Should India abolish the death pelty as repugnt to the enlightened values it has championed within and outside? Or is it too early to dispense with capital punishment, given the perception that India is a soft State highly vulnerable to super terrorism in the 21st century? Arguments and counter-arguments are being traded back and forth across this divide, sharpened in the backdrop of Yakub Memon’s hanging. CPI leader D Raja has moved a private bill in the Rajya Sabha, arguing that the death pelty is ‘not in consonce with evolving jurisprudence which embraces in its scope measures to reform the person and transform psychology in tune with the values of compassion and humanism’. Significantly, Raja has also cited a study by tiol Law University researchers, claiming that 94 per cent of those awarded death sentences for terror-related cases were Dalits or members of religious minorities. DMK leader Kanimozhi is also set to move a similar bill, demanding a moratorium on all death sentences until Parliament debates over recommendations by the Law Commission which is studying the issue. It goes without saying that this will be a long-drawn debate limited not just to the Parliament, with eminent jurists, opinion makers and sections of the media taking one side or the other in the raging debate. The death pelty in India is anyway awarded in the ‘rarest of rare cases’ as laid down by the Supreme Court in 1980.
Executions have been rarer still — four in the last 11 years. Of these four, only Dhanjoy Chatterjee was hanged in 2004 for the crime of rape and murder of a teege girl in Kolkata. The other three were sent to the gallows for terrorist attacks — Ajmal Kasab for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, Afzal Guru for the 2001 Parliament attack and Memon for the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts. This has prompted politicians like MIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi to allege that Memon being a Muslim had no effective political backing, while convicted killers of Punjab CM Beant Singh and Rajiv Gandhi have evaded the hangman’s noose due to vigorous campaigning by the Akali Dal and Tamil du parties. It is a fact that the execution of Balwant Singh Rajoa, convicted of Beant Singh’s assassition, was stayed by the UPA government in March, 2012 as the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) filed a clemency petition that is still under the President’s consideration. With the Akali Dal an alliance partner in the NDA government at the Centre, it is anyone’s guess when, if at all, Rajoa’s execution will be carried out. Rajoa continues to remain defiant on death’s row, even as the Akal Takht, the highest Sikh religious body, has declared him a ‘living martyr’. While leaders like Owaisi are raising a hue and cry over the hangings of Guru and Memon as instances of majoritarian domition influencing the government and courts, there were similar allegations by some Sikh leaders when Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh were hanged in 1989 for Indira Gandhi’s assassition, followed by the execution of Harjinder Singh and Sukhdev Singh for former Army Chief Arun Vaidya’s murder.
The fate of the three convicts long on death row for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassition has been stranger yet, thanks to the relentless lobbying by parties like the AIADMK, DMK and PMK. Last week, the Supreme Court confirmed that LTTE operatives Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan will not hang, thereby dismissing a curative petition by the Central government. Last year in February, the apex court had to commute their death sentences it had itself confirmed way back in May, 1999 — because of the inordite delay of 11 years the Central government and two Presidents took to decide on their mercy pleas. What comes through clearly is inconsistence and unwarranted delay even in death sentences handed down to terrorists, whose guilt and culpability are beyond doubt. A chartered accountant, Yakub Memon’s role in organising the complicated fincial dealings that underlay the Mumbai serial blasts, was thoroughly established in the 22 long years the case took to reach its denouement. That the President rejected Memon’s mercy petition a second time on the night before his execution, while the Supreme Court set a precedent in hearing long past midnight his petition for yet another stay order — cuts no ice with those who see politics in the NDA government’s ‘undue haste’ in getting him hanged. There were similar allegations when Kasab and Guru were hanged, that the then UPA government had ‘rushed through’ with the executions to counteract allegations that it was soft on terror. Though India has consistently opposed UN resolutions against capital punishment — there is now a clear trend that even pathological killers like Surinder Koli may never hang, spending the remainder of their lives behind bars. This is despite Indian courts handing down 1,303 death sentences in ten years from 2004 to 2013, and 64 last year. But if the country has to retain the death pelty against perpetrators of large-scale terror attacks, it needs a firm, consistent policy that does not lay itself open to allegations of politicking.