A life sentence

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

A Sessions Court in Delhi sentences Ranjit Singh Gill, accused in the murder of Congress(I) MP Lalit Maken, to life imprisonment.

in New Delhi

RANJIT SINGH GILL, who has already spent 16 years in jail, was sentenced to life imprisonment on February 24 by Additional Sessions Judge R.K. Jain in the case relating to the murder of Congress(I) Member of Parliament Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali at their Kirti Nagar residence in New Delhi. The Judge, complimening Ranjit Singh on his good behaviour, said the case did not warrant capital punishment. He said the crime had been committed during turbulent times, and peace had returned and normalcy had been restored.

The court said: "The convict is not a criminal and his behaviour in detention as well as during trial has been commendable and he has never shown any disrespect to anybody including the court. He has never raised any voice against the law of the land also. In my opinion there are not only chances of his being reformed and settled in life peacefully, but he already appears to be a reformed person and therefore I do not intent to award capital punishment".

Ranjit Singh's father, who retired as vice-chancellor of the Punjab Agriculture University, has asked the lawyers to place an application before the Delhi government to deduct the number of years his son has already spent behind bars from the life sentence. If this happens Ranjit Singh could be a free man.

The judgment notes that Indira Gandhi's assassination was followed by anti-Sikh riots. Given the complicity of politicians and the police in the riots, several independent organisations, including civil liberty groups, conducted investigations to help nail the guilty. In a 31-page booklet titled `Who are the Guilty', the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) listed 227 people who led the mobs, which killed up to 3,000 Sikhs over three days. Lalit Maken's name was third on the list with a brief description: "Lalit Maken, Congress(I) trade union leader and metropolitan councillor. Reportedly paid the mobsters Rs.100 each plus a bottle of liquor. A white Ambassador car reportedly belonging to him came four times to the GT Road area near Azadpur. Instructions to mobs indulging in arson were given from inside the car." The judgment says that it was on the basis of this list that Ranjit Singh and his two accomplices targeted Lalit Maken.

Lalit Maken was shot dead on July 31, 1985, when he was moving towards his car parked across the road from his house in Kirti Nagar. The three assailants - all aged below 30 - continued firing even as Maken ran towards his house for cover. Maken's wife Geetanjali and a visitor, Balkishan, were also caught in the firing. The assailants escaped on their scooters.

Ranjit Singh's involvement in the murder came to light when Sukhdev Singh, also known as Sukha, made his confessional statement in the murder of Metropolitan Councillor Arjun Dass, who was killed two months after Lalit Maken. In his statement Sukha named Ranjit Singh an accomplice in the larger plan to kill persons named in the PUCL report. He said he took Ranjit Singh and Sukhwinder Singh to Lalit Maken's house. While Sukhwinder Singh was given a sten gun and Ranjit Singh a pistol, he himself took a .38 bore revolver. In the meantime, Harjinder Singh, also known as Jinda, reached Lalit Maken's house on his own and was asked by Sukha to stand on the other side of the road.

Sukhwinder Singh went inside Lalit Maken's house and asked for water. By doing this he found out the time when Lalit Maken would step out. The sten gun was left on the scooter whereas he and Ranjit Singh fired with their revolver and pistol. Ranjit Singh stood by the side of the road and Sukhwinder Singh near the scooter. In his statement Sukha said that Ranjit Singh could fire only one shot. The firing started when Lalit Maken stepped out of his house and moved towards his car. Geetanjali Maken, who was outside the house buying mangoes from a fruit vendor, was caught in the firing and died on the spot.

Ranjit Singh left for the United States on February 28, 1986, using a fake passport. His run was stalled by the Interpol, which arrested him in New Jersey on May 14, 1987. The Indian government pressed for his extradition, which was allowed by a U.S. court in February 1988. However, the order was set aside in September 1990 after the prosecution asked for his extradition on the basis of Sukha's confession in the Arjun Dass case. Since Sukha's confession in the case was disallowed by Indian courts, U.S. courts too did not deem it significant. Left with the option of either contesting the ruling or filing a fresh appeal, the Indian government decided on the latter course of action. The extradition was finally allowed in May 1997. However, a habeas corpus application was filed by Ranjit Singh in response to which the U.S. court remanded him back to custody. Finally, exhausted by the process, Ranjit Singh agreed to an extradition.

Meanwhile, Jinda, who was arrested on August 30, 1987, had confessed to his participation in the murder. He later committed suicide by consuming cyanide. Sukhwinder Singh was killed in an encounter on February 27, 1988. And Ranjit Singh was extradited to India on May 7, 2000. As per the extradition order, no charge under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA, was framed against him. He was to be charged with the offences of murder and attempt to murder. By the time he was brought to India he had spent more than 16 years in custody.

In the trial court Ranjit Singh's lawyers claimed that he had been falsely implicated in the Lalit Maken case. What strengthened this claim was the fact that the Sessions Court did not take into account Sukha's confession in the present case. The prosecution tried to show that Ranjit Singh was a close associate of Sukhdev Singh by producing 10 police persons as witnesses. It failed to prove that Ranjit Singh had any connection with the other accused or that he was a close associate of Sukha.

The court said: "It has become highly doubtful that the present accused (Ranjit Singh) had entered into a conspiracy to eliminate some people. At several points above it has been observed that the confessional statement of Sukha, which was the only piece of evidence to prove that the present accused had conspired with others, is not admissible against him in the present trial."

Ultimately, the prosecution's case relied solely on the testimony of Maken's domestic help Mohammed Salam. Ranjit Singh's counsel questioned the manner in which the test parade identification (TPI) was done. Ranjit Singh was named by Salam on August 4, 1987 almost two years after Lalit Maken's murder. This was because Ranjit Singh's complicity in the crime became known in 1986 when Sukha and Jinda gave their confessions. On the basis of Salam's eyewitness account, the Sessions Court held Ranjit Singh guilty of the offences under Sections 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code.

The case has put the spotlight on the pending 1984 riots cases, which were filed by the victims against politicians and police personnel who participated in the riots. In her unpublished report `Quest for Justice - 1984 anti-Sikh massacre in Delhi', law scholar Vrinda Grover has found that out of the 137 judgments delivered by trial courts in cases relating to the role of politicians in the 1984 riots, only six cases have ended in convictions. All the cases against politicians have resulted in their acquittal. With the acquittal of former Congress(I) MP Sajjan Kumar on December 23, all cases against the politicians involved in the riots have come to an end (Frontline, January 17, 2003).

The reasons for this are that in dealing with the cases of the riot victims, the courts have relied on solitary witness accounts, the omnibus first information reports (FIRs) registered by the police, and the absence of TPIs. Emphasises Grover: "With the police not bringing forth neighbours who also witnessed the killings and relying on one witness, the prosecution's case falls apart in the trial court."

The fact that these cases are being heard 18 years after the killings makes the dispension of justice more difficult. Grover has found that the FIRs registered by the police after the killings show some common mistakes. An examination of them has shown that there were deliberate delays in recording FIRs with some being filed 10 years after the riots. In cases where FIRs have been recorded by the police, there has been a deliberate omission of names of state officials who were involved in the riots. For instance, in the cases against Congress(I) politician H.K.L. Bhagat, the witnesses came forward to say that they had named him before the police, while the police chose not to write his name.

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