Gurpreet Singh: Momentum builds to commute Devinderpal Singh Bhullar's death sentence
The campaign for amnesty for a Sikh militant facing a death sentence in India should invite both caution and compassion from Canadians.
A crusade is picking up steam across Canada for Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, a convicted militant who received a death sentence in connection with a bombing incident that left nine people dead in New Delhi in 1993.
Bhullar is an ideologue with the Khalistan Liberation Force, a terror group seeking separate homeland for the Sikhs. Many Canadian Sikhs, including the supporters of Khalistan, are rallying behind his wife Navneet Kaur, a Canadian citizen, in her campaign to commute his death sentence into a life term.
Some Canadian politicians have also come to his support. Since he is married to a Canadian citizen, these elected officials believe that he must be spared capital punishment, which has been abolished in Canada.
NDP Leader Jack Layton wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper seeking intervention in the matter. In the past, former Liberal federal minister Herb Dhaliwal, former Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal, and former NDP MP Svend Robinson also raised the issue.
Though this issue has lingered on for almost 10 years, it galvanized after India's president, Pratibha Patil, rejected rejected Bhullar's petition for mercy.
Bhullar was accused of conspiring to assassinate Maninderjit Singh Bitta, a prominent politician, who survived the attack. Unlike in Canada where capital punishment has been abolished, the death sentence is handed down in the rarest of rare cases in India.
Human-rights activists and lawyers in India argued that since Bhullar’s case does not fall under the rarest of rare category, he should not be hanged. This was mainly because of the lack of evidence of his direct involvement in the crime.
The only credible evidence against him is his confessional statement to the police, which has no legal value. In India, police confessions are often made under duress. It is for this reason that they are considered "extrajudicial" confessions.
Among the lawyers who argued against giving the death sentence to Bhullar were Kapil Sibbal, who is now a minister in the Indian government and belongs to the ruling Congress party. Bitta, too, comes from a Congress party background.
The Congress party was accused of engineering an anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 following the assassination of then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Bhullar’s case has also become sensitive issue in the community because no Congress leader involved in the anti-Sikh violence has been convicted so far.
As a result, many Sikh separatists view it as an example of unfairness in the Indian judicial system. Critics also argue that while Sikh assassins of Indira Gandhi were hanged, those involved in the mass murder of Sikhs roam around and have continued to hold public offices for years.
Besides, there are allegations about police repression suffered by relatives of Bhullar.
For those who care for human rights, capital punishment should be abolished once and for all and Bhullar should therefore not be hanged. At this juncture when the victims of the 1984 pogrom are still battling for justice, leniency to Bhullar will also help in assuaging the wounds of the Sikh community.
That said, Sikh separatists should also show some remorse for those who lost their relatives in the 1993 bombing. Incidentally, that terrorist attack also happened on September 11.
Politicians in the United States and Canada who were moved by the 9/11 attacks should realize that India has been enduring terrorism for years. Considering this reality, they should be vigilant about the pro-Khalistan separatist groups active in Canada.
After all, Khalistani militants also committed human-rights violation during their armed struggle. Under no circumstances should western politicians try to please such groups and raise human-rights issues in ways that give any legitimacy to rogue elements that often use such campaigns to camouflage their political agendas.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.