MY HERO, YOUR VILLAIN
Terrorists in one part of India are freedom fighters in another. Crimes against the nation are not always treason.
Rahul Gandhi doesn’t believe in “revenge”. To him, it was never important that his father’s assassins are punished. The terrible loss he continues to suffer 23 long years after former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed in an LTTE suicide bombing on May 21, 1991, is personal.
“I lost my father. He is not coming back,” he says but insists he feels no rancour. “What’s important to me is my relationship with my father and how I deal with the fact that he died.” But the prospect of seeing his father’s assassins walk free after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa declared on February 19 her intent to remit the sentences of all seven convicted of Rajiv’s assassination was clearly revolting. “What should a common man expect when a prime minister’s killers are being freed?” the visibly troubled Congress vice-president said at a poll rally in Amethi.
While the fate of Rajiv’s killers is on hold after the Central Government petitioned the Supreme Court on February 20 against setting them free, the rapidly approaching Lok Sabha elections have turned focus on a distressing reality— the dichotomies that exist in India’s popular consciousness. The assassins, seen as “terrorists” in the rest of India, can swing votes for politicians who advocate their cause in Tamil Nadu. There’s no greater proof of this than Jayalalithaa’s about-turn; she is now zealously pursuing the release of Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan, Robert Payas, Jayakumar, Ravichandran and Nalini, after vociferous opposition to LTTE for years. She and arch rival M. Karunanidhi’s affection for the killers is prompted by their common perception of the mounting public, and voter, sentiment for them since President Pratibha Patil rejected their mercy petitions in 2011.
This dichotomy exists in Punjab as well. On March 28, 2012, violent clashes reminiscent of the Khalistan years erupted in Patiala, Sangrur, Gurdaspur and Phagwara as Hindu shopkeepers battled Sikh activists enforcing a bandh called by the head priest of the Akal Takht. This, after a court in Chandigarh ordered jail officials in Patiala to execute Balwant Singh Rajoana, a Babbar Khalsa International terrorist who confessed his role in the August 31, 1995 assassination of then chief minister Beant Singh.
Days earlier, Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh proclaimed Rajoana a“zinda shaheed (living martyr)” in an unprecedented hukumnama (religious edict) exhorting Sikhs to stall work, wear saffron and offer ardas (prayers) for the terrorist’s life. Besides a fringe element that still adheres to the cause of a separate Sikh state, scores of ordinarily peace-loving Sikhs responded with violence. Unnerved by the growing support for Rajoana and its evident ca-
DICHOTOMIES EXIST IN INDIA’S CONSCIOUSNESS. ASSASSINS SEEN AS TERRORISTS IN THE REST OF INDIA CAN SWING VOTES FOR POLITICIANS IN ANOTHER PART.
pacity to derail public order, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, scurried to Delhi to plead the terrorist’s case before President Pratibha Patil. Following a mercy petition filed by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee chief Avtar Singh Makkar, the Union home ministry stayed the hanging that was slated for March 31.
Rajoana, who had voluntarily confessed his role in killing Beant Singh and refused to appeal his conviction, awaits
his fate in a solitary cell in Patiala Jail. He is not worried. Championed by the Akal Takht, he knows the image of a “living martyr” will only strengthen as Beant Singh’s death grows distant. He describes the stay on his execution as a “victory of the Sikh Nation”.
Amid the din of clemency calls for Rajoana, another Sikh “martyr” was in the making. Devinderpal Singh Bhullar alias ‘Professor’, a former lecturer at Ludhiana’s Guru Nanak Engineering College who had joined the Khalistan Liberation Force, was sentenced to death in August 2001 for masterminding the bombing that killed two security personnel and injured several people, including former Youth Congress chief Maninderjit Singh Bitta, outside the organisation’s office in Delhi in September 1993. Though his death sentence and its subsequent confirmation by the President in May 2011 did not evoke the response Rajoana’s imminent hanging did, a campaign for clemency supported by radical Sikh groups paid off. On February 26, the Centre informed the Supreme Court that it did not intend to execute Bhullar in view of his “poor mental health”. This after Delhi Lieutenant-Governor Najib Jung recommended on January 6 that his death penalty be commuted to life.
Senior Chandigarh lawyer Navkiran Singh, who was a defence witness in several extradition proceedings of Khalistani terrorists, believes that Bhullar can incite the same upsurge of public sentiment as Rajoana or Rajiv’s assassins. “All you need to do is publicly announce a date for his execution,” he says. Singh cites the surreptitious execution of Afzal Guru, who was convicted for his role in the December 2001 Parliament attack, and remains a festering sore of resentment in Kashmir.
Guru’s hanging on February 9, 2013, after a prolonged political standoff between the Congress and the opposition BJP, sparked protests, forcing the Omar Abdullah government to impose curfew. New Delhi’s apparent helplessness in foisting a similar fate on Rajiv Gandhi’s killers has reignited indignation in the Valley. “Contrast what they are doing now with what happened to Afzal Guru, who had to die to satisfy the collective consciousness of India,” says Riaz Ahmad, 40, a much-read columnist with the daily Greater Kashmir.
“Ajj di sachhai (The truth of today’s India),” is how Kanwarpal Singh, convener of the Amritsar-based separatist Sikh organisation Dal Khalsa, explains the perceptional divide over how Indian citizens decide who their heroes and villains are. Underscoring this dichotomy, BJP leader and leading lawyer Arun Jaitley says he can’t comprehend “compassion for persons guilty of assassinating a former prime minister”.
Rahul Gandhi, poised as Congress’s future prime minister, believes only a “fringe element” sees Beant Singh’s killers or his father’s assassins or Afzal Guru as heroes or martyrs. Kashmiris, he insists, are asking a different question. “Is there one rule or not? That is the question they’re asking,” he says, putting the spotlight on Jayalalithaa’s move to free his father’s killers.