Why Punjab CM’s decision to offer plum jobs to sons of Congress MLAs defies reason

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh after a meeting with a three-member All India Congress Committee at a Congress war room in Delhi on 4 June 2021. The three-member panel was constituted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to resolve factionalism in the Punjab unit. Two weeks later, amid turmoil within Punjab Congress, the Punjab cabinet decided to give government jobs to Arjun Pratap Singh Bajwa and Bhisham Pandey, sons of two wealthy Congress MLAs. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times

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.”

On 11 July 1987, Ajit, a Punjabi newspaper, published a story on how one day earlier, militants had killed SatnamSingh Bajwa, a Congress leader, and his friend, Harbhajan Singh, among others. In June 2021, the Congress-led Punjab cabinet approved the appointment of Satnam's grandson, Arjun Singh Bajwa—a model turned actor and Congress member—as a DSP in the Punjab Police. Arjun's father is a wealthy MLA. Harbhajan's family said that his wife received just a meagre pension all her life, which is now Rs 5,000. COURTESY JATINDER KAUR TUR

Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal, Harbhajan’s younger brother and the vice president of the Aam Aadmi Party’s farmers’ wing, told me about his two cousins who had died in the attack. “My other cousins did not get anything,” he said. “One of the families was completely ruined while the other having suffered a lot, migrated to Hong Kong in search of work.”

Satnam’s grandson has received approval to be appointed as an inspector. A senior officer in the Indian Police Service, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, told me that there is no provision for direct recruitment of inspectors. According to the Punjab Police Rules, these posts are filled only through promotions. “The recruitment is only at the level of constables and sub-inspectors,” he said.

Bains told me that Gur Iqbal’s appointment was also in violation of the Punjab Police Service Rules of 1959 and that his family did not need a compassionate appointment. In 2017, Praveen Kumar, from Tarn Taran, challenged Gur Iqbal’s appointment before the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Bains represents Kumar. Bains said the next hearing of the case will be on 5 July 2021 and had been delayed due to the pandemic. Referring to the jobs for Arjun and Bhisham, Bains said, “The government seems to be encouraged by the delay and has done this second act of violence to the law and the constitution by giving appointments to persons who deserve neither compassion nor sympathy.” He added, “Such appointments are against the declared law of the land that all public appointments have to be on merit with equal opportunity to every eligible person.”

The press release announcing the appointment of Bhisham and Arjun mentioned, “Noting the sacrifice of their families, the Chief Minister said children/grandchildren of such people would continue to be considered by his government for compensatory appointment on case to case basis.” There are a massive number of such cases—the Associated Press report dated 10 July 1987 mentioned that according to the police, militants had killed 544 individuals that year itself.

When I spoke to Rakesh about the backlash, he was defensive. He mentioned that Paramraj Singh Umranangal, whose father was shot by militants in 1987, was appointed as a DSP that year. Earlier this year, Umranangal was suspended for links with drug smugglers. “If the government can adopt the orphaned kids of COVID victims, it doesn’t mean that the kids of those elected by the public are not authorised for anything,” Rakesh said. “We did not take any benefit, including pension et cetera, after my father’s death.” I called and messaged Fateh multiple times, but he did not respond. Partap has since requested both Fateh and Rakesh to give up the employment offers.

Sarbdeep Singh Virk, a former director general of police of Punjab who was with the CRPF, heading anti-terrorism operations, said that such appointments were common during militancy in Punjab. “Those days it made sense since a message had to be given immediately that the government stands with those fighting terrorism,” Virk said. He added that he had served in the police force when Julio Francis Ribeiro was leading it. “But soon after Paramraj Singh Umranangal’s appointment, Ribiero realised his mistake and became selective. He decided not to give such appointments liberally without merit. More than 30 years later, such appointments do not make any sense.”

Amarinder appears to be facing protests from all corners. On 18 June, the day the appointments were announced, five state ministers—Razia Sultana, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa and Charanjeet Singh Channi—reportedly opposed the decision in a cabinet meeting. The next day, Sunil Jakhar, the chief of the Congress’s state unit, two MLAs—Kuljit Singh Nagra and Amarinder Singh Raja Warring—and the president of the Punjab Youth Congress, Brinder Dhillon, also demanded that the decision be revoked. But Amarinder has so far refused to reverse the move. While thousands slog and vie for such coveted government jobs every year, Amarinder defended the appointments by calling them “just a small token of gratitude & compensation for the sacrifices of their families.”

The chief minister has been facing severe opposition from opposition leaders too. “With a promise of ‘ghar ghar naukri pakki,’ he gave jobs to three privileged men,” Bhagwant Mann, an AAP parliamentarian told me, referring to Amarinder’s slogan that promised jobs in each house. “It is like, aapnean nu gaffe, beganean nu dhakke”—Treats for your own and struggles for the rest. “All this in gross violation of the provisions of compassionate appointments.”

Mann also referred to how temporary teachers in Punjab have been protesting his year as they are unemployed or are demanding permanent jobs and an increase in salaries. The appointments are made at a time “when teachers are forced to climb up the water tanks to make their voice heard,” he said. “Teachers are getting lathi-charged on asking a salary above Rs 6,000. And here entitled grandchildren of political leaders being offered plum jobs on a platter while snatching away the rights of the genuine candidates.”

Kuldeep said that such appointments and compensation should be the same for families of all such victims. He added, “Siddhi gal—jou dena sab nu deo, leaderan de bachean nu keyon.” (It’s straightforward—whatever you want to give, give it to everyone, why just the kin of political leaders.) 

जतिंदर कौर तुड़ वरिष्ठ पत्रकार हैं और पिछले दो दशकों से इंडियन एक्सप्रेस, टाइम्स ऑफ इंडिया, हिंदुस्तान टाइम्स और डेक्कन क्रॉनिकल सहित विभिन्न राष्ट्रीय अखबारों में लिख रही हैं.