Shaheed Bhai Kehar Singh alias Phuffer Ji

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Shaheed Bhai Kehar Singh also known as Phuffer Ji was tried and executed for conspiracy in the plot to assassinate Indira Gandhi, carried out by his nephew Beant Singh and Satwant Singh both part of the elite bodyguards of Indira Gandhi. Known for his knowledge of Sikh philosophy and history his nephew had asked Phuffer ji, will Waheguru send a Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh (famed Sikhs who had killed Massa Ranghar for his attacks on Amritsar and the Harimandir Sahib) to avenge this sin of desecration of Sri Darbar Sahib?" While he handed his uncle a book on Sant Jarnail Singh Ji Bhindranwale. His uncle replied, "Do not grieve, if you have love of Sikhi, then learn that giving your head, and taking a head for Sikhi are equal. After all, someone has to be the son of Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh. They took Khande ki Pahul Amrit from Sahib Sri Guru Gobind Singh, went and took the head of Massa Ranger to stop the desecration of Sri Darbar Sahib and thus became legends in Sikh History. We need to remember them, and become like them."

These words from his uncle were like a spear in his heart. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, despite Beant Singh's confession that only he and Satwant Singh were responsible for the death of the Prime Minister, Kehar Singh was charged as well.

Operation Bluestar, on the Shaheedi Purab of Guru Arjan Dev

The assassination was motivated by Operation Blue Star (which was carried out on the very day of the 'Shaheedi Purab' of Guru Arjan Dev) the military action against the Sikh "Golden Temple" in Amritsar. During the operation there was significant damage to the temple which caused the death of hundreds of innocent civilians including women and children. These violent events which led to the desecration of the Sikh holy shrine Golden Temple / Harminder Sahib caused outrage amongst the Sikh community, which claimed that the attacks were pre-planned and that the anti-Sikh violence which followed was government orchestrated.

Beant Singh and Satwant Singh were Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi, and on 31 October 1984 they assassinated her in her garden, putting sixteen bullets into her chest and abdomen.

Beant Singh was killed by gunfire at the scene of the assassination. Satwant Singh who was wounded as well was arrested. Later Kehar Singh, Beant Singh's uncle was arrested for conspiracy in the assassination. Both were sentenced to death and after all appeals were exhausted they were hanged in Tihar jail in Delhi.

The Day of the Execution

On the 6th of January 1989, at 4am - the time the Sikhs call Amrit Vela, the authorities walked Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh towards their noose, their voices could be heard from outside the jail, shouting, "Jo Bole So Nihal ! Sat Sri Akaal (God is truth - he who says this will be saved!)" Then after a few moments silence, as both of them stepped forward and kissed the noose, a very heavy rainfall started to fall.

Just as the British had done with Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. Their bodies were taken to Ferozpur, and cremated on the banks of the Satluj River. Similarly, the Indian Government did not hand over the bodies of Shaheed Satwant Singh and Shaheed Kehar Singh to their next of kin. Their bodies were cremated within Tihar jail.

As the bodies burned, the authorities did not have the heart to hand them back to the families, the men's lawyer, Sardar Bhupinder Singh Sodhi said to the authorities, "I can understand you have hatred for those spirits who killed Indira Gandhi, but how can you even have hatred for their corpses?"

The last wish of both Shaheed Satwant Singh and Shaheed Kehar Singh was that their ashes be taken to Sri Kartarpur Sahib. Citing concerns about possible violence, the authorities refused to turn even the ashes over to the relatives for use in religious ceremonies. The Police forced the families of the two Shaheeds into jeeps and vans and drove them to Hardwar. Throughout the whole journey to Hardwar, it rained heavily.

Then at gunpoint, giving the families no choice, the final ardas for the Shaheeds was done. Just as the ardas began, the rain stopped. It was like nature was also paying respect to the Shaheeds. Bhai Satwant Singh`s father, Bapu Tarlok Singh, and the son of Bhai Kehar Singh, Sardar Rajinder Singh, poured the ashes in to the river at Hardwar.

Innocence Proclaimed

Many people felt that the 54 year old Kehar Singh was innocent and falsely accused. During the execution as crowds protested, jostling with policemen there was no violence. At one point Kehar Singh's sons grabbed and muffled the mouths of those shouting slogans, urging restraint.

THE ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY OF INDIA, DECEMBER 4, 1988
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
UNDER THE SHADOW OF DEATH
INTERVIEW WITH KEHAR SINGH

In a lonely cell in Delhi's Tihar jail, Kehar Singh waits for the executioner. All the courts have held him guilty of conspiracy to kill Mrs Gandhi, the president of India. The last resort for all death row prisoners seems disinclined to intervene. His every attempt to prove his innocence has failed. Yet, in this exclusive interview with the Weekly, the condemned man defends himself. He claims he is being sent to the gallows for a crime he did not commit. Our requests to the Superintendent of Tihar jail were ignored. Calls made to his office were never returned. Official letters remain unacknowledged. The message was clear. No interview would be granted with Kehar Singh. Yet, we in the Weekly Believe in one simple journalistic principle. Always repeat Always, let a man defend himself, however grievous the charges against him may be. It can never harm anyone but it can yield a clear view of the truth. Kehar Singh has been held guilty by all the courts. According to reports in the press, the President of India to whom pleas for clemency have been sent, seems disinclined to reopen the case or show any leniency towards the man accused of conspiring with the assassins of Indira Gandhi. Yet, there are many people and not all of them Sikhs, who believe that the evidence against Kehar Singh is neither adequate nor conclusive enough to hold him guilty of the crime. There is a distinct possibility of miscarriage of justice. Yet, because of the enormity of the crime and the unpopularity of any step that might be seen as defending the assassin of a prime minister, few have voiced this concern. That is why we had to adopt ways and means to get this interview and carry it, at the risk of being accused of defending a man who plotted the murder of Mrs Gandhi. But we have done this, in the public interest. Because we believe that a man accused of any crime, particularly a crime as enormous as this should be allowed to present his case before the public. If for no reason, at least for the fact that it gives him the opportunity of being heard. And us the opportunity of knowing whether we are punishing the right man. Hence, this interview. An interview with the man who may hang any day, for a crime he claims he never committed. Kehar Singh, aged 53, the DGS&D clerk who lives today under the shadow of death, in a condemned cell in Tihar, waiting to be called by the hangman at any time of day or night. To die, labelled a conspirator.

Can you tell us about your life, your family background? Who ere your parents and what did they do for a living? What kind of village did you come from? How many members of your family are there?
I belong to the Ramdasia Sikh community of village Mustafabad, tehsil Sirhind, district Patiala in Punjab. My parents were very poor and illiterate. We are two brothers now living. Some time in 1948-49, my older brother S Pirthi Singh died at a very young age, leaving behind his widow and a minor son, Rajinder Singh. My other elder brother died about seven years back. His family resides in my native village. My younger brother is at Ludhiana, along with his family. My father was a weaver by profession. He brought up his family by burning the candle at both ends. I studied up to matriculation in a nearby village school. We lived in a kutcha house, in which the handloom, kitchen and other household articles were kept.
My brothers studied up to 5th standard. While studying, I also assisted my father in his weaving profession. In the year 1954-55, I passed my matriculation exam and came to Delhi in search of a job and stayed with my aunt. In 1956-57, I got a jib as a clerk in the office of the DGA&D and since then I have been here. In Delhi. I came from a very small village, whose population was around 500. There were about 100 houses...

What religious training did you have as a child? Is your whole family religious?
I was trained by my parents to become a true Sikh, as my whole family is religious and we went to the gurdwara daily. My father told us the stories about our gurus.

What did you want to be when you were a child? Who were your heros?
My heros are all the ten gurus of the Sikhs.

Where was your school?
I studied in the government high school in Bassi Pathana, tehsil Sirhind, district Patiala in Punjab which was about six kilometres from my village. I used to walk to school every day.

How did you get your job in the DGS&D? What was the nature of your job?
I got the job in DGS&D through the Daryaganj employment exchange. As a clerk, I was assigned clerical duties in my office.

We understand you married a widow with children? Was it an arranged marriage? Can you tell us more about your family? Is it close knit?
Yes, I married the widow of my elder brother, the late S Pirthi Singh. She had a child. It was an arranged marriage. She also belongs to the Ramdasia Sikh community, to which I belong. Our family is a close knit family even though family members are scattered.

What are your political views? Do you have any?
I have no political leanings or beliefs.

Have you ever voted? How have you voted in each elections?
Yes, I voted in every election.

What is your attitude towards Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale?
I have nothing to do with Bhindranwale. I believe only in and have faith in the ten Sikh gurus and the holy Guru Granth Sahib.

How did you get to know Beant Singh? What kind of relationship did you have with him and his family? The prosecution says you are related to him.
Beant Singh was the grandson of my father-in-law's brother. I treated him like I treated my children.

Why do you think you were accused of conspiracy to murder Indira Gandhi?
Because of my relationship with Beant Singh.

How have you spent your past few years in jail?
By reciting gurbani. I live in a small cell surrounded by guards. I wake up about 3 and start my prayers...

What has been your family's attitude while you have been in jail?
They are worried. They know that I am innocent. Their attitude towards me is very good.

Do you think you have been made a political scapegoat?
Why me? I am not a political man. I worked in Indira Gandhi's government. Why would i think of killing her?

Why do you think the Thakkar Commission report was never released?
Perhaps it contains evidence relating to the real conspiracy and something against the prosecution.

What do you think really happened in the Indira Gandhi assassination?
I do not know anything about this.

What do you think motivated Satwant Singh and Beant Singh to kill her? Do you think it was religion? Or was it part of a larger political conspiracy?
Satwant says he has not killed Indira Gandhi. Beant might have killed her as Beant may have felt the Akal Takht was desecrated by the military at the instance of the Union government, of which she was prime minister. Many hot headed young Sikhs felt like that.

Why do you think Balbir Singh was acquitted and not you?
(In Punjabi) Meri Kismat Hi kharab hai. Is tarandi hi hai.

Can you tell us when you were actually arrested? Where were your? Where were you taken? What was your reaction? How were you taken away? Where were you kept? What was the interrogation? Where were you produced in court?
From my residence at sector 12, R K Puram I was arrested on November 2, 1994 - along with my wife and taken to Yamuna Velodrome. Ten to fifteen police persons came to arrest me. My wife was released on... about November15 at village Maloya by the SIT. I was produced in court on December 5, 1984. When the police came to my house i thought they have come to my house as rioters, as they were in plainclothes.

Have you made any friends in jail? How have the jail authorities behaved towards you?
I am not allowed to see anybody in jail. The jail authorities are treating me well.

Do you think you will ever be released?
I am hopeful that i will be released. Can you tell us, in your own words, what are the main points of the case against you? There is not an iota of evidence against me. There is only the statement of Bimal Khalsa against me.

After the Bulestar operation, did your attitudes or life change in any way?
No. Not at all. I was a government servant and I was leading my normal life.

Did you meet Beant Singh more frequently after that?
No.

Then why did you go to Amritsar with him?
To show Mr M R Singh to them, for Bimal Khalsa's sister.

The police has said that both of you went to Amritsar to specifically visit the Golden Temple. You went to persuade Beant Singh to take part in the murder of Indira Gandhi and, towards that aim, take his vows there.
This all false.

Why did you and Beant go earlier to the Golden Temple? How long did you stay there?
We went to listen to the Asa-diwar kirtans at the Golden Temple early in the morning. In fact, i daily make it a point to visit the gurdwara. Every day whole i am in Delhi i listen to these kirtans. Even when i went to Patna Sahib and the gurdwara at Nanded. I went to listen to these dawn kirtans every morning. It is the time of greatest meditation when the world is quiet.

What were your relations with Bimal Khalsa, Beant's wife?
She was just like my daughter-in-law,. She calls me phuphaji. My wife and she spoke often about family matters. We used to meet on weekends. If she had any problems, she used to tell my wife. Their children studied in Sector 12 School, which is close to our house. They used to come over to our residence sometimes.

Bimal Khalsa has deposed that her husband changed completely after the Bluestar operation. That he told her  he was going to take revenge. When you met him at his house, did you notice any changes?
No, I did not notice any change in him. Nor did Bimal tell me or my wife about any change in Beant.

Did he ever discuss his plans with you?
No.

When a person is arrested, the police usually demand police custody for the purpose of investigating the facts. In your case, when you were produced in court, the police did not ask for any investigation, only for judicial custody, that you should be sent to jail. Why?
I was produced before the court, at the residence of Shri S L Khana at Greater Kailash on December 5, 1984 and was remanded to police custody for three to four days. I requested for my medical examination and that my family be informed of my detention by the SIT.

Have you ever taken part in any political activity? A village panchayat election ever?
Never.

It has been said by the prosecution that Satwant Singh was to join you and Beant Singh at Amritsar, is this true?
It is not true.

What kind of person was Beant Singh? What kind of person is his wife Bimal Khalsa? Why do you think she deposed against you?
Beant was a very simple person. He never looked like a policeman. His wife is also a good lady she deposed against me under pressure and the coercion of the SIT.

The police produced a witness who claimed to have sat near you and Beant Singh when you went to the gurdwara to attend public kirtan by Ragi Darshan Singh. He said that Beant Singh started crying and you said; Ro na, badle le. Is this true? Why did you go to attend this kirtan? What happened? Who is this witness?
It is wrong. I never went to attend this kirtan. The police produce a false witness, namely Inderbir Singh alias Sucha, who is a general secretary of the Youth Congress -1 in south Delhi and is a bad character of Sector v, R K Puram. There were many cases against him i am told.

Bimal Khalsa has deposed that you took Beant Singh and her to the birthday party of the grandson of a mutual acquaintance, Ujagar Singh Sandhu and that, at this function, speeches were given about the atrocities on Sikhs. It is claimed that there is a video film of this function again, that was not shown. What actually happened at the function?
Beant was also a family friend of the Sandhus and the question of my taking Beant and his wife to the function does not arise. Because they knew them independently.

But why was the video never produced in court, in spite of repeated requests by your counsel?
Even in the video we are not there and, as such, the same was not produced before the court by the SIT.

How often do you visit the gurdwara? Did the frequency of your visits increase after Operation Bluestar.
Since i was a child i have been going every day to the gurdwara, as my parents used to go to the gurdwara every day. What does going to the gurdwara have to do with Bluestar? For me, the gurdwara is a place of peace, not war.

A pamphlet called Indira De Sikh - The Sikhs of Indira, is said to have been found by the police in your office drawer four days after you were arrested. The prosecutor says your drawers were empty except for this one tract. Can you explain how it got there?
They say it was recovered from an open drawer in my office table. I was not there when it is supposed to have been found, anybody could have put in there, including the SIT. If i had this pamphlet, why is it that i never read it? It was produced in court virtually sealed, in a completely new, unread condition . To this day i have not sewn the pamphlet, except with the charge sheet.

Which drawer was it found in?
I do not know. Even the SIT has not clarified this in court, as to which drawer it was recovered from.

You have children and grandchildren. What happened to them during the riots that followed Mrs Gandhi's assassination?
My family and i were too scared during the riots. So we stayed locked up at home. The Hindus around my house protected us and gave us rations, etc. But when my son met me at Tis Hazari Court after one month, for i had been taken away on the 2nd, along wife my wife - he told me that his house was also attacked but, due to the intervention. Of his neighbours, he and his family was saved and taken to the nearby house of a Hindu. After two days, that is on November 3,  my son was sent to the gurdwara in Moti Bagh for shelter by the SHO, R K Puram. Accompanied by the military, in a jeep.

Has the government harassed your family during these past four years?
It is not only me who has been living in pain. It is my whole family. I thank God that they have got such great courage. All family members have been interrogated. My sons were daily taken to Yamuna Velodrome, Nehru Park, Vigyan Bhavan during nights. The SIT tortured them. My elder son Rajinder Singh was harassed as he was defending me. He was transferred from Delhi to Bombay on January 25, 1985. As he had to look after my defence, he took leave up to May 10, 1985, which was granted. But then, to make him unable to defend me, my son was detained under NSA from May 2, 1985 for one year. He was also dismissed from service. During the period of trial, he was detained in Centrel Jail, Tihar in New Delhi. After his release on May2, 1986 my house was forcibly vacates. My sin was also forced to vacate his house on August 25, 1986 by the police. My son managed to shelter in the gurdwara in Moti Bagh. The member who got him shelter there was harassed for helping my son to get this accommodation in the gurdwara. They threatened to detain him under NSA. The committee issued a notice to my son to vacate the accommodation. And he was forcibly evicted from the residential premises of the gurdwara in Moti Bagh. Now, he lives in a langar shed there.

Were you ever told to write a confession? Who told you? Why didn't you write it? Satwant Singh did?
Yes. They tries to force me to become an approver. They beat me many times, even in the presence of my wife at the Yamuna Velodrome. As i did not know anything about the assassination i did not agree to become an approver. They used third degree methods. One day i was forces to sip water mixed with faeces, to extract an approver's statement from me. Mr Kochar came to see me, even in my cell, and tortured me to become an approver.

If you are ever released, what will you do with your life?
I do not think that i will ever be released. But let us see what God wills. If i am released, i will put my family together again. I will serve God to the beat of my ability. No one will employ me. So i will have more time to say my prayers.

Did you depose before the Thakkar Commission? What questions were askes of you and what did you answer?
No. They did not call me. Even it they had call, what could i have said as i did not know anything about the murder?

Satwant Singh was also not called by them. After all, he was the main participant in the crime...
They, the government is not interested in knowing the truth. They have found people to hang. That is all they want. Only God knows the truth.

Bimal Khalsa says that you visited her house on October 17, 1984 to see her husband and that both of you spoke in private for a short while. This is the main point of the prosecution's case against you. What did you two speak about?
As the marriage of my younger son was fixed for the month of November 1984, i had trusted some work to Beant. That is, the hiring of cars and buses for the marriage party. We never made it a point to speak privately. We often walked on the roof together...

The other point of the prosecution is that you persuaded Beant Singh to take Amrit at a gurdwara in RK Puram on October 14, 1984. Is that true?
I took Amrit in the 1960s. I don't attribute any importance to the custom of Amrit Chhakna.
Sikhs believe that one needs to pray daily. Amrit Chhakna is not a ceremony which commits you to any important vow. I had nothing to do with Beant's Amrit Chhakan on the 14th because he would have told me when we met subsequently. Neither he nor his wife mentioned it at all. On October 17, 1984 Bimal asked my wife if she wants to go to the gurdwara. My wife asked me if i would reach both of them. I reached them by bus to the gurdwara and, then, attended office. Later on, my wife told me that Beant had taken Amrit.

The case against you has been largely based on Bimal Khalsa's evidence. Her statement was recorded by the police after she had been in their custody for two months. However, the prosecution has even conceded that she lied on several counts. What do you feel about the evidence?
She said it was Satwant who had come to her home. Later, she contradicted herself in court. Like that, she has contradicted herself many times. But i do not blame her. The police harassed her and forced her to make up a story. She became confused with all lies....

The evidence against you appears to be rather weak. And yet you have been convicted thrice.
God perhaps testing my faith. Isa also died like that and i am nobody. Perhaps the judges saw that i was innocent and Balbir also but their order was only to release one person....

Yours was perhaps one of the few trials to be held in Tihar Jail, where no press or public was allowed to attend. Can you tell us how it went?
In the jail court we were made to sit in a bulletproof cabin. I am told that the advocates representing us were harassed, searched by the police.

But that's only natural. Natural security precautions for atrial of such a crime. What about your family? Were they allowed to witness it?
My family members were allowed to witness the proceedings with prior permission of the court.

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