(Disclaimer: The following has been excerpted – with permission – from the chapter ‘The Burail Jailbreak: An Endless Tunnel Of Oversight’ – from Abeer Kapoor’s book ‘The Most Notorious Jailbreakers’. The book has been published by Rupa Publications India, and is available here. The sub-headlines have been added by The Quint and are not part of the original text.)
In late 2003, strange noises could be heard in the middle of the night from Barrack No. 7 of the Model Jail in Burail, Chandigarh. As it was a cold wintry night, no one bothered to check. Even if they did, little was done about it. The high-security prison of Burail held several terror accused, spies and petty criminals.
Amongst them were three inmates who wielded a disproportionate amount of power within the jail. They were arrested for the assassination of Beant Singh, the former Punjab chief minister.
Since their incarceration in 1996, they had made three bold but unsuccessful attempts to escape.
Yet nothing was ever done by the jail authorities.
Evidence Of A Potential Jailbreak – With No One To Pay Heed
Like the unusual sounds, there were plenty more evidence, which, if investigated into, could have prevented the jailbreak. The least the jail authorities could have done was to ensure that an edition of a monthly magazine on prison escapes did not fall into the wrong hands (in this case, the prisoners).
Anyone half-observing the trio would have guessed that they were trying to find a way to get out of prison, and desperately.
Ved Mitter Gill, the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Burail Jail in 2004, was the senior-most official in the prison. He joined Burail as a clerk in 1988, and with 16 years of service behind him, his authority and knowledge were considered better than his seniors.
Despite Gill’s experience and credentials, it was his oversight that led to the escape of four prisoners—three undertrial terrorists and one murderer—in the intervening night of 21–22 January 2004.
By 1993, under the leadership of KPS Gill, the DGP, the militancy in the state had been broken. Yet, the problem was never really solved, and a demand for an independent Khalistan could be heard from different corners of the world.
The severely diminished right-wing organisations that continued to engage in violence and terrorism believed that the best way to invigorate the movement would be to assassinate Beant Singh, who was perceived as the symbol of restoring peace and democracy in the turbulent state.
The Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) is one such organisation that was at the helm of fighting for an independent Khalistan. Ajai Sahni, the executive director at the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, called them ‘the most active and committed of the Khalistani groups worldwide’. The BKI has organisational setups in the US, Canada and Europe, and reportedly has links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan. Sikhs from all over the world fund the organisation.
The Conspiracy To Kill Punjab CM Beant Singh
The conspiracy to kill Beant Singh was hashed out abroad. It was first assumed on 31 August 1995 that one of the three cars in Singh’s cavalcade exploded, killing nearly 15 people at the secretariat complex in Chandigarh.
A large volume of RDX was used for the assassination, triggered by a human bomb. It was later revealed that Dilawar Singh, a police officer, had got close to the chief minister’s convoy and blown himself up.
Immediately after the attack, the BKI claimed responsibility, and it was just a matter of time before they were all caught and charge sheeted.
Thirteen people were accused of plotting and executing the assassination.
The plans were first made in Lahore, Pakistan and ended with the detonation in Chandigarh. Over the next few months, there was a spate of arrests. The police made a list of hundreds of suspects, and after a swift four-month-long investigation, all of those involved were arrested.
It appeared that three members were instrumental in planning and executing the assassination: Jagtar Singh Hawara, Paramjit Singh Bheora and Jagtar Singh Tara, along with six others who were implicated and detained.
By June 1996, a variety of cases were slapped on them, including IPC Section 302 (Murder) and Section 120(B) [Conspiracy]. They were sent to prison to wait and fight a long legal battle for their freedom. The trial was supposed to be straightforward, and after examining over 333 witnesses, it was supposed to be over in a matter of six months, but the judicial process in India takes its own time.
Plotting the Jailbreak
In July 1998, the trio attempted their first escape. The story of this attempt began with a man named Mac, Muhammad Arshad Cheema, a first secretary in the consular wing of the Pakistan Mission in Kathmandu.
Nepal was an important channel through which money and contraband were smuggled into India, and that’s what Cheema, in 1998, was accused of— handing over 30 kg of RDX to a Punjab militant.
Cheema was also instrumental in the infamous hijacking of the Air India flight IC814 from Kathmandu in 1999. The plan was simple: Hawara, Bheora and Tara would use a deadly mixture of RDX and PETN to blow open a portion of the jail. Unknown to the police then, Satnam Singh, a fellow BKI member, had been frequenting the jail, carrying several goodies for the inmates. One such item was a mithai ka dabba (a box of sweets), which contained the RDX and PETN.
In no time, the trio had over 1.1 kg of explosives, which they were to use in July 1998 to blow their way out of prison, but a series of phone calls gave them away.
Hawara, like many other prisoners, carried a mobile phone while he was in jail from which he used to call people all over the world to manage, monitor and plot their escape. He used to even coordinate BKI activities all over the world. On several occasions, he even called an operative in the US on whom the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was keeping tabs. Imagine their surprise when they began intercepting calls from a prison in Chandigarh not once but four times. The information was relayed to the Tihar Jail authorities. Hawara’s cell was raided and all his possessions were seized.