23 April 2024 03:45 AM


Ashok Jahnavi Prasad | 26 JULY, 2015

ToHang or Not to Hang

As a rule, I have tended to desist commenting on any controversy that surrounds an impending death penalty. My position as a social activist against capital punishment goes back more than four decades. On a personal level,it often placed me in embarrassing positions-my late father, a senior judicial figure who had actually pronounced the judgement in the landmark Kotra murder case, firmly believed that a proven case of first degree murder merited no mercy and there were occasions when I had to campaign against his judgements.

Needless to say that this penchant often lead to charges of being 'chicken hearted'; unfairly in my view! I genuinely believed and still maintain that death penalty by itself does not lead to an enhancement of collective satisfaction within the society. Even when statistics are touted to prove that crime figures in Saudi Arabia are much lower than most of the European countries, I tend to argue that the satisfaction quotient in the Western European countries is higher without even indulging in a debate on whether these comparisions are valid given the contextual dissonance between the two societies.It must also be remembered that in the United States, the provinces which have abolished the death penalty have consistently shown lower crime figures than the ones that still retain it.

However I have accepted the position that as long as the highest court in the lands believes that capital punishment is a valid and legal constitutional provision, it can be exercised and it is a matter of some solace to note that the Court has ruled that it should be pronounced only in the rarest of rare cases which has resulted in a dramatic fall in the instnces where the sentence is carried out.

Let me state at the outset that I am revolted at what Yaqub Memon has done! The Supreme Court has found him guilty and I would much rather go by its version rather than the version put forward by the parties with vested interests. While Asaduddin Owaisi seems to harbour a perverse belief that a non-Muslim is inherently opposed to any meting out of justice to Muslims,there are others who covertly or overtly harbour alarming antipathy towards Muslims which exceeds any humanitarian threshold and allows them to enter the most pernicious stereotypes. We can expect a reaction from them to Owaisi in very near future.

I would tend to ignore these ill-informed and motivated rantings and treat them with contempt that they rightfully deserve. My opposition in this particular case perhaps may have been motivated by my opposition to capital punishment but it mainly on an issue that is far more fundamental i.e. the sanctity of the commitment made by the government officials on behalf of the state .

There have been suggestions that Memon actually surrendered and that a commitment was given to him that he would be dealt with leniently if he cooperated with the law enforcers in India. The late B.Raman was an intelligence officer of repute and an arch nationalist. His letter which has just been revealed by the rediff.com makes some very pointed statements. Madhu Trehan, the current Editor of Newslaundry ( a portal where until recently I penned columns) who was the only journalist to have interviewed Memon, in a recent interview w, described Memon as someone who was not believable but admitted that she came back not being very sure whether he had actually surrendered or was nabbed the the police. If he had indeed voluntarily surrendered, then it is reasonable to entertain an iota of doubt that there had been some plea bargaining in the process. Raman is on the mark when he states that one of the prices we have to pay for being a democracy is to honour the commitment the state makes even to a supremely undesirable person like Memon.

To the best of my knowledge , the government has not given a categorical assurance that such plea bargaining was not a part of any deal. Doubts have been sown in many minds including my own and for the sake of the credibility of the Indian justice system , a response from the Indian government is necessary.

There are those who have commented that an undertaking of this nature has never been given by India at any time. I would counter that by stating that they have forgotten history. In the early 1970's when the Chambal ravines were dangerously infested with the most murderous dacoits who had ,according to those times, unbelievably high bounties on their heads. Mohar Singh carried a bounty of Rupees 2 lacs ( the equivalent figure would be in crores today). It was another dacoit Madhosingh (carrying a bounty of Rupees 1.5 lacs) who approached Jayaprakash Narayan expressing a desire among his fellow criminal to surrender. JP made it plain that they would have to pay for their transgressions but gave them only one undertaking -that they would not be sentto gallows.

JP did not represent the state and was giving them this assurance purely in his personal capacity of a person who carried some moral authority. The government of the day agreed. Vast number of dacoits voluntarily emerged from the Chambal ravines and laid down their weapons. They were taken into custody and tried. But as the state had given an undertaking, not a single one of them was sentenced to death.

My point in this adumbration is that there are precedents when death penalty has been withheld because of some state undertaking. The whole point is whether that was the case here. If so , much to many people's regret, we would have to settle for life imprisonment.

But again did this actually happen! We wait for an answer from the government!