Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The politics of executions in India
By Bobby Naqvi | Special to Gulf NewsPublished: 17:19 February 24, 2014
Indian Muslims and people of Guru’s home state of Jammu and Kashmir have accused the Congress government of playing dirty politics by fast-tracking his execution. This allegation has some substance.
“The 23 years of life in a prison and that too on death row and the solitary isolation has almost snatched everything from us and all we have is life in our body and hope in our heart. Please release my father and get him back to me, you’ll be hailed as saviours.” Priyanka Harithra,Daughter of Nalini and Murugan
“Guru was killed by the Congress for political gains. They sacrificed him for votes. If after so many years, their sentence could be commuted, what was the hurry in killing him?” Tabassum, Widow of Afzal Guru.
These two statements are a telling commentary on how Indian politicians and governments adopt double standards while dealing with Muslim and non-Muslims sentenced to death by a court of law. The first is from a mercy petition written by Priyanka Harithra, the 22-year-old UK-based daughter of Nalini and Murugan who were awarded death penalty in 1999 for assassinating former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. The mercy petition this week was addressed to Rajiv’s widow Sonia and son Rahul after Supreme Court commuted Murugan’s death sentence over a technicality. Nalini’s death sentence was commuted after she was pardoned by Rajiv’s family members on humanitarian grounds. Harithra pleaded with Sonia and Rahul to release her parents.
Harithra’s mercy plea came after Supreme Court on February 18 commuted death sentence of Rajiv’s killers, including Murugan. While commuting the death sentence, the court cited federal government’s delay in dealing with all the four convicts’ mercy petitions. Soon after this verdict, a regional politician and chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha announced her government will release the four convicts, all from Tamil Nadu. Her decision, months before general elections, is seen as an attempt to gain support of Tamil nationalists who sympathise with the assassins and blame Rajiv for sending Indian army troops to crush the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka.
The second statement is of the widow of a Muslim, Afzal Guru, who was hanged for his role in the December 2001 Parliament attack. After the court commuted Murugan’s death sentence, Guru’s widow Tabassum questioned why her husband was hanged when Rajiv’s killers who were sentenced way back in 1999 have now been pardoned. Guru was sentenced to death in 2003 and the verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005. In a secret operation on February 9, 2013, the Congress-led UPA government executed Guru and buried him inside Tihar jail where he was lodged since his arrest. The hanging came as a surprise because Guru was 25th on the list of death convicts and the government deals with mercy petitions from death convicts in a chronological order. Clearly, 43-year-old Guru was treated as a special case for some inexplicable reasons and his hanging and burial was shrouded in secrecy. Moreover, the government failed to inform the family members, Guru’s widow Tabassum received a letter about the hanging two days after TV channels broke the news. Tabassum, who has a 13-year-old son, was also not informed about the rejection of her mercy petition. One year on, Tabassum is still pleading for her husband’s body and belongings.
Impressing Hindu nationalists
Indian Muslims and people of Guru’s home state of Jammu and Kashmir have accused the Congress government of playing dirty politics by fast-tracking Guru’s execution. The hanging, they feel, was an attempt to impress Hindu nationalists and a crude attempt to check the rising graph of right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party which had been demanding swift execution of Guru. This allegation has some substance.
To get a sense of this complex game of politics of death practiced by governments and politicians, it is necessary to go into the background of Guru’s sentencing. Throughout his trial, Guru maintained his innocence and denied he had any role in attacking Parliament in which a dozen people were killed. The Supreme Court, in a controversial, order rejected Guru’s appeal and upheld the death sentence. The order, considered controversial by Muslims and human rights activists, makes an interesting read: “Thus the conspirator, even though he may not have indulged in the actual criminal operations to execute the conspiracy, becomes liable for the punishment… The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
Thus, the Supreme Court, while admitting there was no direct evidence to convict Guru, went ahead to uphold his death sentence in order to “satisfy the collective conscience of the society”. Guru’s trial in lower court also failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he was indeed involved in the conspiracy to attack parliament. Here is a paragraph from an article written by human rights activist and celebrated author Arundhati Roy a day after Guru was hanged: “The trial in the fast-track court began in May 2002. The world was still convulsed by post 9/11 frenzy. The US government was gloating prematurely over its “victory” in Afghanistan. In the state of Gujarat, the massacre of Muslims by Hindu goon squads, helped along by the police and the state government machinery that had begun in late February, was still going on sporadically. The air was charged with communal hatred. And in the parliament attack case the law was taking its own course. At the most crucial stage of a criminal case, when evidence is presented, when witnesses are cross-examined, when the foundations of the argument are laid, Afzal Guru, locked in a high-security solitary cell, had no lawyer. The court-appointed junior lawyer did not visit his client even once in jail, he did not summon any witnesses in Guru’s defence, and he did not cross-examine the prosecution witnesses. The judge expressed his inability to do anything about the situation.” Like his hanging, the trial was also swift and fast-tracked.
In contrast, Murugan, his wife and two others — all Hindu Tamils — were sentenced to death for killing Rajiv and 14 others in a suicide bombing. Successive governments never showed any haste in deciding on their mercy pleas. This week, 15 years after they were convicted, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence blaming the government for delay in deciding mercy petitions. In another case, Sikh terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar was sentenced to death for carrying out a bomb blast in 1993, killing nine. The government rejected his mercy petition in 2011 but is yet to execute him, possibly to avoid a backlash from the Sikh community.
One can speculate that the government dragged its feet on politically sensitive cases of Rajiv killers because the assassins enjoyed sympathy of Tamil Hindus. Guru’s case was handled with ruthless swiftness because he came from Kashmir, a state in conflict with Indian troops. More significantly, hanging of a Muslim terrorist brought cheers from Hindu nationalists and right-wing politicians. After all, the Supreme Court condemned Guru to die in order to satisfy the nation’s conscience and the government could not have denied Indian people a moment of national glory.
Source: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/the-politics-of-executions-in-india-1.1295186 [accessed 24 April 2014]