Kasab hanging: Why India ignored UN on death penalty

It’s a rather strange coincidence that the much-celebrated execution of Ajmal Kasab this morning comes just a day after the UN General Assembly adopted a draft resolution against death penalty, and the Indian Supreme Court’s observation that there was “little or no uniformity” in applying the “rarest of rare” principle before sentencing people to death.

India was among 36 countries - in the company of Pakistan, the US, Japan, China, Korea and Sri Lanka - who opposed the UN resolution on Tuesday, which asked for a moratorium on executions. Probably with Kasab’s hanging already scheduled, the resolution could have been something forbidding or ominous for India. In its objection, India said that it couldn’t support the text in the present form.

Interestingly, on one side, the UN and 110 nations want the practice to stop, while on the other, the Supreme Court is not happy with the way in which death penalty is awarded by the Indian courts. Yet, on another side, a small minority continues to campaign against the practice which the Amnesty International calls the “ultimate denial of human rights” and the “premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state.”

 Kasab hanging: Why India ignored UN on death penalty

Screen grab from CNN IBN.

Unmindful of all these points of view, a whole bunch of people have been clamoring for not only the execution of Kasab, but also that of Afzal Guru and others on death row. Minutes after the execution, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi asked in his tweet: “What about Afzal Guru, who attacked Parliament, our temple of democracy, in 2001? That offence predates Kasab’s heinous act by many years.”

If anybody thought Kasab’s death would put a lot of things to rest, they are mistaken, the death-mongering has just begun.

Kasab has been a misplaced metaphor for justice, national pride, national security and a tough stand against Pakistan, due to which his hanging has evoked instant cheers among various sections of people. Social media and TV channels are bursting with excitement.

On such a day of national celebration, it is almost unpatriotic to speak against death penalty. Still, many have expressed outrage, although their voices have been few and far between compared to the swelling cacophony of death-triumphalism.

IBN Lokmat editor Nikhil Wagle was mild and circumspect: “Kasab gone, but the world is full of extremists and idiots.” Former Executive Editor of The Hindu, Malini Parthasarathy, who always took a stand against death penalty said: “Kasab hanged. How does legal sanction for retaliatory murder redeem the savagery of what is in essence an "eye for an eye" act of revenge?”

Writer and activist Meena Kandasamy was acidulous when she said: “feel sorry for the Indian tricolour. heartfelt condolences” while Newsweek International editor Tunku Varadarajan alluded to the paradoxical delivery of justice in the country: “India hangs man responsible for killing hundreds of Mumbaikars days after it lauds man responsible for killing thousands”. His hashtags in the tweet were the giveaway as to whom he referred to.

The issue, however, is simple. Death penalty violates the right to life as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Amnesty notes, it should be opposed “without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner.” But when the emotions run high - particularly that of victims of gruesome murders and other violent acts of crime - and the country is on the throes of ultranationalism, the calls for sobriety and human rights are lampooned.

The campaigners against death penalty cite mainly three reasons for doing away with the practice. One, the miscarriage of justice (there could error of judgement); two, it has hardly served as a deterrent of crime (the numbers all over the world show that); and three, keeping people on death-row is expensive (Kasab is an example).

It is not a  simple coincidence that countries with the worst human rights records have the highest number of executions. Without a guess, China tops the list with an estimated 4,000 or more in 2011, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States.

The international trend, in fact, shows a slowing down of execution and the abolitionist philosophy spreading wider. According to Amnesty International, only 21 out of the 198 countries had executed people in 2011. The number was one third compared to the last decade. Even in the US, one of the top executors in the world, where majority public opinion favours death penalty, 16 states have so far abolished the practice. European Union requires its member countries not to practice death penalty.

India toes a cautious line on the issue. Although at least a 100 people are on death-row in, even after the application of the “rarest of rare” principles; the last execution before Kasab was carried out in 2004 in Alipore, West Bengal (Dhanajoy Chatterjee). The one before that was in 1995, in Salem, Tamil Nadu (Auto Shankar).

One can only hope that by taking Kasab’s case out-of-turn, and not sequentially clearing the pending clemency petitions, President Pranab Mukherjee has perhaps made a point that he is in no hurry in sending the others to the gallows. India might still sentence people to death, but will keep them waiting.

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2012 13:19:45 IST