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

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      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.




      Apr 22, 2012 at 7:39pm

      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.


      Apr 22, 2012 at 9:06pm

      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


      Apr 22, 2012 at 9:35pm

      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.


      Apr 22, 2012 at 10:57pm

      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.

      Amandeep Singh

      Apr 22, 2012 at 11:42pm

      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.
      Amandeep Singh

      Sukhi Kaur

      Apr 23, 2012 at 4:24am

      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.

      Gurvinder Singh

      Apr 23, 2012 at 4:43am


      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


      Inda Singh Sidhu

      Apr 23, 2012 at 10:13am

      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.


      Apr 23, 2012 at 10:17am

      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.

      Secular Indian

      Apr 23, 2012 at 11:05am

      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.