For those Indians who oppose the death penalty – and they are in good numbers, cutting across barriers of class, caste, religion, region or language – 21 November 2012 was a horrific day. India’s cowardly government put to death Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, a 25-year-old Pakistani, the sole survivor of the 2008 attacks on the western Indian city of Bombay in which nearly 170 people were killed and more than 300 injured, with no prior public discussion and absolutely no announcement.
The state-sanctioned killing of the convict came days, nay hours, after the natural death in Bombay of Bal Thackeray, an openly xenophobic leader of Shiv Sena, an outfit that is part mafia and part political party and widely believed to have been behind the killings of thousands of people in the city and other parts of Maharashtra state in western India – mostly Muslims and large numbers of South Indians and others – and whose death drew routine expressions of condolences from official India. Official India said his death was an “irreparable loss”., His body was draped in the national flag and given a 21-gun salute.
This speaks of the abject cynicism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government and of a society large parts of which bay for the blood of religious minorities engaged in alleged terrorist activities but looks askance at what ought to be labelled crimes against humanity by Hindu fanatics.
Ajmal Kasab’s killing came within hours of India joining Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and other recalcitrant states in opposing a United Nations resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty (passed with 110 states supporting and 39 opposing).
The execution also came a day after a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India made some confusing pronouncements on the issue: it said – correctly – that the Court’s now 32-year-old precept of handing down the death penalty in the “rarest of rare cases” was being differently applied by different judges (in other words, these judges were playing with human lives, albeit the lives of convicted criminals). But bizarrely, it went on to bar the authorities from granting sentence remissions.
Hardly any major Indian politician has voiced opposition to the execution of Ajmal Kasab. A man who goes by the name of Anna Hazare (‘Anna’ being a kind of assumed or conferred honorific) and who claims to be a Gandhian (but has displayed Robespierrean tendencies) and who whipped up a mass anti-corruption frenzy a little over a year ago but whose movement has now gone to seed, reportedly said: “It's taken too long to hang Kasab. He should have been hanged in public (chauraha – street corner). A public hanging of Kasab would have been a lesson for anybody who causes loss of life in our country.”
That a majority of Indians supports the death penalty is undeniable, just as a majority of the citizens of the United States does. But US surveys have shown that support for the death penalty drops when people are presented with the choice of life term in jail without parole. Such surveys are badly needed in India too.
During the term of India’s former ceremonial president, Pratibha Patil, no execution took place. Before she left office, a certain number of commutations were announced, but whether they were the result of the administration waking up to long-neglected files or whether Ms Patil took an anti-death penalty stand is yet to be ascertained.
Until 21 November 2012, there had been no officially declared execution in India for eight years (the Indian state’s dastardly extrajudicial killing capacity is a wholly different issue). Pranab Mukherji as president has started his term with a heinous decision. It can only be hoped that President Mukherji will show a modicum of backbone in future and look a little more closely at the files put to him for rubber-stamping.
The previous official execution in India, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, happened following a campaign mounted by the wife of the then West Bengal state chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a Marxist whose party otherwise waxes eloquent on human rights.
Will the next state-sponsored killing be that of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man thought to have been wrongly convicted in connection with the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament? (“Thought to have been” because Nandita Haksar has made a credible case to that effect.)
One last word regarding the predicament of those opposed to capital punishment, especially those hammering away at it for years, if not decades: The arguments in favour of abolition and those against are familiar. But what renders difficult the work of those opposing the death penalty is the crucial aspect of human ingenuity in framing objections in novel ways, with novel words, references, similes, metaphors and allusions.
It makes the anti-death penalty campaigners think.
But what is frustrating is that some (the word used here is “some”, which, in the absence of a scientific survey can stand for anywhere between a “few” to “many” or “several”) opponents of the death penalty display such zeal in voicing their opinions that all too often they give the impression of not having read or heard the arguments being presented to them. (It takes a few seconds to digest a certain number of sentences and it ought to take several more and in fact minutes to open an internet link or links cited, especially those running into hundreds or thousands of pages of text. But when pat comes a reply – often repetitive or tangential – it becomes clear that a monologue, a rant, is on, not a dialogue.)
Those who have the patience to read arguments in favour of the death penalty are honourable exceptions. Their counter-arguments are cordially invited for a democratic dialogue.