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'What I did was the will of God'

Print edition : Nov 15, 1997 T+T-
Interview with Jathedar Ranjit Singh.

Praveen Swami met Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh for this interview on November 8, a few minutes before the Jathedar received a call informing him that the life sentence awarded to him by court for the murder of Nirankari sect leader Gurbachan Singh had been commuted by the President of India. Over more than an hour during the interview, the Jathedar focussed not only on the specifics of the case but on Punjab's troubled decade of quasi-fascist terror and his vision of the relevance of religion to the State's political life.

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What is your reaction to the remission of the sentence?

I have seen ups and downs for too long to be moved by small incidents like this. In Tihar Jail I sometimes felt that I was about to be released, at other points that I was about to be hanged. I have seen such difficult days in jail that now these things do not have any effect on me. The other thing is that I have understood the purpose of life, and happiness or sorrow means nothing to me. When the High Court rejected my appeal against the conviction, I was not disturbed at the thought of having to go to jail. I did not ask anyone to intervene on my behalf. Today I am not euphoric.

In your view, what was the root of the problem in Punjab? The killing of Gurbachan Singh was of course a very important incident.

Injustice by the Central Government. Look at my own case. I was never associated with the (Khalistan) movement, though it started with this very case. Even before the case began, I knew I would be convicted. The conditions of the trial were such that even the circumstances in my favour had been ignored by the judge.

But you yourself admitted to the killing several times in public.

That's not the issue. There is a law. The law demands a proper trial based on evidence. There was no evidence against me. The judge's hands were trembling as in winter when he wrote the order convicting me. Look at the Nirankaris who killed 13 of our Sikhs in the Baisakhi massacre that I avenged. There should have at least been a case against the killers in the courts in Amritsar, where the killings took place. But they were tried in Karnal, and all 63 persons were acquitted. In my case, they said that since the murder took place in Delhi, I should be tried there. Is that justice?

In retrospect, do you have any regrets about shooting Gurbachan Singh? Can the feud with the Nirankaris now be laid to rest, in the interests of peace?

Certainly not. I have no regrets, neither in the past nor now. What I did was the will of God. The Nirankaris can only be forgiven if they disband their sect and appeal to the Akal Takht for forgiveness.

But why? Isn't this an issue of minority religious rights?

No religion has its basis in the defamation of other religions. The Nirankaris dishonour the Gurbani, which they call the Santbani. Sikhs can tolerate any insult but this. And this is what every Nirankari religious text does.

The question really is, if you do not agree with people, do you have to persecute them? For example, in Pakistan the Ahmediyyas are not recognised as Muslims. But their persecution is universally condemned. How is this case different?

For one thing, there aren't just two sects in Islam but 72, and all of them believe that they are the true followers of (the Prophet) Muhammad. They are all in competition.

Why did you surrender? Was there a promise of being set free? And what was your reaction to being made Jathedar?

My decision to surrender (in 1983) was made on the basis of some issues related to the movement which I did not wish to be a part of and was unhappy with. I could see which way things were going, and being in jail was a means to separate myself from what was going on. It is wrong to say that Sant H.S. Longowal convinced me that I should surrender, or that I went to Delhi in Surjit Singh Barnala's car. Nobody allows himself to be led to the noose by the finger!

I was approached about being made Jathedar much later. There was no specific offer, just a question about whether I would be willing to bear a heavy burden for the Panth (Sikh community). Being made Jathedar then was to lie on a bed of thorns. No one took these politicians seriously then. Everything was run by gun-wielding men. But I felt that the Akalis were better than the gun-wielding men, and made my decision in line with my beliefs. I can never ignore my values and principles.