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News reports indicate that the execution of Prof Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar by the Indian state is imminent.

Historian and Author Barbara Tuchman once wrote in one of her famous tomes of how nations in their arrogance, when standing at crossroads and faced with history-making choices, tend to choose the wrong turn and head off into a path of self-destruction and oblivion.

India today is at such a crossroads. And it appears that it too is about to take -- yet again -- a wrong turn.

Retelling the TRUTH ....Navneet Kaur, wife of India's death row inmate, Prof. Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar,  is courteous but wary, but when she begins to speak, she looks squarely at you, in a daunting stare that seems to at once weigh  you up and dismiss you.  “I’m going to call these people,” she says,  waving a newspaper article that referred to her husband as a ‘dreaded  KLF (Khalistan Liberation Force) militant’, “and say, ‘Who told you he’s a militant?’ The police never found any weapon, any identification, any piece of paper. If he is proved guilty, if they find evidence, I’ll be the first to say ‘hang him’.”

That is the fate currently in store for Devinder Pal Singh, after President  Pratibha Patil summarily rejected his mercy petition on 25 May 2011, after an eight-year wait. He had been No. 18 on the list of mercy  pleas, but Patil - and the Home Ministry - were evidently spurred into  action by a writ petition that Devinder's wife, along with the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), had filed in the Supreme Court  on 15 May, asking why his mercy petition had not been addressed since it was filed in January 2003.  Navneet’s lawyer, K.T.S. Tulsi, swiftly  challenged the presidential order, saying the long torturous wait has  made Devinder mentally unsound, and that he cannot be hanged in such a  state. This, along with the original petition, is likely to come up for  hearing on 11 July. For Navneet, it has been a long, lonely wait, filled with nothing but the endless paperwork of petitions and appeals for company.

The wait  began barely three months into her marriage to Devinder, in December  1991. Then, a professor of mechanical engineering in Ludhiana’s Guru  Nanak Engineering College, Devinder was believed by the police to be  connected to a remote-controlled bomb attack on the vehicle of a  notoriously brutal Senior Supt. of Police, Sumedh Saini, credited with “finishing  off” the Khalistani insurgency with former Punjab Police DGP, K.P.S. Gill.  Navneet, for her part, maintains that the police came after him because  they didn’t want him to “raise his voice” about the 42 college students  who had gone missing.

According to the writ petition filed by Navneet and the DSGMC, the  police raided Devinder’s house following the attack, and when they didn’t find him, they “abducted his father and maternal uncle”, who were  “tortured to death in police custody”. The petition adds that Devinder's  engineer friend, Balwant Singh Multani,  was “also abducted at the same  time and detained in police custody by Saini … and tortured to death.”  “They also picked up my dad,” recalls Navneet, “and released him after  one-and-a-half months’ torture. They tied his hands, beat him with  sticks, kept him in the cold, somewhere, with no FIR, no arrest.” She  adds that the torture and detention left him “mentally disturbed, and  barely capable of walking - the beatings had made his muscles loose”. Devinder went into hiding, and Navneet took on a job as a hostel  warden in a private school in Bhatinda to get her mind off the turmoil.  They never dared meet in between - “[If] he came to see me, they’d shoot  him,” says Navneet, “that time, they shot youngsters and got stars.”  Saini, for instance, earned himself a gallantry award in 1987.

On 11 September 1993, the cavalcade of the then Youth Congress  President, M.S. Bitta, was hit by a remote-controlled blast, leaving 12  people dead. The Delhi Police conjectured that the blast was similar to  the attack against Saini, and began to look for Devinder as well. In  1994, Devinder and his wife arranged to move to Vancouver, Canada, “to  have a peaceful life”. Navneet went ahead, and Bhullar was caught with  false papers while he was changing planes in Frankfurt, remained briefly in custody, and was deported to India in January 1995.  The extradition  was judged illegal two years later by a Frankfurt court.

He was tried for minor passport offences, and then, in a Delhi trial  court, under the draconian Terrorist & Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), which lapsed later that year. His co-accused in the case, Daya  Singh Lahoria, who was extradited from the U.S. on condition that he  wouldn’t be tried under TADA, was acquitted for lack of evidence.  Bhullar wasn’t so lucky. Under TADA, acts of terrorism attracted a  mandatory death sentence, and induced confessions were admissible as  evidence. And that was all the Delhi Police had against Devinder - a thumb  imprint and signature on a confessional statement, which he later  retracted in court. Yet, despite the lack of any eyewitnesses or evidence pinning him to  his alleged misdeeds, Devinder was sentenced to death under TADA by a  Delhi trial court in August 2001.

Later that year, he appealed  unsuccessfully against the conviction, though the three-judge bench  could not reach a unanimous verdict. One of the judges, Justice M.B. Shah, held that Devinder could not be convicted on the basis of a “dubious  confession”, let alone given a death sentence, and recommended that he  be acquitted. But Shah was overruled by the other two judges, who  awarded the death penalty despite Shah’s dissenting opinion. “It’s the  first case in the world,” points out Tulsi,  “in which a death sentence  has been given despite a difference of opinion among the judges. Even  room for 1 per cent doubt cannot be called ‘the rarest of rare’ cases,  and here there was 33 per cent uncertainty.” 

Devinder has remained in solitary confinement in Tihar’s jail No. 3.  “He’s in an 8 x 10 [ft] cell, with the toilet, bed, all in the same  place,” says Navneet. “This room [her Rakab Ganj quarters] is very  clean, but I feel even this is not so good. He was raised in a good  family, so delicate, his mother and aunt tell me he never used to go out in the sunshine. And he has to face all this.” The years of waiting on death row have taken their toll. Supreme  Court judgments commuting death sentences to life imprisonment have  cited the “brooding horror of hanging” and the “unique mental anguish  and suffering” that is termed “death row syndrome”. While as a young  under-trial, Devinder was even interested in pursuing an MBA from jail - a  request that was rejected - his 5,700 days in limbo have sapped him of all hope and the will to live. They have also reduced him to a state of  infirmity that belies his 46 years of age. His wife says he now looks  closer to 60, and his medical records from the past few years speak of  numerous health complaints, including chest pain, shortness of breath,  heaviness of chest, numbness of neck, and depression. “It’s all 99 per  cent stress,” adds Navneet. “Under the death sentence, he is dying every day!”

Since last December, Devinder has been admitted to the Institute of  Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS) in east Delhi. “He came in  with severe depression with suicide risk,” says IHBAS director, Dr  Nimesh Desai. “His condition has only worsened, despite our best  efforts.”  Desai describes him as “dishevelled, negligent of his health  care, suicidal in thought and intent” and incapable of speaking,  “because of high despondency”. He is also indifferent to suggestions of  activities intended to make him “feel better”. “When we say, ‘TV dekhiye, logon se miliye,’ he tells us, ‘Why? What’s the point?’” says Desai. “His reaction is  understandable. What the hell does one say to such a person? What  message of hope can there be?” His lawyer as of the past two months, K.T.S. Tulsi, says Devinder seemed  fragile when he went to visit him at the IHBAS psychiatric ward a month  ago. “He kept telling me, ‘Main attvaadi nahi haan, attvaad de khilaaf haan.’ (‘I’m not a terrorist, I’m opposed to terrorism.’)” 

Upkar Kaur, his  75-year-old mother, says he is now so disoriented he can barely tell who she is. “Ab unka dimaag hi thheek nahin hai, bolta nahin hai, pehchanta nahin hai, ki yeh meri mother hai,” she says. “Yeh bilkul galat baat hai. Mera beta padha-likha hai, mechanical engineer hai, criminal mind nahi hai mera bachcha.” (He is not mentally sound, he doesn’t speak or know that I’m his mother. My son is no criminal, he is an educated man.) For Upkar, who now lives in Sacramento, California, with her younger  son, the verdict is tragedy twice over. Twenty years after her husband  was tortured and killed, justice has still not been served. “Ek innocent ko buri tarah maarna, cruelty se maarna… He never so much as hurt a dog, and they jumped on his stomach, threw  him down three floors …” she says, adding that whoever did this, “Woh parmaatma se bhugtega zaroor (The Lord will make them pay).”

Saini, incidentally, is currently facing charges of kidnapping,  torture and murder, which the CBI filed against him after the Chandigarh High Court directed them to do so in 2008. Meanwhile, the case he  foisted on Devinder, accusing him of attempt to murder and attempt of  terrorism fell apart in 2006, due to lack of evidence. This is of no consolation to Navneet. For the past month, she has  abandoned her aged parents and her job as a nurse in a Vancouver general hospital, to be in Delhi, where every day, she shuttles between  Devinder’s hospital and every embassy and human rights NGO she can think  of. The effort has not been in vain. Last month, the European Union and  the German ambassador to India wrote to the Home Minister, opposing  Devinder’s execution, and stressing that his extradition in 1995 was  illegal.

Recently the Save Bhullar campaign went viral on social  networking sites, with the Sikh diaspora changing their profile pictures to its symbolic image - a picture of a poignantly youthful, well-groomed  Devinder in a pastel pink shirt and matching turban, with a noose  hovering ominously before him. The same image spread across Punjab,  through T-shirts, which were sold outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, right alongside posters depicting Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. At the press conference convened by the DSGPC at the Gurdwara Rakab  Ganj in Delhi on 2 July, references to militancy are entirely absent,  though there is a faint spirit-scented air of sacrifice about the Sikh  youth groups in a corner, who are donating blood to inscribe sanguineous petitions to the President. Navneet then addresses the gathering. “I’ve been  waiting for 20 years. I’ve had no justice. I’ve had mental torture,” she says, in a voice that rises to an inaudible gasp with every sentence. Afterward, as the crowd crams their plates with rice under a tent  leaking rainwater, Navneet says, “I had a very good life before  marriage. People who see me now say, ‘She was one of the happiest girls  in our family.’” Her voice falters when she thinks of that happy girl  whose dreams were destroyed, as much as it does for the husband she  prepares to see in a psychiatric ward - the defeated shell of the  “intelligent, soft-spoken” man she knew 20 long years ago.


Harpreet Kaur

This petition closed over 4 years ago

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