Ajmal Kasab was only the second man in the past 17 years to have been sent to the gallows.
The recent execution of 25-year-old Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist who along with nine others went on a killing spree in Mumbai in November 2008, has once again brought capital punishment into focus.
If there are strong lobbyists for the death sentence, there is an equally formidable section vociferously campaigning against it.
Admittedly, the Indian judicial system prefers life over death. Even though there are over 300 convicts in the country’s jails condemned to death, Kasab was only the second man in the past 17 years to have been sent to the gallows, and the first in eight years after the security guard, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, was hanged in August 2004 at Kolkata.
Among the high-profile convicts facing the noose are the three killers of Rajiv Gandhi (one of India’s most charismatic prime ministers), Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. The fourth, Nalini Murugan, has had her sentence commuted to life term, Gandhi’s widow Sonia herself being instrumental in this pardon.
The other important convicts facing capital punishment are Afzal Guru, who attacked India’s Parliament in December 2001, and the Babbar Khalsa terrorist, Balwant Singh Rajaona.
Kasab and his men killed no fewer than 166 people, turning the country’s financial capital into a bloody mess. Obviously, when he was taken alive – the only one to have been, with the rest of his gang being gunned down by security forces – there were widespread demands that he be summarily shot dead.
India did not do that and judiciously followed the process of law, even allowing Kasab to petition the country’s president for clemency at the last minute.
Yet, capital punishment can only be viewed as medieval and barbaric where the state assumes the right to kill a man. Beyond this are some hard facts. The fear of death hardly ever serves as a deterrent for even some of the most heinous of crimes.
Many, many studies conducted the world over have concluded this, by showing examples of how there had not been any considerable rise or fall in capital crime between practising and abolitionist countries.
What is a far bigger worry in a country like India, deeply divided on political, class, caste and religious lines, is that a grave miscarriage of justice is well within the realm of possibility.
The wrong man could be sent to the gallows, and this has happened even in America. There have been times in that country when an innocent man has been spared death in the nick of time. Or, someone not guilty has been on the electric chair.
Cruellest form of justice
So when India’s pro-life group – which includes such eminent people as senior Supreme Court counsel Colin Gonsalves, former Supreme Court justices AK Ganguly and KT Thomas, lawyer Vinay Naidoo and former chief justice of the Delhi High Court Rajendra Sachar – argue for the abolition of the death sentence, it makes sense all right.
Till date, 140 countries have done away with capital punishment. Even Ireland which saw murder and mayhem by the Irish Republican Army has.
India along with America, China and Japan still believe in the noose or the electric chair.
However, India sends a convict to the gallows only in the rarest of rare cases, and this is seen as a positive move towards a capital punishment-free judicial process.
In fact, the number of executions in India fell drastically after the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the death penalty must be given only in the rarest of rare cases. The court was then delivering a landmark verdict in the Bachchan Singh vs State of Punjab case.
But then even this principle of “rarest of rare cases” could have its flaws, because the decision will rest on the conclusion of a judge. He could always err.
In the case of Kasab, there were a few factors against his death sentence. He was only 21 when he committed the crime and was probably a victim of skewed religious faith and ideology, pushed and provoked into believing that killing was the solution.
Some days before Kasab’s execution, The Economist had written that “given India’s progress towards a moratorium on capital punishment, the case of Ajmal Kasab’s death penalty is a big test for India and that it would be a brave Indian who demands that he is spared”.
There was not just one Indian, but many Indians who thought – and continue to think – that death sentence was the cruellest form of justice, and must be abolished.
FMT columnist Gautaman Bhaskaran and the daily newspaper, The Hindu, he worked in for 25 years, and where he wrote editorials, have always campaigned against capital punishment. He may be contacted at [email protected]