Death Penalty

For the past two weeks, I have been noticing posts for and against death penalty in India. I didn’t participate in any of them as I myself was torn between the two sides. I needed to confront my own conflict before I could clearly address the question.

There is no doubt that death penalty is inhuman. However, there’s no doubt that in India, it is routinely handed to people who are inhuman. Especially, I took a look at those who have met capital punishment since Independence: Godse, Billa, Ranga, Satwant Singh, Ajmal Kasab, and so the list reads. Even if you take out well known offenders, we have Dhananjay Chatterjee who raped and brutally killed a 14 year old girl, Kampathimar Shankaria who has killed a total of 70 people in his ‘career’, Sukumar Burman who killed 7 people in a family, including a woman and a child. So with serious exceptions, death penalty is confirmed only on the ‘rarest of rare cases’ as the Indian Penal Code has decreed.

In India, a total of 4 people have been hanged in the past 15 years. If you compare this with the US, a developed society, this year alone 22 people have been put to lethal injections. If you take our neighbour Pakistan, 188 people have been hanged since January. Ours is a negligible number if you pit it against these figures.

Having said that, we know that death penalty is no longer a deterrent, especially with respect to terror cases. Terrorists commit their crime only with the intention of dying. They think the gallows is a door to some unknown heaven, which is reserved for their ideology. Therefore, the question arises, should we necessarily send them to their coveted heaven? That question aside, I don’t look at death penalty as deterrence. I look at it more of a redemption for the victims. When Dhanjoy Chatterjee is hanged, that girl’s parents would have heaved a great sigh, a feeling of liberation. When Yakub Memon hanged the family of 260-odd victims would have heaved a collective sigh. I believe death penalty should be looked at this angle. It was in the same angle I longed for the convicts of Rajiv Gandhi case to walk to the gallows. I was deeply affected by that assassination, which I believe has wreaked havoc on Indian politics for nearly a decade and postponed any resolution to Sri Lankan ethnic conflict by nearly two decades. So, in my mind, those who had killed Rajiv Gandhi were also responsible for the countless deaths occurred in Northern Sri Lanka during those decades. In fact, even kissing the noose is an underrated punishment for them. Nevertheless, I would have heaved a great sigh of relief if that had happened. I would have got some kind of closure.

Despite that strong emotion, I felt good when their death sentences were commuted. In fact, I felt much better. ‘Look hither, we’re a much better nation than you people and your megalomaniac leader,’ is what I wanted to say to them. Executing them would have been a mark of a victorious state, but pardoning them would have been the mark of a matured, benevolent state. In a similar manner, had Yakub Memon been pardoned, I would have felt the same way; that we’re much better than them!

That his mercy plea was rejected and he was eventually hanged upset me to some extent. But that mercy plea was not rejected arbitrarily. Long ago, I saw a movie called ‘True Crime’. Clint Eastwood plays an aging reporter trying to save a death row prisoner whom he thinks is innocent. In that movie Eastwood character even wakes up the governor in the night before the execution and pleads the case.  Watching that movie I thought how nice it would have bene if similar things happened in India; that we fight till the last minute for innocent victims. In Memon’s case the same thing happened. Whilst the Supreme Court was urged to hold a midnight session to handle a last minute petition, the President and the Home Minister were woken up and made to deliberate on his mercy plea. The only difference is, in the film, the death row prisoner is actually innocent. In Memon’s case, he is proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. The only debating point could be weather the security agencies lied to him about leniency in order to make him surrender. Other than this, there is no doubt about his involvement in the Mumbai blasts, that he was well aware of the conspiracy, helped handle financial matters for the project and then prior to the blasts, left the country with his family, and, finally, for a short period, lived under the protective care of the ISI.

We tried so hard, that too for such a hardened criminal, is a heart-warming thing. We weren’t syringe-happy like the United States is; from the Chief Justice to Home Minister to the President have lost their sleep, rethinking, till the last minute, and asking if they were doing the right thing.

Considering these things, it was a bit of a shame that many of the Memon supporters went to the extent of claiming only Muslims face punishments in this country. Since Independence, 1342 offenders have been executed, of which only 72 are Muslims that is about 5% only. We only remember the recent episodes of Ajmal Kasab, Afsal Guru and Yakub Memon. That too, the fact that the Supreme Court commuted the offenders of Rajiv’s case made it worse. Had Murugan and Santhan been executed, nobody would have looked at it as discrimination. Also, the fact that the government brazenly violated a lot of norms for the ‘overnight’ execution of Afsal Guru made it worse. Those were the times of strong competition between BJP and the Congress for the title of who is more ‘anti-terror’. And Afsal became the victim of this political battle.

But that didn’t happen in Memon’s case, which went on for nearly 22 years. And I think it’s amazing that more than a quarter of the nation pleaded for his mercy. Although many people thought he was innocent, a good majority had terrific clarity on what they were opposing for and on what grounds. I think such voices are badly in need today. I am saying this because, in the last 15 years, the trial courts have handed the total of 1790 death penalties, of which the Supreme Court confirmed only 5% of cases. This is a shocking data. In that case, we can only imagine how many of those 1790 would be innocent and how much trauma they must have gone through. Another issue is that, according to National Law University’s Death Penalty Project, more than 80% of them are desperately poor. Many of them in the death row because they can’t even hire proper lawyers or don’t know the nuances of the law. If you compare with this, the Memons and Perariwalans are the lucky lot. From Vaiko to Mahesh Bhat voice support for them. And Ramjethmalanis argue their case in the courtrooms. This poor lot, however, go through intense trauma and humiliation; they go bankrupt fighting their case; their family is broken beyond recognition. And because they don’t know what their rights as prisoners are, the police treat them with callous regard.

As we mentioned at the beginning, small, everyday crimes don’t get death penalty. That’s true, but with a small correction. Such cases don’t get their death confirmed is all, but they are awarded death penalty quite easily and made to fight a back-breaking battle in their journey from the trial courts up to the Supreme Court. During this journey, they undergo intense trauma and anguish. A lot of them lose their life’s purpose in this ordeal. We ought to oppose the death penalty not for the Memons, but for these faceless poor. One solution is that the trial courts should carefully write their judgements or, failing which, we should abolish death penalty completely.  Ever after that there’s good possibility that these poor would be languishing in jails for long years. But that’s another problem, to be solved another day. For now, we should relieve them of the thousand deaths they undergo every day.