Gurpreet Singh: Politicizing death row in Punjab and at the Surrey Vaisakhi parade

The imagery of a convicted Sikh militant on death row in India, Balwant Singh Rajoana, dominated the annual Vaisakhi parade in Surrey.

His pictures greeted visitors from different corners of the streets as the procession passed through the city Saturday. Slogans were raised in support of Rajoana and ballad singers glorified his action, while others spoke passionately for him from different podiums.

Rajoana is awaiting a death sentence for being involved in the assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995. The crime was committed by the Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh separatist group now banned in Canada and blamed for the Air India bombings that left 331 people dead in June 1985.

Dilawar Singh, a suicide bomber, triggered the blast outside the Punjab secretariat in Chandigarh, killing Beant Singh and 17 others.

Beant Singh remains a controversial figure in the history of terrorism in Punjab. Victims of various attacks consider him a "martyr", who brought peace in Punjab by crushing terrorism in the name of Khalistan, an imaginary Sikh homeland.

Meanwhile, supporters of Khalistan and human-rights groups accuse him of allowing police brutality that led to mass disappearances and killings of suspects in staged encounters.

Rajoana, who appears to be high on his conviction, not only admits his involvement in the assassination but also wants to be hanged and die as a hero.

Yet a campaign has picked up both in India and Canada to save his life. His supporters want his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

It should not be surprising that he has immense support in Surrey, which has a sizeable population of Sikhs. After all, organizers of the Surrey Vaisakhi parade are die-hard supporters of Khalistan.

This year, they honoured the widow of Labh Singh, the slain leader of the Khalistan Commando Force, a group believed to have been in an armed struggle.

Although Rajoana has no Canadian connection, a few elected officials from this country have raised this issue, seeking the intervention of Canada, which has outlawed capital punishment.

Unlike Devinderpal Singh Bhullar (another Sikh militant facing death sentence in India)—who is married to a Canadian citizen and evoked sympathy in this country for obvious reasons—Rajoana has nothing to do with Canada. Still, a series of rallies supporting him have been organized across Canada.

Politicians in India have also tried to score points over each other by opposing his death sentence. Among them is Beant Singh’s own daughter, Gurkanwal Kaur, a Congress leader herself.

She has forgiven Rajoana and is asking for clemency. Certainly, it takes lot of courage to forgive someone who has killed one's dad, but if she really cares for human rights, her Congress party that currently governs India should bring in legislation to end capital punishment, instead of showing mercy in a selective case.

The ruling Akali Dal in Punjab is also seeking clemency for Rajoana while some unknown people are awaiting death sentence in Punjab jails. Do they too not deserve clemency?

If these parties are sincere they should give up their political considerations and honestly work for a civilized society, which has no room for capital punishment. Instead, they pander to the fundamentalist "vote bank" by picking up selective instances of atrocities for short-term gains. By choosing to do so, they are actually bending over their knees before the separatist and theocratic forces.

It is for this reason there was a backlash in Punjab, which resulted in Hindu and Sikh fundamentalists coming to blows. It is pertinent to mention that Sikh extremists targeted Hindus in Punjab when the movement for Khalistan was at its peak, while Hindu extremists frequently attacked the Sikh minority outside Punjab whenever there was anti-Hindu violence in Punjab.

Thousands of Sikhs were systematically killed across India by mobs led by Congress Party leaders following the 1984 assassination of then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Supporters of Khalistan should reciprocate the gesture of Gurkanwal Kaur and acknowledge the high-handedness of militants who've killed innocent Hindus,moderate Sikhs, families of police officers, scholars, and secular critics.

Khalistan supporters have not forgiven Beant Singh, either. One may disagree with the former chief minister, but he led a war against terrorism in mid 1990s before it had fully entered the consciousness of western countries.

Whereas, the United States only launched a full-scale war against terror after 9/11—and that against sovereign countries like Afghanistan and Iraq—the Beant Singh regime was defending his state from a proxy war in the name of Khalistan that was initiated from Pakistan, a hostile neighbour of India.

Besides, the blast that claimed the life of Beant Singh left many innocent people dead. Instead of facing thus inconvenient reality, the Khalistanis are trying to get a political mileage out of the Rajoana story by showcasing it as an instance of the "unfair judicial system" of India, which has failed to punish perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage.

The Indian establishment has also shown its weakness by continuously denying justice to victims' families, which indirectly strengthens the hands of the Khalistan leadership who is always looking for an opportunity to keep the pot boiling in countries like Canada.

To oppose capital punishment for the sake of ideological reasons like nonviolence and pacifism is one thing, but to oppose it selectively as a part of a political agenda is unacceptable.

Let Rajoana live, but others who do not subscribe to his ideas should also be allowed to live without fear and intimidation.

Gurpreet Singh is 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.

Comments (29) Add New Comment
Jaskaran
Shame on you for oversimplifying and going over the top to demean. You fail to mention floats supporting important humanitarian floats like Pinglewara, and many others. It is tragedy that you call this event full of terrorists. What a shame. boot licking to jealous and politically diminished racist Caucasians.
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justice
The quebecans can demand independant french speaking canadian state.It is their democratic right, But sikhs demanding a state ,must be hunting down like wild dogs and put down in fake encounters. Yes i see you logic
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CCY
Jaskaran, the article wasn't about Pingalwara, or CIBC generous ramals, or Jazzy B. It's about Rajoana and Sikh and Hindu terrorism. Also, don't over estimate Sikh community influence outside of Brampton, Surrey, and NE Calgary, as seen by drastic immigration changes that are on the way and already begun.
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RealityCheck
Be a better Canadian by paying more attention with the issues of other Canadians, rather than wrapping up people in old world problems.

India's problems are irrelevant here. People of all cultures and religions make their stake through their work and acceptance of tolerant Canadian Values.

Quebec's independence has been decided twice peacefully , through a democratic vote. No other way would be tolerated in this country ever. So for those who want an independent Sikh state...don't ever fight that battle from within Canada or anywhere else! Canada is a global refuge for those seeking real freedom and a place to live your life in peace and prosperity. Never fight your battles from here! If you do, Canadians will oppose your Old World beliefs.
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Amandeep Singh
Gurpreet Singh, this is the your second writing that I am reading. I could see embedded view-point that prevents you from presenting the overall situation. Beant Singh is not considered martyrs by any one here in Punjab. Even congress leadership consider him controversial figure. Even state patronage and resources were not successful in making his "memorial" a place of attraction.
That person was responsible for authorizing mass level human rights violations, torture, custodial killings, enforced disappearances, rape and fake encounters.
You might be aware about factual documents produced by Human Rights Activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, if not try to take headache to go through details in "Reduced to Ashes" (R. N. Kumar and others), "Simmering Embers" (Voices for Freedom), "Death Silence" (Asia Watch (1994) - Now Human Rights Watch) "Protecting the Killers" (Human Rights Watch & Ensaaf).
Don't you know that that Sikhs were facing existential crisis during CM Beant Singh's regime and Balwant Singh & others acted from existential concerns.
You have freedom to say and present your view, and I respect your right, but I am bound to say that your presentation is highly biased.
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Amandeep Singh
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Sukhi Kaur
The write of this article is a prime example of people who are so alienated from their background that they fail to recognize that when you proudly use the name 'Singh' in your name, it took sacrifices from people who bothered to think beyond their noses and care about the wider community. I am not at all in support of militancy but action produce reactions and we cannot ignore the circumstances under which Bhai Balwant Singh chose the path he did. The western nations that the write proudly shows support for are actually also sponsoring terrorism in the Arab world for their own gains. The likes of Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana had no personal gains from his actions. If not for him, perhaps the write, myself and so many other Sikhs would be unidentified bodies in mass graves. People who forget their past don't have a future.
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Gurvinder Singh
Gurpreet,

Yourself and your employer should be more responsible in your reporting, this article is flawed with numerous inaccuracies and assumptions, it is slanderous and has the potential to damage community cohesion.

Very disappointing

GURVINDER SINGH
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Inda Singh Sidhu
Your article is so one sided it makes me sick. You blast the Sikhs and write in inaccuracies any chance you have.

All this jealousy and hate is silly.

The Surrey Sikh Khalsa parade had more than 220,000 come out (2012). Clearly if they were so against the Sikhs (and his royal excellency , Sir RajoAna) they would have stayed home but they came and supported.

You Gurpreet are truly in every sense a sad lonely man.

Shame on you.
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CCY
Typical response from readers that don't value freedom of speech. Those tahr take a different view are no less Sikh than you.
Khanda tattoos, waving an orange flag doesn't make you a Sikh.
My personal belief, anyone who defamea the Sikh community, through illegal actions like murdereing there spouse, killing, huge frauds, Gurdawara riots, and endless shadyness should have to remove there turbans and change there middle name. They are the ones that make our community look bad and give fodder for the newspapers. Not those who believe that "Khalistanis" after about 1986 were not true Sikhs...they were gangsters rapists, and murderers and they proudly cut there hair after there refugee claims to Canada and USA were accepted.
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Secular Indian
As always very good article Gurpreet. I am in favour of advocating Rajoana's death sentence to be converted to Life imprisonment .But portraying him as an innocent victim is a bit too much.
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Jasleen
A prime example of biased media reporting, where facts are selectively disclosed and manipulated. Gupreet, You have absolutely failed in your reporting by not doing a complete background research and oversimplifying matters. I would not be surprized if you were paid by Indian State lobby to write this complete BULL S###.
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param
Gurpreet
It seems soul of notorious anti sikh writers of 1980s like Prem Bhatia(Tribune), Lala Jagat Narain (Punjab Kesari), Yash and Varinders has entered yourself and u are going all out to tarnish the image of sikhs.
May god bless u with some sense so that u can see the other side of story.
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justice
Gurpreet Singh if your writer of freedom and justice, use your pen to bring to justice those responsible for the sikh genocide in 1984. Over 10000 sikhs were killed by the indian government. These congress politicians receive the red carpet treatment when they come to Canada. You know why because it all about the money
Not all Khalistans are terrorist, just wearing a khalistan tshirt in india could get you locked up without any trial .
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I know my background
Secular Indian, seems like you have not got the facts right. Not one of his supporters says he is innocent. Is 17 years not enough for conspiracy to murder? In the democratic secular countries, only two months ago a lady who set up the entire murder plan of a young man got only 4 years and the judge has rejected an appeal to extend her sentence saying 6 years of fair for her role as she was a conspirator not the murderer.
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Sukhi Kaur
“ An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for that law” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Remember at one point even Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist.
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Sikhni
Gupreet can you clarify who the real terrorists and extremists are and why you have not considered this in your article? What do you call the people who call for innocent people to be killed because of their religious background? What do you call people who carry out these attacks? What do you call people who put tryes around victims and burn them? What do you call the so called protectors of law who did not heed one call for help but infact encouraged massacres? What do you call people who 28 years on are still protecting the guilty persons? What do you call people who instead of punishing, are promoting the guilty people to parliamentary seats? What do you call people who offer bribes starting at Rs. 3 crore to not give evidence against the guilty parties and only Rs. 175,000 to families of victims 28 years after the event. Where do you think all these bribes are being funded from in the worlds fastest growing economy? From the trade of your beloved western counties with India. Are each of these parties not in one way or another supporting terrorism?A terrorist is one who terrifies. I dont know why but all I feel from Balwant Singh Rajoana is bravery, justice, courage, love, pride and overall a sense of respect for humanity. His one action saved the lives of thousand of other Sikhs who would die at the hands of Beanta. Beanta did terrify people. Indira Gandhi did spread terror in Punjab when she ordered for innocent children to be gunned down. Rajiv Gandhi 'justified' the massacre of so many Sikhs on what grounds? The love for his mother? You cannot rule a land if you want to act in such selfish ways. Leadership requires sacrifice not selfishness. On the issue of no Canadian connection please clarify what the western world is doing in the Arabian countries?
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vikram
Gurpreet, thank you for a very fair, im-partial and non-biased view. We need more sikhs and punjabis with your type of thinking. There is no justification for what indira gandhi and the congress did to the sikhs, especially in the 84 pogrom. But lets not gloss over or white-wash the activities of the khalistani militants who killed thousands of hindus and moderate sikhs who opposed their extreme views. No one party is innocent and both have blood on their hands.
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vikram
no one is saying balwant should not be granted clemency, or justifying indira gandhis actions. Her patronage of bhindranwale was well known, and played a large part in the deteriation of the situation in punjab. That said are people forgetting the indiscriminate killings by militants in punjab? Monthly, busloads of hindus would be attacked and wiped out, hindu familes being wiped out at night in their homes? even sikhs with more moderate views being attacked? Blame the leaders, blame beant singh- but why not also condemm the killings of innocents on the other side?
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justice
Lets not play party politics.It was the indian government who carried out the slaughter and rape of sikhs with the full machinery of the state. The police army judiciary and media were all involved

wish the khalistanis could have a peaceful vote, no, just a chance to express their case without arrest and torture
Realitycheck the reality is you do not tolerate violence but our reality is violence and torture is all we experience
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KiDDAA Magazine
This guy does not talk for the very diverse and powerful Punjabi, Indo Canadian and Sikh community in BC or Canada. He is one voice, one opinion. And talking to other Apnas not even a popular opinion.
KiDDAA Magazine (kiddaa.com) know there are some who believe in Khalistan. They have contributed to the fabric of Canadian multiculturalism just like anyone else. One can argue that Surrey is a a little slice of Punjab in this great country of Canada. Cant say the whole community is homegenous.
Most people who go to Vaisakhi enjoy the parade and don't think of the past, some do. Im not going to wade into politics but will say this writer is oversimplifying a very complex subject. He is using fear to make his point.
Much like Kim Bolan doesnt talk for our community, either does Gurpreet.
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