At the civil hospital in Ludhiana, the entrance to the emergency burns ward has been blocked to the public. Policemen keep watch outside the building. Visitors to the hospital are not permitted to walk through the corridor to the adjoining wing. The emergency room has been vacated of four beds and turned into a prison. All this has been done to confine an 83-year-old man.

Surat Singh – whose name is prefixed by “Bapu” (father) denoting respect for his age – began a fast-unto-death on January 16. At first, the Parkash Singh Badal-led government ignored him. Three weeks later, on February 8, over a hundred policemen arrived at his house in village Hussanpura outside Ludhiana with an ambulance forcibly lifting Singh from his courtyard on to a stretcher, before shifting him to the civil hospital.

Inside the sparse hospital room, where he has been placed under preventive arrest, Singh lies on the bed, only his grey eyes and flowing white beard visible over a blanket. A navy blue turban is loosely tied on his head. A tube has been stuck to his forehead with surgical tape and inserted into a nostril to feed him.

Despite the tube, and his feeble health, Singh spoke with force about the cause that has led him to a hunger strike.

“After the Indian government’s military attack on Darbar Sahib [Golden Temple], Sikhs who had been living peacefully with their families could not control their religious sentiments and left their homes and got armed," he said. "They continue to be the state's political prisoners. The state must release those who have completed their full jail terms now, in some instances of 15 to 20 years."

There are at least 43 such prisoners in jails across the country, beyond their terms, in their old age, he said. “The least the state government can do is work to bring them back to Punjab, making it easier for their families to visit them," Singh said. "Arrogant rulers may not listen, but people do.”

The burns ward at the Ludhiana civil hospital where Surat Singh is kept has been closed off to public.

Ghosts of the past

The state government does indeed appear to be worried about the possible fallout of Surat Singh’s fast. The ghosts of the past still linger in Punjab. Several of those who reached adulthood witnessing the insurgency in Punjab in the mid-'80s, when Sikh nationalists took on the Union government to pursue their demands for independence, still speak of those years with anguish. It is undeniable that the Union government had used questionable methods to suppress the Khalistan movement.

“Thousands disappeared and perished and we do not know what happened to them,” said Ranjeet Singh Gill, who spent 19 years in prison convicted for allegedly killing Congress Member of Parliament  Lalit Maken in retaliation for the 1984 riots. "No one has been held responsible."

During those turbulent years, Singh, a school teacher, left his job and joined active politics. In 1987, he became the general secretary of the United Akali Dal under Baba Joginder Singh, and its de-facto in-charge. The second of his five daughters, Sarvinder Kaur, joined student politics. Her husband was also a student leader.

“We were organising protests at the university in coordination with our leaders,” Kaur recalled. “We were responding to a wrong done to us by the Indian government. We are Sikhs, if anyone hits at us, we will hit back. We will not accept what is wrong and move on.”

But in the following decade, like many other families keen to avoid state persecution, Singh’s family migrated abroad. His children became American citizens. Sarvinder Kaur is now a businesswoman in Chicago. “My husband has been unable to return because of restrictions by the Indian government,” she said, while waiting outside the police commissioner's office with an application asking for bail for her father. She was dressed in a white and orange salwaar kameez, her head covered with a dupatta. A thick black band revealed a kirpan slung across her shoulder.

In January, Kaur arrived with nine other members of Surat Singh's family to support him as he began his fast. As his situation worsened, and he was placed under arrest by the police, apart from Kaur, Singh's son Ravinderjit Singh, who owns a transport business in California, stayed on. On February 26, while he was attending to his father in the hospital, the police picked him up, along with three other visitors. Hours later, Surat Singh was forcibly anaesthetised and a feeding tube was pushed down his nose. Ravinderjit was placed under preventive arrest on charges of instigating his father to start the fast. He has been in Ludhiana jail since then.

“There is no order, or justice here," Singh said. "In 2011, I was on fast unto death 10 hours longer than Anna Hazare for a strong Lokpal bill. Was it even then my son and others had provoked me to kill myself? I am a terrorist now. Was I not a terrorist then?” As Singh spoke, five policemen kept watch inside the ward. “This government which would steal even from the stomachs of those who are hungry, if it could, is insisting on force-feeding me. A good government governs for the people, their well-being. Is it so in Punjab?”

Sarvinder Kaur with her niece and nephew ‒ Ravinderjit's Singh children ‒ at their village house in Hussanpura.

Who are the prisoners?

A day after Surat Singh's arrest, on February 27, Sumedh Singh Saini, the Director General of Police, the state's highest police official, held a press conference citing legal grounds for refusing his petition, and described his demands as illogical.

He pointed out that a list discussed by Surat Singh contained 82 names, some of whom have been arrested as recently as 2014, and that several were undertrials. The Supreme Court had stayed the release of life convicts across the country with an order in July 2014, Saini pointed out, and in some cases, the prisoners were jailed in other states.

Sarvinder Kaur, however, says that Surat Singh had not submitted any list of 82 prisoners, and that Singh's plea was that the state government make a more concerted effort to secure release of several Sikh prisoners identified by legal and civil society groups as eligible for consideration of release.

Multiple lists of such Sikh prisoners have been prepared by Punjab's religious and political groups. Though the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, a body responsible for management of gurudwaras, have refrained from publicly commenting on Surat Singh's fast and his subsequent detention, in 2014, they too had released lists of 13 and 120 prisoners, respectively.

“The list that the DGP presented to the press, which included names of a few undertrials is a list I have maintained and updated since 2004, when I was a law student and part of the Sikh Students' Federation,” explained Ludhiana-based lawyer Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, who is aiding Surat Singh. “At that time, there were more than 200 Sikh prisoners on the list. Over the years, we have advocated successfully for the release of several. I estimate now there are 70 to 75 prisoners who have served 15 to 20 year jail terms after being jailed during the 1980s-'90s.”

Arjun Sheoran, a lawyer associated with People's Union for Civil Liberties, Punjab-Haryana, said that the Punjab government's claim that the state was unable to act because of a Supreme Court stay on release of life prisoners in 2014 was inaccurate. “The state can persuade its coalition-partner BJP to file an interim application,” he pointed out. Further, a section of lawyers and activists has pruned and prepared a list of 23 prisoners for whom they argued the state could appeal to the union government in the interests of justice for those caught in Punjab's turbulent decades.

Old and infirm

In his list, Manjpur lists eight of the 23 prisoners under the category “Senior Citizens”, all of whom are in Jalandhar jail in Punjab.  All eight were convicted of robbing Rs 5.7 crore from a bank in 1987 and sentenced to 10 years in jail after a 15-year long trial that completed in 2012. The police claimed these funds were used to finance the wave of militancy in the 1980s in Punjab, following the Indian security forces' despoiling of the Golden Temple during Operation Bluestar and the retaliation for killing of Sikhs during the 1984 riots.

Among these eight is “Bapu” Harbhajan Mann, who is now 85 years old, and 70-year old “Bapu” Mann Singh who underwent a heart bypass in prison a few years ago.

The list includes those convicted of killing Congress Chief Minister Beant Singh in a car-bombing in 1995. Singh was targeted for the alleged killings and disappearances of Sikhs during anti-insurgency operations. Several of those convicted in the case will complete 20 years of imprisonment this August.

Also on the list is Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, a lifer in Delhi's Tihar Jail convicted in the 1993 Delhi bomb blast case that targeted a Youth Congress politician. Bhullar, in prison for 20 years, often in solitary confinement, has been admitted to the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences in Delhi since 2010 for psychiatric treatment.

Divided opinion among Sikhs

Through the last 90 days of Surat Singh's fast, Sikh diaspora and social media groups have been active in depicting his fast and pledge as part of the struggle for the Sikh cause. But the local media has been largely silent.

“The Badal-government has a chokehold over the media," said a senior journalist. "Print media fear loss of revenue from government advertisements, and the Badal family sets the tone of broadcast news with its own channel PTC, and its links with Fastway, the sole digital cable TV service provider. There have been instances when reporters have been threatened, and channels' telecast is routinely interfered with if they do not comply with what the government wants.”

But there is scepticism too regarding Surat Singh's fast. Ranjeet Singh Gill, who was set to begin his PhD in biotechnology when the events after Operation Bluestar turned him towards militancy, said those like Surat Singh, then active in Punjab politics, could have intervened to save Sikh youths from what followed. “Surat Singh was then a close associate of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale," he said. "Why did they not negotiate with the government?”

Some people also point to a similar series of fasts undertaken by Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa, a Sikh activist who was in jail on terror charges and has been out on bail since 2010.

While Gurbaksh Singh's first fast in Mohali in Punjab led to parole for three people convicted in a case related to former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh's assassination, his second fast ended without any results. He abandoned his fast on January 15, 2015, having spent 58 days at a gurudwara in Ambala in Haryana and five days in hospital. The next morning, on January 16, Surat Singh began his fast, keeping a pledge taken in November 2013 that he would continue Gurbaksh's efforts. “Since Gurbaksh has left the struggle, I will keep his ardas [pledge] and fast till my death,” he stated.

Cynical politics

Besides the sense of dishonour some associate with Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa's breaking of an ardas before achieving his stated purpose, his second attempt at a hunger strike is viewed as part of the political one-upmanship between the ruling party Shiromani Akali Dal and its coalition partner BJP in the period preceding the assembly elections in Delhi.

Two weeks after Gurbaksh Singh had begun his second fast on November 14, 2014, images surfaced on social media of him attending an organised in Delhi by the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, the Sikh arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Radical Sikh groups that had thus far backed Khalsa suddenly turned against him, calling him a turncoat. In his defence, Khalsa stated that the photographs were from November 9 when he had been called to Delhi by Home Minister Rajnath Singh to discuss the issue of Sikh political prisoners. It was five days after this meeting that Khalsa had started his second fast from Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Haryana.

During the fast, leaders of the party's BJP Kisan Morcha and the party's spokesperson in the state visited Khalsa. However, by January, BJP Punjab had categorically stated that it did not support Khalsa's demands for release of Sikhs political prisoners citing party president Amit Shah's statement.

Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal understands the emotive appeal of the question of Sikh prisoners in the state. In 2012, he had claimed credit for obtaining clemency for Balwant Singh Rajaona, convicted in the Beant Singh assassination case, by meeting the then President Pratibha Patil.

Despite the Shiromani Akali Dal's avowed support to the cause of these prisoners, the party along with the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee seems to have reduced the issue to political capital to be exploited when it suits it the most.

For this, the party seem intent on not allowing Surat Singh to either die, or live on his terms.

A car sticker that speaks of Surat Singh's fast begins with a slogan he has composed: "Apna farz nibha diyanga, suttha nizaam jaga diyanga." I will fulfil my duty, to wake up the sleeping rulers.