his hospitalisation in January 2015.
In March 2018, Khalsa killed himself by jumping off a water tank in his village. His family said he had chosen to die for the cause of the Bandi Singhs.
The subject of the Bandi Singhs was taken up politically after the 2014 general election. Then chief minister Parkash Singh Badal of the SAD wrote to various state governments as well as the Centre forwarding a list of 13 prisoners and demanding their release. In 2015, the then Union home minister Rajnath Singh had told the activists and SAD leaders that the issue required consideration.
Bapu, Jagtar Singh Hawara’s foster father, said Punjab ministers Harpal Singh Cheema and Aman Arora have reached out to the protestors. “However, our demands are not being considered seriously,” he said, adding that they were planning a protest against the muzzling of the news media. “The channels who were covering us have been facing a backlash,” he said.
(Sumedha Pal is an independent journalist.)