On 18 June, the Punjab cabinet, led by the chief minister Amarinder Singh, decided to give government jobs to Arjun Pratap Singh Bajwa and Bhisham Pandey, sons of two wealthy Congress MLAs. The appointments come amid a period of turmoil within Punjab Congress, ahead of the 2022 state elections. A government press release said that the appointments were made because militants had killed their grandfathers—both Congress leaders—more than 33 years earlier. But according to a January 2014 Hindustan Times report, Amarinder had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi stating that Arjun’s grandfather “was not killed by terrorists but in an inter-gang rivalry of smugglers in 1987.” Amarinder and Arjun’s uncle, Partap Singh Bajwa—a Congress MP—both refused to confirm the letter’s details, the report said.
Amarinder has received widespread backlash, even from his own cabinet, for the appointments for several other reasons. Grandchildren of thousands of other people who militants had killed in the 1980s and 1990s have not received such jobs. Compensation on compassionate grounds is typically given to direct dependents, not grandchildren of the deceased. Even widows often struggle to access meagre pensions. According to Rajvinder Singh Bains, a lawyer, these appointments “simply cannot be defended in any court of law.”
Amarinder faced similar criticism in 2017, when he appointed Gur Iqbal Singh the grandson of Beant Singh—a former chief minister from the Congress who was killed by militants in 1995—as a deputy superintendent of Punjab Police. Gur Iqbal is also the brother of Ravneet Singh Bittu, an MP from the Congress. His persistence to continue with these appointments despite all these reasons, all of which are well known, raises questions about his motivations.
The government press release dated 18 June mentioned that the cabinet approved Bhisham’s appointment as a Naib Tehsildar (Group-B) in the revenue department and Arjun’s as an Inspector (Group B) in the Punjab Police. The press release said that the appointments were made with a one-time relaxation in the relevant policies. The move did not appear to be in line with Umesh Kumar Nagpal vs the State Of Haryana, a landmark Supreme Court judgment about appointments given on a compassionate basis. The 1994 judgment said,
The whole object of granting compassionate employment is thus to enable the family to tide over the sudden crisis. The object is not to give a member of such family a post much less a post for post held by the deceased. What is further, mere death of an employee in harness does not entitle his family to such source of livelihood. The Government or the public authority concerned has to examine the financial condition of the family of the deceased, and it is only if it is satisfied, that but for the provision of employment, the family will not be able to meet the crisis that a job is to be offered to the eligible member of the family.
A perusal of both Arjun and Bhisham’s backgrounds show that they are from economically and politically powerful families. Bhisham’s father is Rakesh Panday, a six-time MLA in Punjab from the Congress and the vice president of the party’s state unit. According to Rakesh’s election affidavit, his assets exceeded Rs 2.25 crore. Rakesh told me that his son is a 29-year-old graduate and had applied for the post nearly a year back.
According to a November 2019 news report, Arjun is a model-turned-actor and a Congress member. “Bajwa has worked as an assistant director to Prabhudeva in his film, Singh is Bling,” the report said. It mentioned that “the youngest member of the district council of Punjab.” An administrative official in the Gurdaspur district told me in June this year that he is also a zila parishad member from Sri Hargobindpur. Arjun is the son of Fateh Jang Bajwa, the Qadian constituency’s MLA. Fateh’s 2017 election affidavit stated that his and his wife’s moveable and immovable assets exceed Rs 31 crore. Arjun is also the nephew of Partap, a Rajya Sabha member from the Congress. Several people in the Congress’s state unit have vociferously criticised Amarinder, including Pratap. Reports had surfaced that just before the appointment, the chief minister had met Pratap, who denied it.
Militants killed both Bhisham and Arjun’s grandfathers—Joginder Pandey and Satnam Singh Bajwa—in separate events in 1987. Joginder and his bodyguard were killed in Ludhiana on 19 January 1987. He was reportedly the general secretary of the Congress’s Punjab unit at that time and had previously served as an MLA and a state minister. Satnam was a Congress leader who served as Punjab minister in the 1960s. An Associated Press report said Satnam was killed at his farm in Amritsar on 10 July 1987. Other victims included were Harbhajan Singh, the sarpanch of the Jagdev Kalan village in Amritsar, two of his cousins—Pal Singh Pehalwan and Bir Singh—and two bodyguards.
Conversations with the family of Harbajhan highlighted why the jobs for Arjun and Bhisham are exceptions. According to his brother and two daughters-in-law, Harbhajan’s wife, Jasbir Kaur, received a meagre pension after his death. “For most of her life, she used to get Rs 1,500 per month which was increased to Rs 2,500 and then to Rs 5,000 per month during Rajinder Kaur Bhattal’s time as the Punjab CM,” Paramjeet Kaur, one of his daughters-in-law, said. Jasbir, an octogenarian now, lives with Paramjeet. “Other than that, my husband and my kids have never got any compensation or anything from any of the governments,” Paramjeet said. Nirmal Kaur, the other daughter-in-law, told me that her husband, Gurbej Singh, got the job of a school clerk on compassionate grounds. When he died, she said she was appointed as a peon. “One of my son’s just finished his 12th last year,” she said. “We always lived in fear but never got any bodyguards or even assurance.”