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Remember Indian Airlines hijackers? 36 years on they may be charged for sedition

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 19 July 2017, 17:43 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

It is being cited as a classic case of 'double jeopardy' and 'travesty of justice': five Sikhs already punished for hijacking an Indian Airlines plane are now to be tried for 'sedition' – 36 years on.

The case has taken centrestage in Punjab where the Khalistan issue keeps raising head time to time despite there being very little on-ground support.

Two of the hijackers, Satnam Singh and Tejinder Pal Singh, appeared before a Delhi court Tuesday that granted them a two-day interim bail. The other three: Gajinder Singh, Jasbir Singh and Karan Singh live outside India. 

The case

The case pertains to the hijacking of IC 423, the Indian Airlines Delhi-Amritsar-Srinagar flight on 29 September 1981. The plane had 111 passengers on board and was hijacked to Lahore.

The five hijackers belonging to Dal Khalsa had demanded that radical Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale be freed. Bhindranwale had been arrested for the assassination of Lala Jagat Narain who was the owner and editor of a Jalandhar-based newspaper group.

This was the first hijacking ever carried out by Sikh militants.

The hijackers were held in Lahore, tried by a Pakistani court and given life imprisonment in 1986. After serving their sentences, they were released in 1994. Thereafter, they have lived abroad.

However, in 1999 Satnam decided to come back. He entered India illegally and surrendered in court. He was reportedly given a clean chit by the court in 2001.

Meanwhile, Tejinder was deported by the Canadian authorities. He also approached the court in 2002 for a clean chit citing Satnam's case. Following this, the court ordered a scrutiny.


The Delhi Police then went on to slap charges of sedition against them through a supplementary charge sheet. They approached the Delhi High Court for relief which reportedly sent their case for re-trial.

The additional chief metropolitan magistrate has now asked the investigating officer to file a report with all relevant documents while fixing 20 July as the next date of hearing.

It is now being contended that the two have already spent 35 years of their lives in litigation and have already served their life sentence in Pakistan. How can they now be tried for sedition for the same offence under a different name?

Reports say that the prosecution and the court have maintained in this case that the principle of double jeopardy does not apply as the offences for which they were tried and convicted in Pakistan are different from the ones mentioned in the current charge sheet.

Advocate Navkiran Singh who has been campaigning for human rights in Punjab for the last several decades told Catch, “This is a clear case of double jeopardy. The people have served their sentences in Pakistani jails. They cannot be tried again for the same offence just because one section of law was not applicable there. It is a travesty of justice.”

Dal Khalsa spokesperson Kanwar Pal Singh has also objected to the Indian government putting them on trial after 36 years under sedition charges while ignoring the life imprisonment they served in Pakistan for the same offence.

“We strongly take serious note of New Delhi’s move to upset the home and hearth of two of the five hijackers, Satnam Singh and Tejinderpal Singh, who have since returned to Punjab and are peacefully living a dignified life after their long and scary prison sentences. The other three hijackers, Gajinder Singh, Jasbir Singh and Karan Singh, are staying abroad because of the circumstances prevailing in India,” he said.

There is a contention that the principle of double jeopardy does not apply as the offences for which they were tried and convicted in Pakistan and for which the present charge sheet is filed are different.

Responding to this, Kanwar Pal Singh said, “But since hijacking is a one piece act, a fresh case under different offences amounts to a violation of the principle of double jeopardy and the Geneva Convention.” 

Drawing parallels

Meanwhile, veteran political observer Jagtar Singh has drawn parallels of this case with the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 410.

On 20 December 1978 the flight was on its way from Calcutta to Delhi via Lucknow. The two hijackers Bholanath Pandey and Devindra Pandey from Uttar Pradesh reportedly forced their way into the cockpit and instructed Captain MN Battiwala to fly to Patna and later changed the destination to Varanasi. They had initially wanted to be flown to Kathmandu, Nepal.

The hijacking was carried out with a toy pistol and was reportedly protesting against vindictive politics being resorted to by Morarji Desai's Janata Party government against their leader Indira Gandhi. They had raised slogans – “Indira Gandhi Zindabad” and “Sanjay Gandhi Zindabad” – while demanding the unconditional release of Indira Gandhi before they surrendered.

Jagtar has pointed that the two were rewarded with Congress tickets for Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in 1980 and had gone on to become the first hijacker MLAs in the world.

The Congress had also defended them during a debate in the Lok Sabha on 23 December 1978 and the case against them was finally dropped when Chaudhary Charan Singh had taken over as the prime minister.

“If the case against Pandeys can be withdrawn by the government, why should Satnam and Tejinder face a retrial after 36 years after undergoing 14-year jail term? This is a question that is to be answered by the biggest democracy in the world. There just can’t be two laws for the same offence,” Jagtar Singh asked in a write-up.

The Khalistan angle

Observers feel that this matter is fodder for the fringe elements trying to raise the bogey of Khalistan in the state from time to time.

Just a fortnight ago the Punjab Police had booked three USA-based persons, including the legal advisor of the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) organisation, along with two others based in India on charges of sedition, promoting enmity and criminal conspiracy. This was carried out after the Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh ordered a crackdown on the outfit for their deliberate attempts to vitiate the state’s atmosphere.

The orders for the crackdown followed 40 hoardings that came up as a part of the campaign, titled “Punjab Independence Referendum 2020”. The government claimed that the campaign had been managed by the Baba Hanuman Singh Enterprise agency that was hired for the purpose by New York-based SFJ through its legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Sources say the main purpose of slapping sedition charges was to send across a strong message to the fringe that any attempt to disturb peace in the state would be dealt with firmly.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 19 July 2017, 17:43 IST