By Sujoy Dhar
Oct 29, 2007

BRUSSELS - On March 23, 1931, an Indian Sikh named Bhagat Singh attained martyrdom when he was hanged by the British for his role in the militant freedom struggle against the colonial rulers.

About 75 years later, Professor Jagmohan Singh, a nephew of the liberation hero, preaches peace and mercy as he joins a worldwide campaign, especially in Europe, by his Sikh community against death penalty.

The life and work of Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and his death by hanging in Lahore (now Pakistan) at the hands of British imperialism has been a great saga of patriotism for generations of Indians.

But while Bhagat Singh trod a path of violence to achieve freedom, his Sikh community, though known as a courageous warrior race, today believes more in the non-violence preaching of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who brought India independence from British rule by peaceful non-cooperation. Gandhi was vocal against death penalty, saying: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

“We wish to argue that our country can honour Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace and non-violence and (the) martyr Bhagat Singh by doing away with the death penalty altogether,” says Professor Singh, a Sikh politician, and in the forefront of the current campaign.

“A civil society should not descend to the status of murderers by preferring revenge over far better forms of justice. All investigations, however meticulous, are subject to human error. Such errors become irreversible in a case where the death penalty is imposed. All over the world, there have been cases of executed people being proved innocent after their death.”

Since early 2006, Sikhs in France have joined the campaign, organising protests and lodging petitions with the Indian embassy in Paris expressing their opposition to the death penalty. They are also calling for release of all Sikhs they claim have been jailed “unjustly” for political reasons in India. In August 2007, a Europe-wide protest by Sikhs calling for an end to the death penalty in India commenced in Brussels outside the European Commission headquarters and the European Parliament building.

The Sikhs then urged European Parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering and the EC Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner to link future trade with India with abolition of the death penalty and respect for the rights of minorities, such as the Sikhs.

The EU is India’s largest trading partner, responsible for about 25 percent of its exports.

Although India’s highest courts have ruled that the death penalty can only be applied in the “rarest of rare” cases, there are believed to be as many as 700 people on the death row in India awaiting execution. Last July, death sentences were handed down to six convicted of involvement in the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

The EU did lobby strongly, but unsuccessfully, before the execution of Dhanonjoy Chaterjee on Aug. 14, 2004. This was India’s last execution, and ended a nine-year-long moratorium on executions in India.

Bhai Amrik Singh, chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) comments: “The ending of the moratorium was a backward and retrograde step by the Indian regime, and a show of defiance to the EU.”

The current campaigning in Europe is highlighting the case of Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar where Germany, a prominent EU member, is directly involved.

The Bhullar affair is one of the most controversial and high profile death penalty cases in recent Indian history. Almost 12 years ago, Bhullar, a Sikh political activist, was deported from Germany to India on the basis that he had nothing to fear on his return.

But Bhullar was arrested immediately he landed in Delhi. In prison he was allegedly tortured to obtain a false confession, and in 2001 he was sentenced to death by hanging for a crime he allegedly did not commit. Sikhs say Germany’s deportation of Bhullar to a country still retaining the death penalty was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The latest death sentences to be handed down by Indian courts were on Jul. 30. Jagtar Singh and Balwant Singh, both Sikhs, were convicted of the August 1995 assassination of then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh and 17 others. The sentences triggered worldwide Sikh protest, including leading figures in the community in the Punjab province of India.

The European Commission, European Parliament and Council of the European Union are now being urged to press for the death sentences to be lifted. According to Professor Jagmohan Singh, in a country like India, where there is a huge gap between the privileged and the dispossessed, the death penalty becomes the final method for implementing class injustice.

“A cursory glance at the list of all those executed in our country will reveal that almost all of them were poor. The rich are rarely found guilty, and even if they are, they are rarely executed.

“There is no international evidence to suggest that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent and heinous crime. Countries like Britain that did away with the death penalty did not see a rise in such crimes, while countries like the U.S., which continue to impose the penalty, show no decline,” Jagmohan Singh says.

To underline that the current anti-death penalty campaign is not only about Sikhs on the death row, Singh also calls for the sparing of another high-profile death row inmate in India, the alleged terrorist Mohammed Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, a Muslim from India’s trouble-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Afzal was convicted of conspiracy in the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. In 2004, he was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of India, but his sentence was stayed after his family filed a mercy petition to the President of India.

“If Afzal is a terrorist today, he was surely not born one. And he need not die one. Circumstances made him what he is. And circumstances may change him. The death penalty will change no one. Far from being a deterrent, martyrdom, as some will surely perceive his death, can only achieve the opposite effect,” says Singh.

He adds: “I believe that the Sikh ethical approach of compassion, forgiveness and scope for reformation of one’s life is a prerequisite for a progressive civil society. It is significant to mention that Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the famous Indian Sikh ruler, in his 40-year-reign (1799-1839) did not use the death penalty, even in cases where he was the subject of attack. It is high time we end this inhuman practice.” (END/2007)