Non-Sikhs have a hard time understanding the Rajoana case. They can’t comprehend why Sikhs would protest the execution of a suicide bomber. In some ways, I understand. Political assassinations like the one Rajoana and his friend Dilawar Singh committed have no place in a humane society. Strapping a bomb to your chest and blowing someone up is barbaric. But that’s the crux of the matter. For Rajoana’s act took place in 1990s Punjab — a time and a place where barbarity, darkness and inhumanity ruled the day. Rajoana might be a terrorist by the word’s technical definition, but then so were the people he blew up, only their terrorism took place on a much grander scale.
Peaceful protest only works when its time has come. Ask any minority or poverty stricken villager in the subcontinent – the Indian government is not ready to deal in peace. The land of Mohandas Gandhi and beautiful Mumbai starlets is ruled by powerbrokers intent on a post-colonial fallacy. The idea that myriad ethno-religious groups can be forced to conform to one government-sponsored identity without a fight. Kashmir, Chattisgarh, and India’s various other “conflict zones” evidence the country’s arrogance towards minority groups. The underdogs have spoken. They don’t want to become Hindu, they don’t want to speak Hindi, and they have the human right not to be crushed.
In 1992 the Congress Party came to power in Punjab. The state was in upheaval after years of police and army brutality. The new chief minister, a puppet of the central Indian government, came to finish up the job of crushing the Sikh struggle. His name was Beant Singh. In the first month of his reign his administration helped Punjab Police round up and disappear thousands of Sikh youth. They continued a pattern that began in the 1980s. The police would visit you at night when you were most vulnerable. If you heard a late hour knock you knew it was bad news. “Night dominance” was the police buzzword. It didn’t matter if you were engaged in militant activity or not. It didn’t matter if you’d never committed a crime in your life. They didn’t care if you were the sole bread winner or someone’s only child. If you looked guilty, you were guilty. Any reason was good enough for you to disappear. And just like that – poof! 25,000 Sikh men were gone.
From 1984 to 1994 the Indian government performed a magic act. They pulled men off public buses, off back country roads, from their living rooms and workplaces. If you were lucky you could pay a bribe and be free. If you were like most people you were taken to your local police station and tortured. Then taken to a field and told to run as fast as you could. And just as you thought maybe you’d gotten away, they shot you in the back. In popular Indian parlance this is called a “fake encounter.” Setting them up and making these fake encounters happen, that’s the one thing Beant Singh’s government was good at.
No one knew what was happening. Media blackouts, curfews and a culture of fear pervaded. It’s like magic what the Indian government leaders did. They performed an incredibly well-planned sleight of hand. The Indian government made a whole generation disappear and never revealed a thing. But there was one man in Punjab who needed no revelation. He already knew the magician’s secret. For he and the magic men shared an office. His name was Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana and he worked for the police.
They hired him because they thought he was the perfect patsy. Rajoana, the man whose father had been murdered by so called Sikh terrorists. Join us, the Police said, and you’ll be able to avenge your father’s death. Rajoana’s anger fueled him to drop out of college and take the job. But when his friends began to disappear in police encounters, Rajoana started to wonder. Was he fighting terrorists or was he the terrorist? The wheels in his mind began to churn for Rajoana was a poet, a contemplative sort. He realized the Punjab Police wasn’t targeting Sikh militants. They were targeting Sikh youth. The Indian government’s agenda became clear in his mind. They wanted to crush the Punjab and force it to assimilate into the larger concept of Hindu India. The people in power didn’t want to give up control to the various minority cultures in the subcontinent. They didn’t want Sikhs to challenge authority. They wanted Sikhs to stay in line. Majority populations can be arrogant and unfeeling in that way. Ask any Muslim, Christian or tribal person from India and they’ll tell you the same. The majority loves you when you’re nice and want to destroy you when you’re not.
So what could Rajoana do? Write it all off as the inevitability of history and let a whole people be decimated? It was August 1995 and after three years of Beant Singh’s policies being in effect, Rajoana felt he had no choice. He and his friends hatched a plan. Another police officer named Dilawar Singh joined in. It was a last ditch desperate measure. The only thing left to do. They decided to give the butchers a taste of their own medicine.
They flipped a coin to see who would be the bomber. Dilawar won the toss. It was Rajoana’s job to run in and set off the back up bomb if the first one didn’t work. Either way they were both good as dead. The plan worked. Dilawar was in his police uniform as he walked up to the chief minister’s car. He carried some files so people thought he was there to get something signed. No one gave him a second look. Then everything exploded.
Seventeen years after that fateful day Rajoana lives imprisoned in Patiala awaiting his execution. He’s a coconspirator in an assassination. The other men he planned the hit with took the plea bargain and are serving life sentences. Rajoana refuses. He says he doesn’t want mercy from India’s corrupt justice system. He did what he thought he had to do. He doesn’t care what happens to him now. The heathens can kill him if they want.
Contrastingly, the leaders of the Congress Party walk free. The government officials who gave orders for over a decade to execute innocent civilians are doing fine. And Sumedh Saini, the recently appointed director general of the Punjab Police, is well-known for being a sadistic torturer. Rajoana was right. No one in the Indian government cares. And they should have known it was inevitable for barbarity to beget barbarity.
I don’t engage in debates about who’s a terrorist and who’s not. We are privileged and a million miles away from the chaos, we don’t even know what terror means. But I have one question for those who judge the Sikh community and ask us how we can glorify Rajoana’s actions: How come India can murder, torture, and disappear people without consequence, but one man’s act is morally reprehensible? Yes, it’s true that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. But Rajoana’s dilemma had nothing to do with revenge. He had a different problem: what good is sight if everyone refuses to see in the first place? It’s that silence that Rajoana’s example shattered. And that’s why to us he’s a hero.
Raj Karega Khalsa!