Last minute bid to save hanging of Kehar Singh in Indira Gandhi assassination case
Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh were hanged to death on a wet and chilly morning of January 6, 1989 at 8.00 am in the Indira Gandhi assassination case. Their last words were “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal” and they were in high spirits. Their ashes were not handed over to their families. The structures erected for their cremation in the Tihar jail were also demolished immediately. Kehar Singh walked to the gallows with prayer on his lips. The capital punishment to Kehar Singh evoked strong reaction from the senior political leaders at the national level as there was no evidence of his direct involvement. He had been sentenced for his alleged involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Indira Gandhi.
Four senior Opposition leaders, including Atal Behari Vajpayee (BJP), K. P. Unnikrishnan (Congress-S), Lt General (Retd) Jagjit Singh Aurora (Akali Dal) and Surendra Mohan (Janata Dal) came out against the hanging of Kehar Singh hours before the execution of the death sentence. They tried to reach Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to prevent what they said would be “senseless, inhuman and judicial murder”. They wanted to meet the Prime Minister to ask him to convene an emergency meeting of the cabinet to review the earlier decision rejecting the mercy petition of Kehar Singh, as President R. Venkataraman had made it known that he was bound by the advice of the council of ministers. Rajiv Gandhi was out of Delhi. As they tried to contact Home Minister Buta Singh, they were told that he had already gone to sleep. They sent a letter to the Home Ministry seeking stay on the hanging of Kehar Singh. The government did not respond. “Everyone I have had occasion to talk with about Kehar Singh case says there is no evidence against the man, that what the Supreme Court and the lower courts have read into the so called evidence is a string of non-sequiters… in the Delhi high court today, Ram Jethmalani was at his logical persuasive best. But it was logic, it was persuasion, it was eloquence before a wall…. The court, but not just the court, the court on behalf of society, was just going through the motions”, wrote Arun Shourie. Jethmalani had pleaded the case of Kehar Singh.
The last futile battle to save Kehar Singh was fought in the Supreme Court. The apex court that heard two petitions during the working hours and a hurried last minute plea found no merit. “I am arguing under the shadow of two hangmen”, pleaded Jethmalani. For two hours, Jethmalani and Shanti Bhushan tried to impress that the President had not applied his mind on the mercy petition. Their plea was that the evidence on which he was to be hanged was circumstantial. The five judge bench headed by the Chief Justice refused to intervene. These were the last words of Jethmalani: “If this court can’t intervene then it is not just my client who will hang tomorrow. Something much more vital will die. It will not be Kehar Singh who will be hanged; it will be decency and justice”. Shanti Bhushan said, “In fact, the court must decide whether a man should ever be sentenced to death on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone. Circumstantial evidence can never remove that last lingering speck of doubt about a man’s guilt”.
In the adjoining court, R. S. Sodhi, counsel for Satwant Singh, argued that with his hanging, a vital piece of evidence would be lost for ever. Two Indo-Tibet Border Police commandoes had opened fire killing Beant Singh on the spot and injuring Satwant Singh immediately after the attack on Indira Gandhi. He only wanted the execution to be stayed till his evidence against the commandos was recorded. The court refused to grant relief. It was around 4.00 pm that a lawyer ran into the court of the Chief Justice, huffing and panting. He wanted to file petition on behalf of Satwant’s parents to prove that the entire case stood vitiated. The petition was dismissed within a minute after the lawyer stopped arguing.
At another level, the International Commission of Jurists pleaded with Venkataraman to grant clemency to Kehar Singh. Commission Secretary General Niall Macdermot said he was profoundly disturbed by the rejection of pleas for mercy. Here goes the text of the appeal:
“The International Commission of Jurists is profoundly disturbed by the rejection of pleas for mercy which have caused deep concern among the jurists throughout the world. As appears from the judgment, the only substantial evidence on which his conviction was based was that he had talks with Beant Singh on various occasions but there was no evidence as to the contents of those talks. We beseech you to exercise your right and power to have regard to the merits of the case in order to prevent what might be a terrible error of justice”.
Kehar Singh told his son on the eve of his hanging, “This has happened with the Sikhs before, it is happening today, it will continue to happen…there is nothing new in what is happening to me…And if by my ‘Qurbani’ the Panth can be strengthened, it is for the good…. I did nobody any harm”.
Inder Kumar Gujral, who later rose to be the Prime Minister, A. G. Noorani, Kuldip Nayar, Patwant Singh, Rajinder Sachar and Rajni Kothari strongly reacted to the hanging saying, “All right thinking people in our republic must reflect with infinite sadness on the pass to which this land of sages and savants has been brought by those in political power. It is a particularly appropriate day for such introspection, since a man whose guilt was in grave doubt was sent to the gallows by the government incapable of making a distinction between right and wrong, between compassion and vindictiveness, between the majority and the law and the arrogance of power. It will take India a long time, if at all, to live down the President’s inability to exercise his powers which the Supreme Court had clarified for him in its historic opinion of December 16. Through his inaction and his indifference to our appeal two days ago – and to the appeals of countless others – he has shown the world that India’s head of state lacks the stature to step back and look at the responsibilities dispassionately and not – as he has done- with a desire to fall in with the voices of unreason”. (The Indian Express, January 7, 1989)
Shourie, in his article “This alone is repentance”, described Kehar Singh’s hanging as murder. He wrote, “A life has thus been extinguished because no one who could save it had the courage, the audacity to seize the main point. Even this is not accurate. It isn’t just that no one who could save it had the courage or audacity to reach out. It is that no one who could have such courage, such audacity is these days anywhere along the line….And therefore, two three sentences will live on, long after the murder of Kehar Singh”…. “The only judge is Rajiv Gandhi”, said the shocked Rajinder Singh as he came out of the court room. “His mother was killed. By whom we do not know. And he wants to take revenge on Sikhs, on all Sikhs”…..At last what had been the struggle to get this heartless system to heed the innocence of a man had once again become a Hindu-Sikh question. What a great tragedy. And the fools in this government don’t have sense enough to see even this”. 
However, in obscure Mustafabad, the native village of Kehar Singh about 10 km from Bassi Pathana on the Chandigarh-Sirhind road, his relatives were calm on the day of hanging. The relatives had heard the news broadcast by Radio Pakistan in the 9.00 AM bulletin. His nephew Gurmail Singh was reported saying, “People started coming to our house. Hindu brothers came to us. There is no difference between the Sikhs and the Hindus here”.
Yet there was another reaction in these words: “Why did the government act in this perverse way? Why did it refuse to draw a distinction between Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh? In a sense, the answer should be obvious. It was not for lack of sensitivity or moral conscience. All these considerations are secondary, if not irrelevant, in what is called politics. Kehar Singh had to die not because his guilt was incontestable. He was hanged because those who run the country were of the view that this is what would suit their political strategy”. The hanging of Kehar Singh was one case where leaders cutting across ideological and political barriers had join hands to save the man.
In accordance with the Sikh traditions, both Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh were declared martyrs by the SGPC and the Unified Akali Dal on January 8. This status was bestowed upon them by SGPC Secretary Manjit Singh Calcutta in the presence of Akal Takht Jathedar Prof. Darshan Singh saying, “We recognize them as martyrs because whatever they did was the direct result of the attack on the spiritual and temporal seats of the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht”. They are now the forgotten heroes.
(Excerpts from my book Khalistan Struggle: A Non-movement, Aakar, 2011)