Forty years ago, retired Indian army officer Captain Jasbir Singh Cheema was full of emotions and believed that only radical militancy was the way forward to get the voice of Sikhs recognised and to create a separate homeland for Sikhs.
It was out of that passion that Captain Jasbir Singh led four other Sikh men to hijack an Indian passenger plane on 29, 1981, on knifepoints carrying 111 passengers to Lahore where he was arrested with his group, prosecuted and sentenced for life in Pakistan’s Kot Lakhpat jail.
Jasbir Singh, who took retirement from the Indian Army in 1973, hijacked Srinagar-bound Indian Airlines-423 from New Delhi to Pakistan with help from Gajinder Singh, Karan Singh, Satnam Singh, and Tejinderpal hijacked who were all members of pro-Khalistan radical Sikh body Dal Khalsa. They hijacked the plane to demand the release of jailed pro-Khalistan Sikh leaders.
At that time, relations between India and Pakistan were at an all-time low but the Indian government had commended Pakistan for saving the lives of Indian passengers on board and for successfully prosecuting the five Sikh men for hijacking the Indian plane.
Known in the Sikh community since then as Captain Jasbir Singh, the hijacker arrived in Switzerland in 1995 with another fellow hijacker Karan Singh where they were granted political asylum and they have never stepped foot in India again. And he has never given up on the ideals of Khalistan, and the genocide of Sikhs in 1984 at the Golden Temple has furthered his resolve to campaign for the separation of Punjab from India.
On December 10, 2021, during Khalistan Referendum voting in Geneva coinciding with the UN Human Rights Day, Captain Jasbir Singh became the first person to cast his vote, before 6,000 other voters, on the question of whether there should be a separate homeland for Sikhs known as Khalistan.
Spearheaded by Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), the campaign is seeking the opinion of Sikhs worldwide on the question of Khalistan.
Speaking to this correspondent in an exclusive interview, accompanied by SFJ’s General Counsel Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Captain Jasbir Singh recalled what happened when the passenger plane was hijacked and whether he regrets putting his life and the life of 110 others at risk again.
“I have come here today to vote for the creation of Khalistan, to show my wish for our homeland that’s our fundamental right. This is the right path in this age and day. Things have changed and I am glad that our young men have become educated, sophisticated and able to protect their identity through peaceful means,” said Captain Jasbir Singh, adding that these avenues were not available 40 years ago.
He said the Indian establishment was as brutal against Sikhs then as it is today but at that time there was not a squeak and hardly anyone appreciated the presence of Sikhs and their existence and if it were not for the fightback Sikhs put up they would not exist today.
“The genocide of 1984 proved our point that we were under attack but till we hijacked the plane and then there was a pogrom of Sikhs at the Golden Temple, nobody treated us seriously,” said the former Indian military officer.
The veteran Sikh said they hijacked the plane “to get the voice of Sikhs out of the Indian borders and five of us agreed that we will do so with the sacrifice of our lives”.
Captain Jasbir shared that the original plan was to hijack the plane from Delhi to Srinagar but then they decided to take it to Lahore to do a press conference there to demand the release of jailed Sikh leaders.
Pannun said Captain Jasbir is a hero who didn’t commit acts of terror and had no intention of harming anyone, other than to highlight the plight of Sikhs in India.
He said 40 years since the hijacking, Captain Jasbir is continuing to campaign for Khalistan; never gave up on the original dream; and remains determined to inspire the new generation of Sikhs but through the campaign and the ballot box.
Pannun said that things have worsened for Sikhs and in 2021 Sikhs face an “existentialist threat under the Indian occupation. They don’t have the right to liberty and life under Indian occupation. The UN charter of human rights stresses equality for all human beings but in India, we face threat to our existence.”
Captain Jasbir Singh agreed. He shared that he didn’t ever regret his action for a second because he was never involved in violence and always abhorred it but 40 years on the way forward remains political activism.
Reiterating SFJ’s commitment to using ballots to create Khalistan, attorney Pannun whom Indian media calls “terrorist” stated that what gleans through the story and journey of Jasbir Singh is that while Sikhs’ activism for Khalistan has transformed from militancy to peaceful ballotting, state response of India remains the same: malign, label, criminalise, prosecute and if captured, torture anyone demanding Khalistan irrespective of the means of activism.
“The problem, then, lies with the Indian state response and not with the demand for Khalistan.”
Captain Jasbir said: “India tried to criminalise us when we were hijacking. India continues to try to criminalise us when campaigning through peaceful means but it is our commitment to the cause of Khalistan and to our beliefs that we shall never give up.”
He concluded: “It’s an honour for me that I voted for the creation of Khalistan through Khalistan Referendum voting”.
Captain Jasbir has never returned to India in 40 years and wishes to visit the Golden Temple while still alive but he’s convinced the Indian state will not allow him to visit the holy site if he returned to India.
Is she then scared? The retired military officer said he wouldn’t mind dying in jail for the Sikh nation but only after praying at the Golden Temple.
Now frail and old and in his late 70’s, Captain Jasbir goes on a daily walk in the cold Geneva city suburbs and reminisces about his youth and lifetime. He hopes that one day the dream of Khalistan will come true and plans to play his role for as long as he’s alive.