Friday, February 6, 2015

The death penalty in India

Published: October 26, 2014

The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland, 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House

The fate of two criminals is in the news. One is the convicted Gujarat minister, Mayaben Kodnani, who was sentenced to 28 years for her part in the 2002 massacres. She was given bail on health grounds and is out of jail. This month, the Gujarat government said it would side with her and against the special prosecuting body, which wanted her in jail. The other is Surinder Koli, convicted of one of the most horrific crimes we have heard of in India in recent years. Describing his acts, Harsh Mander wrote in The Hindu that Koli, who was then 33, was “convicted of killing at least 16 children, raping them dead or alive, chopping them into pieces and eating their flesh”.

The Indian Supreme Court has stayed Koli’s execution till October 29, but the fact is that India’s state has been executing people at a high rate under the current president, Pranab Mukherjee. The president is the final arbiter in death penalty cases and his rejection of appeals means that the convict is killed. He rejected Koli’s plea in July and next week’s hearing is probably the last chance Koli’s lawyers have to stop the state from executing their client.

The Times of India reported on February 11, 2013, that Mukherjee had sent more people to the hangman in his first seven months in office than in the previous 15 years. Koli’s lawyers say that his confession was taken through torture and that even if true, it shows a man who is disturbed. Mander wrote: “does even such a man merit any kindness? Is this not one case in which the world is better off without him? But his case — gruesome as it is — only reinforces my resolute opposition to the death penalty … If a crime results from a psychological disorder then, however gruesome and abhorrent the transgression, surely the humane, civilised, socially decent and constitutionally valid recourse would be to treat the problem, not eradicate the victim. What Koli needs desperately is clearly a doctor, not a hangman.”

I agree with Mander and don’t think hanging people solves anything. I would also say that Kodnani, who is in her sixties, being given bail is not a bad thing. I’ve written about this before and in India, the demand for death to convicts ensues from a desire for vengeance, not justice. This is a sign of a primitive society and we must accept that even educated Indians are not exempt from the feeling. It would not be incorrect to say that some of the more savage solutions for curbing crime originate from them. In our parts, public lynching is not uncommon and, like the awful incidents with blacks in the US a century ago, it is acceptable by the public to wound or kill those who offend by stealing or by misbehaviour. This is also a product of that same desire for vengeance, and the emotion is felt strongly and collectively.

The crowd takes offence even when it is not the victim, and feels entitled to join in handing out punishment. Mobs form dangerously quickly on the subcontinent and carry with them a primitive like-mindedness, which makes them lethal. In 2012, Frontline magazine reported that 14 judges sent an appeal to the president seeking his intervention to commute the death sentences of 13 convicts in various jails. The report said that the judges “have appealed to the president because these 13 convicts were erroneously sentenced to death according to the Supreme Court’s own admission”.

The president was also told that two men had, in fact, been wrongly killed. Ravji Rao and Surja Ram, both from Rajasthan, had been executed on May 4, 1996 and April 7, 1997 after flawed judgments. Given this, it is remarkable that Indian politicians and media should be clamouring, as is obvious to any observer, not for clemency, but for execution. After the conviction of those accused in the infamous case of rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, CNN reported: “The same crowd outside the courthouse that cheered Friday’s death sentence for the four adults turned their ire on the juvenile. The crowd chanted, ‘Hang the juvenile’.”

It is incumbent on the state and the media to calm passions in a nation where this sort of thing happens. I would like to end by quoting from Shakespeare. We were taught to memorise these lines from Portia in “Merchant of Venice” without thinking in school. They make more sense to me as an adult. “The quality of mercy is not strained/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath/It is twice blessed/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2014.

Source: [last accessed 06.02.2015]

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