Uncertain Guilt

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Devinderpal Singh Bhullar has been sentenced to death despite a split verdict in the Supreme Court and a case that doesn’t quite add up to certain guilt. Twenty years of fighting the charges against him have robbed him of his sanity. Will India stand by and let a sick man hang?

The Indian Supreme Court decision rejecting Devinderpal Singh Bhullar’s plea is hard to understand. Consider the background: his father Balwant Singh, a government employee, his uncle Manjit Singh and a cousin were picked up for questioning by the police in 1991 in front of several witnesses who are ready to testify to this fact. But Balwant Singh and Manjit Singh are still considered missing by the police after they ‘disappeared’ in 1991. The cousin, who saw Balwant Singh in illegal custody, had to have a leg amputated after torture by the police. Even Devinderpal Singh’s father-in-law, also a government employee, was picked up and tortured.

All this happened after Bhullar, a professor of mechanical engineering in Ludhiana’s Guru Nanak Engineering College, was said by the police to be connected to a remote-controlled bomb attack on the vehicle of SSP Sumedh Singh Saini, who is now DGP of Punjab. He was acquitted by the court, but the subsequent killing of his family members forced him to go underground to escape the same fate.

On 11 September 1993, the cavalcade of then Youth Congress President MS Bitta was hit by a remote-controlled blast, leaving 12 people dead. The Delhi Police believed the blast was similar to the attack against Saini. Despite the fact that the courts had found nothing to connect Bhullar to the original blast, Delhi cops began to look for Bhullar, who was finally caught a year later in Frankfurt. He was deported to India in January 1995 to face trial, and was awarded a death sentence. In 2011, after Bhullar’s mercy plea was turned down by the Indian President, the European Union wrote to the Indian Government saying that the German government’s decision to deport Bhullar was wrong, as German law bars the government from deporting any individual, no matter the charges against him, to any state where torture and capital punishment exist. In fact, two years after Bhullar was sent back to India, an administrative court in Frankfurt ruled that the government’s decision was incorrect. Does it not seem strange that two Italian marines who shot dead Indian fishermen in cold blood can be given assurances that they won’t hang, but an Indian citizen, against whom the charges are by no means so clear, will not benefit under the same legal paradigm?

The case against Bhullar is based on a confession obtained from him in police custody. Bhullar appealed the decision of the lower court, and in 2003 the Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence by a split verdict. The presiding judge acquitted Bhullar, but the other two judges confirmed the sentence. This was the first time anyone has been awarded a death sentence by a split verdict. His subsequent review petitions and mercy petition too were rejected in 2011. This may seem like due process, but consider what it actually means.

The presiding Supreme Court judge MB Shah had acquitted Bhullar because his complicity was based entirely on his own confession to the police, who failed to corroborate his statement even after he had retracted it. Independent witnesses produced by the prosecution contradicted Bhullar’s confession statement. Consider-ing that considerable logistics and planning go into a blast of the magnitude that Bhullar is charged with organising, this is either an indication that the confession was coerced, or that the Delhi Police is so incompetent that even with the main perpetrator of the crime admitting to the offence, it is unable to establish the linkages that led to the blast. If the only remaining possibility is that of coercion, anyone familiar with police methods in India will readily concede that almost anyone will confess to almost anything to avoid the kind of barbaric treatment that is the norm in any police station.

Though he was awarded the death sentence in 2003, his review petition was rejected only in 2006, and it took another five years for his mercy petition to be turned down. The agony of an endless wait took a toll on his mind, and for the last two years he has been in a mental hospital in Delhi. This was the basis for the petition filed before the Supreme Court in 2011, pleading that the inordinate delay in deciding on his mercy plea and his present mental sickness exempt him from being hanged as, in a civilised world, no mentally sick man is hanged. The director of the mental institute where Bhullar is admitted testified that he is suffering from acute depression and is not feigning his mental illness. He also testified that Bhullar was under heavy medication. Last week, the Supreme Court chose to confirm his sentence and clear the ground for carrying it out, and it now appears that this country could end up hanging a man who is mentally sick.

The two-judge bench that heard the plea bypassed a 1989 five-judge constitutional bench judgment, which observed that an inordinate delay resulting in mental worry is grounds for seeking the conversion of a death sentence to life imprisonment. Bhullar’s lawyer KTS Tulsi says it is hard to comprehend the awarding of a death penalty in this case as any civilised society believes there shouldn’t be a shred of doubt before someone is hanged, and in this case the verdict was split. If one judge exonerated Bhullar, clearly there must have been some doubt. And if it is a question of the nature of the crime, people accused and convicted of crimes more heinous than what Bhullar is charged with have had their death sentences commuted. Kishori Lal, one of the accused in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, was awarded death sentences in at least five different cases, all of which were commuted to life by the Supreme Court.

Taken together, Supreme Court decisions should impact society not only in a manner that conveys the possibility of justice under the letter of the law, but also in a way that is consistent and understandable to most people. But understanding and debate should not just be restricted to the law, they should also take into consideration the reasons why so many men like Deviderpal Singh Bhullar took up arms in the first place.

Ranjit Singh ‘Kuki’ Gill, son of Khem Singh Gill, former Vice-Chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, was studying for a Masters in Plant Breeding and Genetics at PAU when he was charged with the murder of Congress politician Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali soon after the 1984 massacres in Delhi. He escaped to the US, where he spent 13 years in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center. In May 2000, Gill and his companion, fellow inmate Sukhwinder Singh, relinquished their appeals to remain in the US of their own volition and opted to return to India. Early in 2009, the lengthy trial concluded by reaffirming the life sentence. But finally, almost 25 years after the event, his sentence was commuted by the Chief Minister of Delhi after the intervention of Maken’s daughter Avantika