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Crime and punishment

A nation consumed by outrage and a sense of retribution easily confuses punishment and revenge, justice and vendetta, says the PUCL in a statement following the hanging of Ajmal Kasab and asking for a rethink on the death penalty

Ajmal Kasab  death penalty

The secretive and stealthy hanging of Ajmal Kasab in Pune’s Yerawada Prison on November 21, 2012, brings to an end the legal process involved in trying Kasab for the brutal assault by trained terrorists from across the border on Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, which left 166 persons dead.

The Mumbai carnage of November 2008, more popularly abbreviated to a single term `26/11,’ constitutes one of the most heinous and deliberate attempts in recent years to cause mass mayhem and terror in India. Kasab was the only member of the terrorist team sent from Pakistan apprehended alive; he was caught on film using his modern automatic weapon in a cold-blooded fashion, killing numerous people. The hanging, and the trial and legal proceedings which preceded it,  admittedly  complied with existing laws which permit death penalty, and cannot be faulted.  While it may be argued, as many do  that the hanging will help bring `emotional closure’ to the families of victims of 26/11, there are others who point out that other key issues still remain to be addressed.  Families of victims in specific, as also other concerned citizens, have pointed out that Kasab was only a foot soldier and not the masterminds, who still remain at large.

We cannot also lose sight of the fact that the backdrop of the 26/11 incidents is also the festering and unresolved internal conflict inside Kashmir, which provides an easy emotive tool for demagogues to indoctrinate and turn youth to become cold-blooded `jihadi’ killers. To them, the execution will not be a deterrence.

The extensive legal process ending with the hanging of Kasab is pointed out as a triumph of the `rule of law process’ in India. In the same breath this is also contrasted to the lack of such a situation in neighbouring Pakistan.  This discourse is however very worrisome; it borders on `triumphalism’ on the one hand, and on the other, it amounts to an attempt to `avenge’ or seek `vengeance’, an `eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ mentality, which worldview has been rejected as dangerous amongst a majority of 110 countries worldwide which have prohibited the death penalty.

Such triumphalist discourse is also worrying for it hides behind emotive terminology the harsh truths of failure and miscarriage of justice in other incidents of mass killings that have occurred in India. The `cry for justice’ still remains a silent pouring of helpless anger in the hearts and souls of thousands of families of victims  in incidents like planned and cold-blooded slaughter of over 3,000 Sikhs during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992-93 (which ironically occurred in Mumbai also), the 2002 post-Godhra anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat which saw over 2,000 Muslims killed and thousands more rendered homeless and more recently in Kokrajhar in Assam. A stark reality is the cynical manipulation and subversion of police investigation by ruling political parties and the executive to help masterminds and perpetrators escape the clutches of the law.

In the surcharged emotional atmosphere in the wake of Kasab’s hanging, even raising questions about the usefulness of hanging Kasab is considered to be `traitorous’, unpatriotic and anti-national.  We in the PUCL nevertheless feel that this is a moment in our nation’s history when we need to pause, ponder and reflect on the values that we, as a nation, should uphold, particularly relating to crime and punishment, justice and equity. We need to be conscious of the fact that a nation consumed by outrage and filled with a sense of retribution easily confuses “punishment and revenge, justice and vendetta”. We, as a nation, need to begin a dispassionate public debate on the death penalty without judgmental, indignant, righteous or moralist overtones.

PUCL has always taken a principled stand against the death sentence as being antithetical to ahimsa and non-violence, as constituting an arbitrary, capricious and unreliable punishment and that at the end of the day, the type of sentence that will be awarded depends very much on many factors, apart from the case itself. PUCL and Amnesty International have published a major  study of the entire body of judgments of the Supreme Court of India on death penalty between 1950-2008 which unambiguously shows that there is so much arbitrariness in the application of the `rarest of rare’ doctrine in death penalty cases that in the ultimate analysis, death sentence constitutes a `lethal lottery’.

It may not be out of context to highlight that just two days before Kasab was hanged, on November 19, 2012, the Supreme Court of India pointed out that in practice, the application of `rarest of rare cases’ doctrine to award the death penalty was seriously arbitrary, warranting a rethink of the death penalty in India.

It is also well-recognised now that there can never be a guarantee against legal mistakes and improper application of legal principles while awarding death sentences. Very importantly, the Supreme Court of India in the case of Santosh Kr Bariar v State of Maharashtra (2009) has explicitly stated that six previous judgments of the Supreme Court between 1996 to 2009 in which death sentences were confirmed on 13 people, were found to be `per incuriam’ or rendered in ignorance of law. The Supreme Court held that the reasoning for confirming death sentences in these cases conflicted with the 5-judge constitutional bench decision in Bachan Singh v State of Punjab (1980), which upheld the constitutionality of the death sentence in India and laid down the guidelines to be followed before awarding death sentence by any court in India.

It should be pointed out that of the 13 convicts awarded death sentence based on this per incuriam reasoning, two persons were hanged -- Ravji Ramchandra on 4.5.1996 and Surja Ram on 5.4.1997. The fate of the others is pending decision on their mercy petitions. In the meantime a group of seven to eight former High Court judges has written to the President of India pointing to the legal infirmity in the awarding of death sentences to these convicts and seeking rectification of judicial mistake by commuting their death sentences to life imprisonment. A very troubling question remains: how do we render justice to men who were hanged based on the wrong application of the law?

It is for such reasons, amongst others, that PUCL has long argued that it is extremely unsafe and uncivilised to retain death penalty in our statutes.

It will be useful to refer to the stand on death penalty taken by three of India’s foremost leaders of the independence struggle.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “I do regard death sentence as contrary to ahimsa. Only he takes it who gives it. All punishment is repugnant to ahimsa. Under a State governed according to the principles of ahimsa, therefore, a murderer would be sent to a penitentiary and there be given a chance of reforming himself. All crime is a form of disease and should be treated as such”.

 Speaking before the Constituent Assembly of India on June 3, 1949, the architect of India’s constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, pointed out, “… I would much rather support the abolition of death sentence itself. That I think is the proper course to follow, so that it will end this controversy. After all, this country by and large believes in the principles of non-violence. It has been its ancient tradition, and although people may not be following in actual practice, they certainly adhere to the principle of non-violence as a moral mandate which they ought to observe as far as they possibly can and I think that having regard to this fact, the proper thing for this county to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether”.

 Jayaprakash Narayan wrote more poignantly that, “To my mind, it is ultimately a question for the respect for life and human approach to those who commit grievous hurt to others. Death sentence is no remedy for such crimes. A more humane and constructive remedy is to remove the culprit concerned from the normal milieu and treat him as a mental case … They may be kept in prison houses till they die a natural death. This may cast a heavier economic burden on society than hanging. But I have no doubt that a humane treatment even of a murderer will enhance man’s dignity and make society more humane”.

 PUCL calls upon all Indians to use the present situation as a moment of national reflection, a period of serious dialogue and discussion on the values and ethics which we as a nation of Buddha and Ashoka, who epitomised humane governance, dharma and ahimsa, should accept and follow. The best tribute we can pay to the 166 persons who lost their lives due to the 26/11 Mumbai carnage is to rebuild the nation in a way that equity and justice, dharma and ahimsa prevails; in which there is no soil for discrimination and prejudice, and in which all Indians irrespective of caste, community, creed, gender or any other diversity, can live peacefully and with dignity.

We firmly believe that mercy and compassion are key values of a humane society, which are also recognised in the Indian Constitution. We also hold that abolishing death penalty is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a stand which arises from a sense of moral authority. It is when law in tempered with mercy that true justice is done. Bereft of mercy our society would be impoverished and inhuman; mercy is quintessentially a human quality, not found elsewhere in the natural world. Excluding a fellow human being from the entitlement to mercy will make our society more blood-thirsty, unforgiving and violent. We owe a duty to leave a better and less vengeful world for our children by curbing our instinct for retribution. That way we become a more humane and compassionate society. Recalling Rabindranath Tagore’s vision in the Gitanjali, let us re-make India into a `haven of peace’ in which future generations of Indians will rejoice and flourish.

Sd/-

Prof Prabhakar Sinha, National President, PUCL
Dr V Suresh, National General Secretary (Elect), PUCL

PUCL, November 2012