2 March 2023 2:08 PM GMT
The Supreme Court on Thursday reserved its verdict on a plea by Babbar Khalsa terrorist and death row convict, Balwant Singh Rajoana for his death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. The BKI operative was convicted for his role in the assassination of the former chief minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, in August 1995.Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi appeared before a...
The Supreme Court on Thursday reserved its verdict on a plea by Babbar Khalsa terrorist and death row convict, Balwant Singh Rajoana for his death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. The BKI operative was convicted for his role in the assassination of the former chief minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, in August 1995.
Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi appeared before a three-judge bench of Justices B.R. Gavai, Vikram Nath, and Sanjay Karol on behalf of the death row convict. The bench was hearing a writ petition seeking the implementation of a 2019 notification by the central government announcing their decision to reduce Rajoana’s sentence. Alternatively, the militant had also sought for his death sentence to be commuted by the court on the ground of a long delay in considering the mercy petition filed for him.
The senior counsel vehemently rejected the State’s contention that Rajoana’s sentence had not been commuted yet because of ‘security concerns and the pendency of an appeal filed by a co-accused. The senior counsel argued:
“To keep a prisoner on death row for so long violates their fundamental rights according to judgements of this court and is a ground for their sentence to be commuted. Rajoana is entitled to be released from death row forthwith. The moment he gets his commutation order, he can apply to be released since he has already spent 27 years behind bars. It is inhuman. Alternatively, if you wish to wait for the government’s response to the mercy appeals, then at the very least, grant the petitioner parole. He wants to go to his village, and he will stay there.”
Appearing for the centre, Additional Solicitor-General for India, K.M. Nataraj, objected to Rohatgi’s submissions, saying that the outcome of the appeal of his co-accused would have an implication on the decision of the president with respect to the mercy plea. “It is not true that we have not decided. We have decided to wait,” he explained. Justice Gavai countered, “So, the government has taken a decision to not take a decision?” Yes, the additional solicitor-general responded.
Other than this, the law officer also pointed out that the mercy petition under consideration had not been filed by Rajoana himself, but another organisation. Rohatgi protested against both lines of arguments, saying that they were ‘hollow contentions’. In the course of the hearing, even Justice Gavai seemed unhappy with the ‘contemptuous’ failure of the central government to comply with its earlier order and decide Rajoana’s fate swiftly.
Rohatgi submitted, “They are working in a contemptuous fashion and this court may take action against them...but that is a separate thing. The petitioner’s liberty is in question and there should be an order of commutation in his favour.”
On August 31, 1995, the then-chief minister of Punjab, Beant Singh and 16 others were killed in a deadly suicide bombing at the Chandigarh secretariat complex. The assailant was one Dilawar Singh, a police officer, who along with two other officials of the Punjab police, namely, Rajoana and one Lakhwinder Singh, had, allegedly in response to Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984, been tasked with executing the Congress leader, known for his robust counterterrorism policies. Rajoana, a police constable, was not only responsible for ensuring that Singh reached the chief minister after crossing the security ring in the complex but was also equipped with a backup explosive device in case the first plan failed. Separatist group Babbar Khalsa International, whose primary goal is to establish a sovereign homeland called Khalistan for people of their faith, took responsibility for the assassination.
In 2007, a special Central Bureau of Investigation court handed death sentences to Rajoana, as well as one Jagtar Singh Hawara, who was reportedly the mastermind behind the operation. At the same time, co-accused Shamsher Singh, Gurmeet Singh, and Lakhwinder Singh were awarded life imprisonment. The verdict was delivered inside the high-security Burail jail in Chandigarh.
The cop-turned-militant was supposed to be hanged in March 2012, but his execution was stayed by the then-United Progressive Alliance government, after the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a Sikh religious body, filed clemency appeals on his behalf. Rajoana, currently lodged in Central Jail, Patiala, has been incarcerated for the last 27 years. Notably, the death row convict refused counsel and refused to defend himself against the charges levelled by the State, in a display of open derision of the Indian judicial system.
In an important development, the Union government reportedly announced in 2019 that it would commute Rajoana’s death sentence to life imprisonment, besides sanctioning the premature release of eight Sikh prisoners serving life and other sentences as a humanitarian gesture to mark the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. However, the union home minister Amit Shah later informed the Lok Sabha that Rajoana had not been freed from death row.
The present writ petition for commuting the death sentence to a life sentence has been pending in the apex court since 2020. In May of last year, a bench headed by Justice Uday Umesh Lalit (as he was then) had urged the centre to decide the mercy plea filed on behalf of the death row convict within two months, notwithstanding the pendency of the appeals filed by other convicts. However, despite repeatedly being pulled up the top court, the central government has not disposed of Rajoana’s prayer for the commutation of his death sentence.
Balwant Singh v. Union of India & Ors. | Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 261 of 2020
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