Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Politics Stalks India's Death Row

FEB. 27, 2014 Contributing Op-Ed Writer By NILANJANA S. ROY NEW DELHI

Backlog is up there next to corruption in the pantheon of small deities who rule the lives of Indians. 

In 2012 there were, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 414 convicts on death row in jails across the country. The wait for the noose can be very long, as legal appeals and petitions for clemency travel through the courts to the president and back. The wait can be so long, in fact, that on Feb. 18, the Supreme Court commuted to life terms the death sentences of three of the seven men convicted of assassinating Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The petitions for clemency they sent to the president in 2000 had been lying in some bureaucrat’s desk drawer all this time. 

The judges ruled that the delay was unjustified and therefore cruel. The case might have remained a simple matter of law if the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, hadn’t sensed a political opportunity in the midst of pre-election season. Ms. Jayalalithaa, who is of the A.I.A.D.M.K. party, promptly announced that her government interpreted the judgment to mean it could release all seven of the men convicted for the assassination, who are currently incarcerated in Tamil Nadu. Days after that, the Supreme Court issued a restraining order against the state government. Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv’s son and the vice president of the Indian National Congress party, said he was saddened that his father’s killers might be released. The party called the decision “irresponsible.” 

The convicts — who killed 14 people in addition to Rajiv that day — are widely assumed to be members of the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group that resents the role of India in Sri Lanka’s long civil war, and Ms. Jayalalithaa’s position has considerable support among the movement’s many supporters in her state. Even if the Law and Justice Ministry or the judiciary eventually overturns her government’s decision, she will already have scored with constituents. Once again, politics is overshadowing principles. The questions surrounding the fair treatment of Rajiv’s murderers was an opportunity for India to hold a comprehensive discussion on capital punishment. That debate has grown urgent since the resumption of executions in 2012 — there had been just two since 1995 — and rising calls for imposing the death penalty in cases of rape, murder or terrorism. 

Between 2001 and 2011, while death sentences were handed down to 1,455 people, the death sentences of 4,321 convicts were commuted to life terms, according to the Asian Center for Human Rights, citing official statistics. The courts displayed leniency for various reasons, including concern over inordinate procedural delays and new doubts about evidence because of shoddy forensics. Indian presidents have the power to grant clemency — and during the 1990s and 2000s exercised it not infrequently. Then suddenly the pattern broke and the rhythm of executions accelerated. In 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 97 prisoners were sentenced to death, whereas the capital sentences of only 61 inmates were commuted. 

In November 2012, Ajmal Kasab was hanged for participating in the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. Last year, Afzal Guru was executed for being a conspirator in the 2001 attack on Parliament in New Delhi. Pranab Mukherjee, who has been president since mid-2012, has been disinclined to grant mercy. State officials and politicians are eager to appear responsive to threats of terrorism and crime. The media seem to promote quick fixes. It takes just one or two hangings for the public to start looking at the scaffold as a solution. Barely a month after Mr. Kasab’s execution, protesters went into the streets decrying the gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh Pandey, many carrying placards demanding the execution of her aggressors. 

One of those signs lodged in my memory: It was a hand-drawn sketch of men hanging from gallows by the neck, done in black and yellow markers by a child of nine and carried around by his mother. When most of the rapists were sentenced to death, crowds celebrated. Calls for sanctioning rapes, especially, with death sentences have since multiplied. This is troublesome. Putting aside the question of whether capital punishment is moral, this growing sentiment seems to suggest that rape is the worst crime women can suffer. Rarely are there calls for sentencing to death the perpetrators of witch burnings, dowry killings (murders of women whose families don’t offer enough money to their prospective spouses) or lethal acid attacks on women. A.P. Shah, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, has called for discussing whether capital punishment penalizes the poor, minorities or underprivileged castes, and whether in the absence of reliable forensic labs and trained experts, death sentences really are based on sound evidence. “Here one hardly finds a rich or affluent person going to the gallows,” Mr. Shah told Amnesty International last year. 

Every execution, every appeal for clemency, every commuted death sentence is an occasion to reopen the debate over capital punishment. But elections are approaching, and India will pass up its latest chance. This is not what our founders had intended. In 1949, the Constituent Assembly of the then-fledgling country first discussed whether to maintain the death penalty, which India had inherited from its British colonial overseers. Shibban Lal Saksena, a member of Parliament and a former political prisoner under the Raj, made a moving interjection drawing from his personal experience. Of being jailed alongside death row inmates, he said, “I had the misfortune during the 1942 movement to live in a condemned cell for about 26 months and about 37 men were hanged in my presence.” He made a case against capital punishment. 

The Constituent Assembly demurred, leaving it to future Parliaments to decide what to do. But no Parliament has tackled the death penalty with any rigor, leaving the practice in place while the justifications for it still go undiscussed. Whether it’s a chief minister who wants to release convicts whose views are popular with her constituents or a central government that wheels out the gallows to appease the public’s call for executing rapists and terrorists, the problem is the same: Political maneuvering is preventing India from holding a principled debate about when and how the state should kill its own people. 

Nilanjana S. Roy is an essayist and critic, and author of the novel “The Wildings.” 

Source: [accessed 24 April 2014]

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