While discussing the death penalty for Ajmal Kasab on Wednesday, prime time TV discussants, including the anchors, kept repeating one name: Afzal Guru, the prime accused in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack case.
The context was predictable and popular: will Kasab go in for presidential pardon and manage to stay alive as Afzal Guru has done.
Or in other words, if Kasab too will be able to “manipulate” our glorious judicial system as Afzal Guru has allegedly done.
They spoke about Afzal Guru as if he was the only person, who should have been hanged to death, but for the indecision of the President of India. Perhaps inadvertently, most of them hid the fact that Afzal Guru was one of the many others who have not been executed because the President hasn’t decided on their mercy petitions.
According to an ibnlive report, there are 52 prisoners who are waiting for a decision on their mercy petitions to the government of India. Seven of them have escaped death for 12 years while six, for 11 years, thanks to the pendency of their petitions. Other reports and data-sheets seem to differ in numbers and the life-benefits of the convicts, but the truth is that Afzal Guru is among the last beneficiaries.
And who are these people?
Davinder Singh Bullar of Khalistan Liberation Force, convicted for killing seven and injuring many others; four Veerappan associates, convicted for killing 21 policemen; four men from Punjab for killing 17 villagers; the Rajiv Gandhi assassins; and Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted for his role in the assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh.
Rajoana in fact escaped death by a whisker. Three days prior to his scheduled hanging in March this year, the centre stayed his execution following political demands.
And we still talk about Afzal Guru as an exception that mocks the carriage of justice and we want the President to send him to the gallows at once. We don’t care about others, however “rarest of rare”, their crimes had been. And with Ajmal Kasab likely to join the clemency-waitlist, Afsal Guru’s vilified image will be magnified further and his supporters will be deafened by the intensified clamour for his life while others continue to live in oblivion.
This is an exceptionalism that tears apart India’s secular credentials and exposes its crass double standards. By repeating twisted facts and perceptions, we manufacture truths that smack of majoritarianism. Or we fall for popular truths manufactured by hate industries.
In a discussion on CNN-IBN on Wednesday, the participants didn’t realise this until lawyer Shabnam Lone said that by singling out Afzal Guru, the country was discriminating against Kashmiris. In fact, it was not discriminating Kashmiris alone, but a whole faith itself.
Interestingly, it is not just the Sangh Parivar is the only voice behind this exceptionalism, but most of us. Perhaps by repetition and by playing with our subconscious, the Sangh Parivar has made us believe that Afzal Guru has been an exceptional beneficiary.
Ajmal Kasab, by the principle of natural justice, also has a right to appeal for Presidential pardon. And if there are many people waiting before him, he too has a right to wait. Will the President consider his case out of turn and send him for execution because that is what the popular sentiment in the country is? That will be miscarriage of justice. Legal opinion on this doesn’t seem to be water-tight either.
The Kasab verdict also revives the debate on death penalty in India.
Our memory of the last execution goes back to 2004, when one Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged to death in West Bengal for rape and murder and before him, the sensational serial killer Auto Shankar in Tamil Nadu. Since then, there has been no execution and apparently even the hangmen, who have to prepare the noose and pull the lever, have disappeared.
Most of those who are on death row, but awaiting Presidential pardon, have communities and political parties fighting for their lives. They don’t want their men to be killed and they conveniently use the activists’ language against death penalty as we have seen in Tamil Nadu recently.
The Sikhs don’t want Bullar and Rajoana to be hanged, the Tamils don’t want the Rajiv assassins to be killed and the Kashmiris don’t want Afzal Guru to be killed. In fact, what all these communities together are asking for, although for political or community-reasons, is abolition of death penalty. And they do list the globally established reasons why death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent, why it is a terrible human rights practice and how majority of civilised nations have abolished the practice.
Even legal experts in India believe that our death penalty system is not fool-proof. Eminent former judge of the Delhi High Court, Justice AP Shah, known for some landmark judgements during his time, said in a Times of India interview on Wednesday that “legal safeguards aimed at avoiding a miscarriage of capital punishment have failed to deliver” in India.
He adds: “The Supreme Court’s attempt to regulate capital punishment has been unsuccessful on its own terms. Courts and governments worldwide have tried and failed to lay down satisfactory and clear criteria eliminating arbitrariness, subjectivity and inconsistency from the death penalty.”
His most striking point was the one attributed to Justice VR Krishna Iyer that “a legal policy on life or death cannot be left to ad hoc mood or individual predilection”.
Nothing summarises the Indian situation better. The Supreme Court itself has admitted recently that three of its death sentences were erroneous. Troubled by the possible denial of justice, 14 former judges recently wrote to the President against capital punishment.
Therefore, even before we think legal, what needs to be arrested is our susceptibility to “ad hoc mood and individual predilection” that Krishna Iyer has referred to.
In an age of propaganda seeking to set public agenda, singling out Afzal Guru and baying for the blood of Ajmal Kasab, even before his legal options are completely run out, are examples of biased, manipulated or simply vicious public mood that might lead to miscarriage of justice.