The clockwork hanging of Afzal Guru will inevitably shift the spotlight to a few other political death-row clemency cases – Balwant Singh Rajaona, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan.
Kasab was easily hanged because he had no local political constituency. Afzal Guru’s decision took some time, since there was Kashmiri sentiment to consider. Now that the government has decided to handle the fallout anyway, allegedly for political benefits elsewhere - which it has denied vehemently - the acid test will come with Rajaona and the three killers of Rajiv Gandhi.
Maninderjeet Singh Bitta, chairman of the All-India Anti-Terrorist Front, and former chief of the Indian Youth Congress, has lauded the hanging of Guru and dismissed the idea that it was a political decision. He has said the focus must now shift to Rajaona and Rajiv's killers, and he would campaign for the same along with other terror victims. He told a news conference today that he would personally thank President Pranab Mukherjee for rejecting the clemency petition of Afzal Guru.
In 2011, the hanging of the killers of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan — was stayed by the Madras High Court after pro-LTTE Tamil politicians, including the Congress partner DMK, raised a shindig over it. The Tamil Nadu assembly even passed a resolution calling for clemency. The government showed no spine.
Early in 2012, the execution of Balwant Singh Rajaona, convicted and sentenced to death for the assassination of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, was put off following political protests in the state and repeated pleas for clemency by not only the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, but also the BJP-partnered Punjab government. With the Punjab elections just round the corner, the Congress-led UPA did not apparently want to risk the execution.
As we noted before, no government will actually confess to its real motives, but one thing is apparent: politically convenient convicts will be executed without too much compunction.
In Kasab’s case, he was a Pakistani national, and there was no political pressure to keep him alive in India. Even Pakistan could be secretly happy, for it can now abandon all efforts to prosecute his handlers in Pakistan. It also came conveniently ahead of the winter session of parliament and the Gujarat assembly election.
In Afzal Guru’s case, the timing has been the same as in the case of Kasab – ahead of a potentially stormy parliament budget session and a bunch of assembly elections.
But Rajoana and Rajiv’s killers are different. The former was involved in the killing of a Congress Chief Minister, and the latter were part of the conspiracy to kill Rajiv in a suicide bombing.
In the latter case, the Congress’s hand will be additionally held by the DMK, which is the party’s partner in politically significant Tamil Nadu which sends 39 MPs to the Loka Sabha.
The Guru execution comes, ironically, just a few months after the Supreme Court itself expressed confusion over the issue of awarding death penalties. It confessed that there was a fair degree of human judgment involved in what is or is not a “rarest of rare” crime meriting a death sentence.
Calling for a review of the norms for awarding death, a bench comprising Justices KS Radhakrishnan and B Lokur admitted that there was “little or no uniformity in the application” of this principle (rarest of rare).” The Times of India reported that the bench “seemed to even concede that categorising crimes — the basis for ranking them and assessing which all meet the “rarest of rare” standard — might be difficult. In short, the court suggested that the present system was not working.”
“In the sentencing process, both the crime and criminal are equally important. We have, unfortunately, not taken the sentencing process as seriously as it should be with the result that in capital offences, it has become judge-centric sentencing rather than principled sentencing,” the newspaper reported, quoting Justice Lokur, main author of the judgment.
If the courts are now getting critical about judge-centric hangings, politicians should be careful when deciding on mercy petitions on the basis of political convenience or inconvenience
After Kasab and Guru, the Congress has been accused of taking a political decision on the hangings. But if it proceeds with the hanging of Rajaona and Rajiv’s killers with the same clinical precision when the time comes, it will have proved that politics was not the reason.