Modi Govt Commutes Death Sentence of Prime Accused in Beant Singh Assassination

Balwant Singh Rajoana will now get life imprisonment.

New Delhi: In what seemed like an attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ally, Shiromani Akali Dal, to outdo the ruling Congress in Punjab, the Centre has decided to go ahead with its decision to commute the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana into that of a life imprisonment. 

In doing so, the Narendra Modi government will be stirring public sentiment against the Congress, which had once crushed the Khalistan movement. The official reason cited by the Centre was that it was a “humanitarian gesture” ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

A terrorist of some disrepute, Rajoana was the back-up suicide bomber in the plot to assassinate Beant Singh, the former Congress chief minister of Punjab. The attempt also killed 16 others, including three Commandoes, outside the Civil Secretariat in Chandigarh in 1995. 

Rajoana has been lodged in the death cell of the Patiala Central Jail ever since former president Pratibha Patil put a stay on his execution on March 28, 2012. He was sentenced to death by a trial court in 2004, a sentence he did not contest. 

Also read: Why Punjab’s Sikh Majority Shunned Modi’s Hindutva to Give Congress Eight Seats

When his execution was scheduled for March 30, 2012, there was considerable opposition in the state, leading the Manmohan Singh government to recommend the President stall it.

In 2013, Rajoana was also sentenced to ten years of rigorous imprisonment for carrying 12 kilograms of explosives and detonators to Patiala ahead of prime minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to Punjabi University in 1995. This was just after Beant Singh’s assassination, when the police was on the lookout for him.

When caught by security forces, Rajoana reportedly tried swallowing a cyanide pill but was unsuccessful. 

Soon after Patil’s decision in 2012, the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) filed a mercy petition with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) seeking the commutation of his execution to a life imprisonment. After the Modi government took over in 2014, SAD too put pressure on BJP to act on the petition.

In July 2018, Rajoana went on a hunger strike demanding that MHA take a decision on the issue. He also accused the SGPC of filing the petition without his consent. 

However, on September 30, at the recommendation of the MHA, President Ram Nath Kovind exercised his powers under Article 21 of the Constitution to commute Rajoana’s death sentence to a life imprisonment.

The MHA has reportedly also decided to release eight other lifers involved in Sikh militancy as a “token of goodwill”.  

Seemingly trying to tap the situation in its favour, SAD, on October 2, said it would provide legal aid to Rajoana’s family for his release as he had been lodged in jail due to “insidious designs” of Congress leaders.

SAD leader Maheshinder Singh Grewal said in a statement, “It was unfortunate that instead of showing tolerance and compassion towards Rajoana and the sentiments of the Akal Takth and the Sikh Sangat, an attempt was being made by certain Congress leaders to recreate tension and fissures in civil society.”

Grewal said the central government’s decision was taken to “bring closure to the festering wounds” of the Sikh community.

A day before Grewal’s statement, Beant Singh’s grandson and Congress MLA Gurkirat Singh Kotli said that his family would approach the Supreme Court to challenge the Centre’s decision. Yet another grandson of Beant Singh and Ludhiana Congress MP Ravneet Singh Bittu also criticised it.