Ter­ror­ists in one part of In­dia are free­dom fighters in an­other. Crimes against the na­tion are not al­ways trea­son.

India Today - - JUDICIARY - By Asit Jolly with in­puts from Ku­mar An­shu­man and Naseer Ganai Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @Asitjolly

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-


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.

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