Crowds attending the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on April 17th may have noted a smaller, more muted protest as they passed Downing Street, one which had nothing to do with the former prime minister but rather looked to quietly continue to raise awareness of their own cause. The Protest, run by Kesri Lehar, The Wave for Justice is known as the ‘save a life vigil.’ The life it seeks to save is that of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a prisoner on death row in India.
Professor Bhullar was convicted of involvement in the bombing of the All Indian Youth Congress in New Delhi in 1993, killing 9 and leaving 36 wounded. In 2001 he was sentenced to death, yet the evidence on which his conviction stands is agreed by many to be tenuous, with even the Public Prosecutor who appeared against Bhullar during his Supreme Court appeal of 2002 describing the sentence as a ‘Judicial Error’ due to the conviction being based solely on an uncorroborated confession from Bhullar, later retracted. His appeal for clemency was rejected by the Indian government on April 12th of this year.
I became aware of Bhullar nine days later, when leaving my flat in Leith I heard music and saw in the distance a parade slowly but sparklingly moving along the street. There were so many people, many of whom were Sikh, some were not, and as they moved along they invited onlookers to join them in their celebrations of the Indian New Year. In their midst drove a float decorated with paper lotus blossoms which carried the older people and those in wheelchairs. As I watched a man came and gave me a leaflet by Kesri Lehar, detailing the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar.
The death penalty is anathema to me on principle, however what made this case particularly despicable (and perhaps what made me stop and ask more questions) is not only the shaky evidence used to convict Bhullar, but his ailing mental health. I read the leaflet then walked into the march, joining three women who I asked about Professor Bhullar. ‘This is not an execution,’ said one of the women ‘if the government kill him it will be an assassination. If this happens there will be a lot of anger in India.’
This is also the opinion of Parmjeet Singh , a representative of Kesri Lehar - “Bhullar is a victim of state brutality’ he tells me ‘this [sentence] upholds the barbaric and draconian laws of the state.” He elaborated on the TADA law under which Bhullar was convicted. The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act is no longer in force, yet during the years it was (1985 - 1995) it was condemned by human rights organisations for the powers it gave the state to detain prisoners for up to a year and to assume guilt unless the party proved themselves to be innocent. In the Punjab, where there is a Sikh majority this act was implemented in ways which would leave scars on the region for years to come. A paper by Human Rights Watch entitled Punjab in Crisis lists some of the violations on human rights. The cases are harrowing in their brutality but I think it is important to read if you wish to understand the impact of TADA. In the context of the act it is possible to see how Bhullar’s execution could be interpreted as an assassination, as well as a continuation or even a vindication of the TADA laws which threw the Punjab into crisis in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of November 1984.
Parvinder Singh says “this is a test case of the TADA laws, and this is why the Tamils, Kashmiris and Punjabis [all persecuted under the law] stand together. They know that if the government hangs Professor Bhullar this will pave the way for other prisoners committed under TADA to be sent to the gallows.” He points out that the Tamils, 2000 miles south of the Punjab, held a strike for Bhullar where they kept their children off school.
A further aggravating factor in Bhullar’s case is the fact that he was deported from Germany in 1995, a decision later ruled illegal, which has caused Germany among other European countries to call for clemency for Bhullar. “India cannot afford to ignore the calls from abroad for much longer,” says Parvinder.
‘The youth in Punjab will protest’ he adds ‘that is the natural reaction where there is state injustice. The military and security forces will go to Punjab. The government are preparing for a reaction.’
It is reported that during the massacre of the Sikhs in November 1984 those carrying out the killings were calling ‘Khoon Ka Badla Khoon’ which means ‘blood for blood.’ This cry for retribution is self-perpetuating, part of a long cycle of which Bhullar’s execution would be yet another example. If he is executed it will be seen by the Punjabis as a personal attack on their liberty and position within India.
‘India could live in peace’ says Parvinder Singh ‘they have squandered the great opportunity given by their ethnically diverse makeup. This [execution] would undermine confidence in the government.’
It’s impossible to predict the full scale of the reaction to Bhullar’s execution, but it seems that if the government were to kill him it would be taking a step away from peace and united India. The Khalistan movement could be given more credibility, not less as gaps would open up between the Indian government and the minorities within the country.
Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s final mercy plea is currently under consideration. I hope that the Indian president takes into account that clemency would not only be kinder but would be more conducive to an India which is seen to protect its minorities and celebrate its diverse ethnic makeup.