If you’re not a Sikh, well even if you are, you may not know who Balwant Singh Rajoana is. You may not realise he has been sentenced to death in India. You may not know his proposed hanging has caused outrage the world over. So, Rajoana goes under the spotlight.
I must admit I hadn’t heard of Rajoana until this month. And yes, I am ashamed of that because he is instrumental to the Sikh community and how we live today. His name has become known worldwide after the Indian High Court announced he would be hanged on 31st March 2012.
He was imprisoned seventeen years ago after admitting his role in the assassination of the Punjab Chief Minister at the time, Byant Singh. He’s never appealed his conviction, nor did he appeal his death sentence.
The BBC describes him as a “radical”. India describes him as a “terrorist”. Sikhs describe him as a warrior. It’s the age-old argument of one who is considered a freedom fighter by some would be considered a rebel by others.
Following the massacre of Sikhs in 1984: Operation Blue Star when the Indian Prime Minister ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple during a holy festival so the temple was full of worshippers – Punjab was a treacherous place to be.
The aim was to catch Jarnail Singh Bhindrawala – an influential Sikh leader who was considered a threat to the authorities. The result: the death of Bhindrawala – although some believe he was caught alive and persecuted to death – and the merciless killing of hundreds of innocent pensioners, men, women and children. Officials claim 492 civilians died. Witnesses say the death toll ran well over 1,500.
This is an overly brief account of what happened but the crux of it is that Operation Blue Star triggered a domino-effect of anger, revolt and killing. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards, bloodshed tore across north India between Hindus and Sikhs. This is when India referred to Sikhs as “radicals” or “extremists”. It turned into a fight to live rather than a fight for beliefs.
Throughout the 80s and early 90s, the Punjab government orchestrated tactics to bring about “calm” in the state. Allegedly. Sikhs living there claim young Sikh men would randomly disappear and there were many known to have been brutally murdered by the police. Sikh girls and women were being raped. All this was going on under the watch of Punjab Chief Minister, Byant Singh – a Sikh himself. It’s amazing what power and money can do to a person.
Rajoana comes into the story here because he was a police officer at the time so was aware of the orders instructed from the top. He knew the conspiracies webbed up to control Punjab and prevent political activism so not to threaten the authorities. Remind you of the Arab Uprising? Does Gadaffi come to mind?
Byant Singh’s murder was imminent. He was killed alongside 16 of his people in a suicide bombing in 1995. Rajoana was involved in plotting his murder. Along with Byant Singh went the hostility in Punjab. The wounds he caused can never be healed but they were cooled – for the time being.
After spending seventeen years behind bars, Rajoana has already served more than the equivalent to life sentence in India. Despite this, his hanging was announced earlier this month. This has triggered outrage and protests the world over. Sikhs were out in their thousands in Birmingham today outside the Indian High Commission. They’re planning a bigger demonstration in Brussels. Sikh media channels have been talking about nothing else.
It’s the first time in my adult life I’ve seen Sikhs so united all over the globe. Regardless of their background, their age or where they’re from, Sikhs have shown the power of solidarity and peaceful protest.
And their efforts have not gone in vain. Today, Rajoana’s hanging was suspended following a mercy petition by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabantak Committee. They are appealing for the Indian President, Pratibha Patil to show clemency.
This is a temporary victory for Sikhs. Only when the death sentence will be revoked can we truly take pride in India to live up to its democracy status. Minorities in the country have suffered discrimination for generations. If India can prove it is listening to its 19million Sikhs in the country and 30million the world over, it would instrument shifting attitudes and perhaps prevent serious backlash.