In late March, Sikhs around the world became inspired by one Balwant Singh Rajoana, a former police officer on India’s death row who was scheduled to be executed on March 28, 2012, for his role in the 1995 assassination of Beant Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab, India at the time. Beant Singh oversaw state atrocities against the Sikh people in Punjab during his tenure as head of the state’s government in the 1990s:
In Punjab between 1992 and 1995, at a time when the Khalistan separatist movement was active in the state and the Indian government was aggressively seeking to control the movement. It is alleged that, during Beant Singh’s tenure, upwards of twenty-five thousand of Sikh civilians disappeared or were killed and their bodies cremated by the police in extrajudicial executions.  Rajoana, who was a police constable at that time, conspired with Dilawar Singh Jaisinghvala, a police officer, to kill Beant Singh. Based on a coin toss, Dilawar Singh Jaisinghvala was chosen to be the suicide bomber with Rajoana as a backup. The attack on 31 August 1995 resulted in the death of Beant Singh and 17 others, and, on 25 December 1997, Rajoana confessed his involvement.
Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana did not seek clemency, an appeal, nor a stay of his execution. As he would state, his involvement in the assassination plot was a reaction to the human rights excesses perpetrated by the Beant Singh government. Rajoana welcomed his sentence as he condemned a government and judiciary that had refused to administer any significant level of justice for the atrocities perpetrated by official agencies on the Sikh people throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He sought to inspire Sikhs in the causes of justice and the rights of Sikhs that had been denied. As Rajoana would say in an open letter two weeks before his scheduled execution:
To the whole Khalsa Panth my message is simply this: if you have sympathy for my vision and would like to honour that then fly the Kesari Nishan Sahib from your residences. This will send a clear message to the Government in Delhi – that it may have the power today to behead as many souls as it likes, but the Kesari [Orange] Standard of the Khalsa will expose and will never fail in always flying high and even higher after each evil act that it perpetrates hereafter.
Rajoana’s was a wake up call to the Sikh nation around the world. And, the Sikh world listened.
Rajoana’s call was answered by Sikhs in Punjab and across the world as they would raise the Nishan Sahib (the Sikh standard) at their homes. The movement became international and was known as the “I Pledge Orange” campaign that took hold in late March.
Around the globe, Sikhs were donning orange articles of clothing during those two weeks in a show of solidarity and to raise awareness of the injustices experienced by Sikhs in India since the 1980s. Rallies and protests were organized in major cities around the world, including in the United States. Rajoana’s story and the unaddressed state-sponsored atrocities committed against the Sikh people became the main topics of conversation in Sikh circles in the United States and abroad, and a new generation of Sikhs were becoming educated about the events during two decades of violence in Punjab.
However, this activity would be misunderstood by many outside of the Sikh community. In Canada, a hostile media revealed itself on their national stage and pounced on the opportunity to frame the demonstrations as the activity of extremists or terrorist sympathizers, rather than to communicate the human rights issues that were at the core of the Rajoana movement. About this parroting of propaganda by certain prominent members of the Canadian media, I wrote at the time:
But, this is not new to those of us who observe how Canadian media often treats the Sikhs in that country. It is tragic that many Canadian reporters, in the span of decades, have not been able to advance their knowledge of Sikhs one iota beyond the “these ones are moderates, those ones are fundamentalists” framework. Journalism demands the search for truth and is betrayed by the perpetuation of simplistic stereotypes, which in this case are below the cognition required to understand a nursery rhyme. Worse, the articles I’ve discussed seem hell-bent on branding Sikhs as extremists despite that, today, the only group of people who are intent on committing a murder is the Indian judiciary.
Certain authors for national news outlets in Canada seemed to almost enjoy misrepresenting the demonstrations, but their bias was clearly evident. While many Sikhs would respond to these misrepresentations in media, it was clear that the demonstrations and growing movement lacked an effective communications strategy.
Surprisingly, it would be members of the Indian media who would object to Rajoana’s execution. As Yug Mohit Chaudhry wrote in The Hindu:
In the name of India’s territorial integrity, the government used questionable methods to put down the Khalistan movement. Will executing Balwant Singh do us credit? When, as a nation, we have condoned the government’s excesses, can we not now reconcile with Balwant Singh? Has not enough blood been shed? Will we remain silent in the face of yet more blood-letting to avenge an old feud? O, when may it suffice?
As the day of Rajoana’s execution approached, the demonstrations and international attention became intensified. The Rajoana movement would not come without tragedy, as in solidarity demonstrations that were taking place in India, two young Sikhs were shot, one of whom, Jaspal Singh, was killed. It was also becoming difficult to obtain news about the goings-on in India, and there were rumors of a media blackout. Indeed, many of those who were reporting from India coincidentally became silent within three days of Rajoana’s scheduled execution. No one can say for certain why the dispatches from Punjab slowed to a trickle, nor whether this phenomenon was voluntary or coerced.
Nonetheless, while Rajoana himself did not seek pardon or clemency, the international movement developed into a cause for that very action. The grassroots and political demands that Rajoana’s execution be stayed became the dominant voice, and on March 28, 2012, the day of Rajoana’s execution, his hanging was stayed. Since that date, Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana has been confined in a prison in Patiala, Punjab.
Public interest in the orange movement has waned since shortly after the staying of Rajoana’s execution at the end of March, but instead as the basis for a movement, Rajoana has now become a source of inspiration in the minds of many young Sikhs around the world, and a reminder about the pursuit and defense of justice that is part of the Sikh ethos, not just for Sikhs but for the sake of all people. The inferno that was the Rajoana movement has died down, but the flame that was lit exists in Sikh communities everywhere. In that his cause has left a lasting impression in the minds of Sikhs in the United States and around the world, certainly Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana is one of the Top Sikh American Stories of 2012.
You can read all of the posts on this blog related to Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana here.
Next Top 5 Sikh American Story of 2012: Victories in employment equality.