Commutation of 30 death sentences
When President Pratibha Patil vacates the Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 25, she would have the dubious distinction of having commuted the highest number of death sentences to life imprisonment. During her tenure, she showed clemency to 30 convicts, condemned prisoners who had killed 60 people, including 22 women and children.
Among those granted pardon include Molai Ram and Santosh Yadav, who in 1996 had gangraped and murdered the 10-year-old daughter of a jailer on the premises of a prison in Madhya Pradesh where they were inmates; Dharmender Singh and Narendra Yadav of Uttar Pradesh, who had killed a couple, their two sons and 15-year-old daughter, whom they had earlier tried to rape; Piara Singh of Punjab and his three sons, who had massacred 17 persons of a wedding party on a personal rivalry; Sushil Murmu of Jharkhand, who had sacrificed a nine-year-old boy out of superstition; and Satish, who had raped and murdered a five-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh in 2001.
For many people, the presidential pardons have come as a shock. “In many cases, the victims were raped, sexually assaulted and tortured before being murdered,” said a schoolteacher. “Pardoning them sends a wrong, sad message.”
Patil’s predecessors, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and K.R. Narayanan, had granted clemency in only one case each. Patil’s extraordinary generosity has led to a fresh debate on death penalty in India. The focus is now on what Patil has not done—she has not decided on the mercy petitions of Afzal Guru, convicted in the 2001 Parliament attack case; Khalistan separatist Devinder Singh Bhullar, who tried to kill Youth Congress president Maninder Singh Bitta in 1993; and Balwant Singh Rajoana, who assassinated Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995.
The BJP, the main opposition party in Parliament, has been criticising the Centre for its ambivalent stance on the death penalty debate. BJP leader Prakash Javadekar says “those who have acted against the country” should be hanged immediately. When Home Minister P. Chidambaram was criticised for the delay in executing Ajmal Kasab, who was convicted in the 2008 Mumbai attacks case, he had told Parliament: “We have to decide as a nation whether we want to follow the rule of law or not.”
Patil, in her zeal to grant presidential pardons, appears to have squandered the chance to send out a clear signal on the issue. During her term, she rejected three mercy petitions and commuted sentences in 19 cases, involving 30 convicts. She, however, has not taken a call on 10 mercy petitions, including that of Afzal Guru.
Realising that the pardons could be politically explosive, Rashtrapati Bhavan officials are pulling out all the stops to give them a positive spin. Presidential spokesperson Archana Dutta told THE WEEK, “The President has adhered to the rule book while dealing with mercy petitions. It is incorrect to say that it is on account of her personal belief [against death penalty] that she has commuted these death sentences.”
Many people, however, disagree. “So many mercy pardons may send the wrong signal about our legal procedure,” said senior advocate Gopal Jain. “It is not clear what parameters she used to commute the death sentence in 19 cases and reject the other three.”
Said a senior politician: “Here is a President whose stint at the Rashtrapati Bhavan has been daubed with controversy on many fronts, including the recent land allocation issue. Her office is working overtime to contain bad press. The President could have absolved herself of her rather lacklustre tenure by taking decisive action on an issue that concerns the security of the people of this country. But, instead, she appears to have chosen to tread a safe, political path.”
Human rights and pro-life lobbies view the presidential pardons as an indication of the way India is moving in the larger debate favouring abolition of capital punishment. Although India has not abolished capital punishment, it has rarely been carried out after the 1983 Supreme Court ruling that death penalty should be imposed only in “the rarest of rare cases”. Since 1995, only one execution, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee in August 2004, has taken place. Dhananjoy was convicted of raping and murdering a schoolgirl in 1990.
Under the law, the death penalty can be imposed for murder, gang robbery with murder, abetting the suicide of a child or insane person, waging war against the government, abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces. Recently, special courts extended the penalty to cases of terrorism and the Supreme Court has recommended that it be extended to those found guilty of committing honour killings and to cops involved in brutal fake encounter killings.
Death penalty, however, has been a sensitive issue. In Tamil Naidu, widespread public rallies were conducted to seek clemency for the Rajiv Gandhi killers. A person even burned herself to death to protest the imminent hangings. Local politicians insisted that the hangings would be a “betrayal of the Tamils”, and would provoke popular fury.
A similar kind of fury was witnessed in Punjab when the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which functions as a parliament of Sikhs, demanded that the state government fight to save Balwant Singh Rajoana, the assassin of Beant Singh. The Akal Takht, which is the highest temporal seat of Sikhs, has conferred the title of Zinda Shaheed, or living martyr, on him. In Kashmir, Afzal Guru’s death sentence has been an emotive issue. Few doubt Afzal’s involvement in the 2001 Parliament attack. But serious questions remain over the investigation and trial, carried out under the now-defunct Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act.
With widespread instances of custodial abuse, legal experts have been campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. They argue that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that the death sentence works as a deterrent. The delays in carrying out the executions have also been pointed out. Said B.S. Bilowria, a Supreme Court lawyer: “The long delays in executing the death sentences are extra punishment. It is in addition to the punishment of death and, therefore, it becomes unconstitutional. You cannot give a person double punishment by first locking him in a prison cell for years and then hanging him after a decade or so.”
- Death penalty: the Indian authorities’ incredible myopia (kractivist.wordpress.com)
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