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By N. Jayaram

 

19 February, 2013
Countercurrents.org

Dr Vasant Yamakanmaradi, medical officer of the Central Prison, Hindalga (Belgaum), said the four convicts are both mentally and physically healthy. “We have been regularly conducting their health check-up to ensure they are fit to be executed,” he said. “All convicts have been informed about their execution.” (1)

The jail authorities began preparations for the executions after President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the mercy petitions of Veerappan’s brother Jnanaprakash, Bilavendra, Simon and Meesekar Madaiah last week.

Dear Dr Yamakanmaradi,

Assuming that you’re accurately quoted – and it is mostly likely you have been as another newspaper has also done so while spelling your name differently, it is good to know that you have been checking the health of the four convicts regularly. (2)

I wonder whether you have also been talking to the convicts doctor. Do you talk to them as just living beings that need to be kept alive until the Indian state can snuff out their lives?

Or do you see them as human beings – sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, friends, colleagues, carers of cows and dogs also perhaps? In other words as people – strange thought this – such as you and I? People who – if the criminal justice system got it right – were associated with a notorious gangster, who were caught, convicted, sentenced to death and spent more than eight years in prison, perhaps coming around to believing that their lives will be spared? In many of the shrinking number of countries that retain the death penalty, an eight-year wait would have led to commutation.

The four condemned in your prison claim to be innocent – and the best criminal justice systems in the world, including those in Europe and North America have thrown up numerous cases of miscarriages of justice.

Does it bother you that you might be helping in preparing to hang people who might well be telling the truth when they claim to be innocent? Or are do you believe Indian policemen and security forces always catch the right people and scrupulously adhere to the letter of the law? Surely you know of rampant encounter killings? If not, I invite you to read the reports of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Human Rights Law Network, the Asian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a host of other NGOs.

Have you read the famous essay, “A Hanging” by George Orwell, doctor? (3) It is not only one of the best essays in the English language, the subject of classroom study around the world. It is also a powerful record by a fine mind watching the process of a hanging under British colonialism. Here’s an excerpt, but I recommend reading the full version:

It was about forty yards to the gallows… At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

Have you taken the Hippocratic oath or a version thereof, doctor? (4) Perhaps you have a copy with you? Here is a reminder of three lines in the oath:

• Even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of Humanity.

• I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient.

• The health of my patient will be my first consideration.

NB: “…religion, nationality, party politics or social standing”. The Indian state has in recent months executed a Pakistani Muslim convicted of the 2008 Bombay attacks and a Kashmiri Muslim recently for his alleged role – never conclusively proven – in the 2001 Parliament attacks in New Delhi. The Supreme Court thought the death penalty for Afzal Guru was needed to satisfy the “collective conscience of the society”. The lives of Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi and several others convicted of their role in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 were – rightly in the opinion of those opposed to the death penalty – spared by the good judge Jyotsna Yagnik. Do you, doctor, ask yourself why it is that the indigent, the minorities, the Dalits and the lower castes pack death row?

Do you think preparing prisoners, checking on their health, taking their pulse with the purpose of overseeing their death is in consonance with the oath you took when you entered the profession, doctor?

Perhaps you do believe in the rightness of the death penalty in some cases. But do you seriously think each of the hundreds now on death row in deserves to die? Do go through an exceedingly well thought out essay by a leading surgeon and writer in the United States, who is of Indian origin, who does believe in the death penalty in certain cases. Dr Atul Gawande is the award-winning author of books such as Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (2002), Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2007) and The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009).

In a March 2006 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “When Law and Ethics Collide – Why Physicians Participate in Executions”, he has noted that the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) and other professional bodies are opposed to doctors taking part in putting convicts to death. The ASA president is quoted as saying, “Physicians are healers, not executioners”. (5)

Again, an excerpt to whet your appetite:

In 1980 … the AMA passed a resolution against physician participation as a violation of core medical ethics. It affirmed that ban in detail in its 1992 Code of Medical Ethics. Article 2.06 states, “A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution,” although an individual physician’s opinion about capital punishment remains “the personal moral decision of the individual.” It states that unacceptable participation includes prescribing or administering medications as part of the execution procedure, monitoring vital signs, rendering technical advice, selecting injection sites, starting or supervising placement of intravenous lines, or simply being present as a physician. Pronouncing death is also considered unacceptable, because the physician is not permitted to revive the prisoner if he or she is found to be alive. Only two actions were acceptable: provision at the prisoner’s request of a sedative to calm anxiety beforehand and certification of death after another person had pronounced it.

The code of ethics of the Society of Correctional Physicians establishes an even stricter ban: “The correctional health professional shall… not be involved in any aspect of execution of the death penalty.” The American Nurses Association (ANA) has adopted a similar prohibition. Only the national pharmacists’ society, the American Pharmaceutical Association, permits involvement…

Perhaps you would say, “what can I do, orders are orders”? Harsh Mander, a former officer of the Indian Administrative Service who eventually went back to the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy in Mussoorie which trains civil servants, has written extensively about the right and duty of officials to dissent in the face of injustice. Have you read his columns in The Hindu and other newspapers, doctor? Just google them. Most instructive.

The Supreme Court has given a stay of execution until Wednesday and it is to be hoped the constitutionality of the practice will be considered afresh. You can then get back to the health of the four with a view to doing what your oath enjoined you to do – preserving them in good health, not participating in their death.

N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes a blog: http://walkerjay.wordpress.com/ 

Notes

1. “ Belgaum jail awaits hanging orders for Veerappan aides” http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Belgaum-jail-awaits-hanging-orders-for-Veerappan-aides/articleshow/18550276.cms

2. “Veerappan aides’ fate still hanging” http://www.deccanchronicle.com/130218/news-current-affairs/article/veerappan-aides-fate-still-hanging

3. “A Hanging” by http://www.george-orwell.org/A_Hanging/0.html . There is also an audio version http://thelongestchapter.com/tag/a-hanging/

4. Indian Medical Association: Medical Oath http://www.ima-india.org/IMA_medical_oath.html

5. “ When Law and Ethics Collide — Why Physicians Participate in Executions ” http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp068042

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