Demand for release of ‘Bandi Singhs’ stirs passions in Punjab 

The delay in the release of Sikh prisoners, who are lodged in jails despite having served their terms, is an emotional issue for a section of state’s people. While Congress and SAD support their release, the AAP government is non-committal on the issue. A report by Rajendra Khatry

The issue of the release of `Bandi Singhs, is rocking Punjab of late. A section of activists and political parties has stepped up pressure on the Bhagwant Mann-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government to demand the release of Sikh prisoners who have been languishing in prison for several years now. They were convicted of involvement in militancy in Punjab years ago.

The release of ‘Bandi Singhs’ in jails despite having served their terms, is a very emotional issue for a section of people in Punjab. The Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal have been supporting their release, but the ruling AAP government in the state is non-committal yet. 

Bandi Singhs are Sikhs of Punjab who were arrested for their alleged involvement in militant activities. They were charged under law and found guilty of various crimes. They were meted out sentences which ranged from death to different terms of imprisonment. 

Militancy led to a lot of suffering for the people of Punjab.The era marked the concept of state terrorism in its most notorious form. According to sources, the Bandi Sikhs were not actually criminals. Many of them were said to be some misguided youth who took up arms to further their political and religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, their means and actions were not correct and proper. Some also resorted to violence.They deserved punishment no doubt, but they have been in various prisons for a long time now and have not yet been released.

A section of people very strongly feels that once the period of militancy waned in Punjab and gradually ended, these Bandi Singhs should have been given clemency. It could have been based on good behaviour, assurance to live in accordance with constitutional norms and a commitment to abjure violence of any kind. As they were not regular criminals, they could have been pardoned also.

According to reports, most of the prisoners continue to remain in jails even after completing their prison terms. Most of them are old now and can hardly pose any threat to society. Many actually need help and emotional support from their respective families which otherwise they are denied now.

It is true that a movement for release of the Bandi Singhs has been going on for a long time now. Many political parties and Sikh Panthic (religious) organisations have raised their demand from time to time. Unfortunately such moves are often to gain political mileage.

One can ask if there have been real intentions and moves on the part of the political parties, social groups or sections of people to work for their release. The half-hearted approach therefore has not served the purpose and in turn the government too has not paid much attention in the past. 

According to Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, a lawyer and champion for the cause of Sikh prisoners, there are around 21 Sikh prisoners, serving life sentences in the jails. The Qaumi Insaaf Morcha is seeking the release of nine “Bandi Singhs”.

Recently, several armed members of a Sikh organisation, including Nihangs on horseback, under the banner of ‘Qaumi Insaaf Morcha’ injured around 40 Chandigarh policemen as they clashed with the police at the Chandigarh-Mohali border in Punjab while trying to force their way through the barricades. This raised serious questions of law and order in Punjab. 

The ‘Qaumi Insaaf Morcha’ members have been protesting for the release of `Bandi Singhs’ or Sikh prisoners who they claim are lodged in different prisons across the country although they have already completed their sentences.

The videos of the incident clearly showed how the protesters, which included Nihangs, attacked Chandigarh police with swords and sticks. The protestors fought with the Chandigarh police and beat them up even as they tried to force their way through the barricades. They also damaged several police and private vehicles.

The Chandigarh police had put up barricades near the Chandigarh-Mohali border to prevent the protesters who have been protesting for more than a month. The protesters tried several times to move towards Punjab Chief MInister Bhagwant Mann’s residence but were stopped at the Chandigarh-Punjab border. But violent clashes made the intention of the protesters very clear.

Now bulletproof tractors have been deployed by Punjab Police at the border of Chandigarh where 31 members of the “Qaumi Inssaf Morcha” had performed `Jaap’ (religious rituals), in Chandigarh on February 13 last.

Incidentally, among the prominent Sikhs whose release are being demanded by the Bandi Singhs are Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, Balwant Singh Rajaona, Lakhwinder Singh, Gurmeet Singh, Shamsher Singh, Gurdeep Singh Khera, Jagtar Singh Hawara, Paramjit Singh Behora and Jagtar Singh Tara besides others.

 are in Burail jail, Chandigarh, Lal Singh, Waryam Singh and many others. 

Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar was held guilty by a Delhi court and was  jailed in Tihar.  He is now said to be in Nabha jail. Gurmeet Singh, Lakhwinder Singh, Shamsher Singh were tried by the court of the UT Chandigarh. They were convicted. They are now serving a jail term in Burail Jail, Chandigarh. 

Another prisoner, Balwant Singh Rajaona was held guilty for the assassination of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995. Earlier he was scheduled to be hanged on March 31, 2012. But his execution was stayed on 28 March, 2012, by the then UPA government because of a mercy petition to the President filed by the SGPC.

Yet another prisoner, Gurdeep Singh Khera was held guilty by a court in Karnataka. Gurdeep was lodged in a jail in the state earlier. He is reported to be in Amritsar jail now. 

Similarly,Jagtar Singh Hawara was also found guilty of being a conspirator in the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh. He is presently serving a jail term in Tihar jail, Delhi. Hawara is also a high-level member of Babbar Khalsa and was declared Jathedar of the Akal Takht by the rival SAD (Amritsar) group. However, the declaration was contested by the SGPC.

Through legal process and due to the notification of the Union Government, the six Bandi Singhs released from 2019 to date are Nand Singh, Subeg Singh, Balbir Singh, Harjinder Singh, Lal Singh. Kulvir Singh is currently lodged in Central Jail, Ferozepur (Punjab) and has no case pending against him.

Many of the prisoners were convicted under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) that was first enacted in 1985 to tackle terrorism in Punjab. The act was removed in 1995 due to increasing public opposition. 

From time to time, many organisations have demanded release of Bandi Singhs. It is said their requests went unheard by the government because they could not provide correct details of the prisoners. Due to this the government’s response was also not as expected. 

Earlier, the Supreme Court stayed the remission (or partial relief) by state governments in the case of convicts sentenced to life terms. However, according to the legal experts there are two options still available to the Punjab government in case it wants to extend some relief to prisoners. These options are pardon or suspension of punishment (by way of parole or furlough).