By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Every high-profile execution in India is invariably preceded by loud and fervent debates on the pluses and minuses of such state-sponsored killing. This is the case with Yakub Memon, the accused mastermind of the 1993 serial Mumbai blasts that left about 350 people dead and 1000-odd wounded or maimed for life.

Memon is likely to hang on July 30. The scheduled execution is stirring deep resentment insofar as India, a country where Mahatma Gandhi once propagated non-violence, is included in a shrinking group of nations that still sends men to the gallows.

India’s Supreme Court has given the go-ahead for the hanging. The President of India has rejected his appeal for mercy, and if Memon’s last-ditch petition for a review of the death penalty is turned down as well, he will be hanged in a prison in Maharashtra.

Yakub Memon
Yakub Memon

Strangely, of the 11 convicted in the 1993 Mumbai explosions, the sentences of 10 have been commuted to life. Only Memon will walk to his death. Stranger by far is the fact that only Muslims convicted of similar crimes have been executed. In 2012, Ajmal Kasab, one of the 10 killers sent into India by Pakistan’s ISI and Lashkar-e-Toiba to kill innocent men and women in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, was executed. Three months later, Afzal Guru, found guilty of being part of the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament, was also hanged and with unfeeling haste. His family was not allowed to meet him one last time.

However, one other terrorist, whose crime was as heinous as Kasab’s and Guru’s, is still living — though he is on death row. Balwant Singh Rajona, who assassinated a former Chief Minister of Punjab, Beant Singh, was spared the death penalty after political pressure was applied. And what’s more, three Sri Lankan men — Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan — who masterminded the murder of one of India’s most charismatic prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi — escaped the gallows after their sentences were commuted by the Supreme Court, because it found that their mercy petitions had been delayed too long. The Tamil Nadu Government of India’s Tamil Nadu state, which is brazenly sympathetic to Sri Lankan Tamils (language being a cementing force), pulled strings to let these three convicts live.

1993 Mumbai bombing scene
1993 Mumbai bombing scene

It is apparent that unlike Rajona or the three Sri Lankans, Kasab or Guru or Memon, do not enjoy political support or popular sympathy. So Kasab and Guru died. Memon too may not live.

This brings us to a larger and extremely vexing question of the relevance of capital punishment. Throughout history, there have been protests against what many decried as “a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye” policy. Even in the 15th century, when Joan of Arc was accused of being a heretic and burnt alive, there were murmurs of dissent. Five centuries later, when the Vatican canonized her, it seemed too late to right a wrong.

Ever since those times, there have been innumerable instances of men and women escaping the noose before it did its work. A 1987 study found that 350 people condemned to die in the US between 1900 and 1985 were actually innocent. Most lived, but 23 lost their lives.

Sadly, despite several UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, many countries still have this barbaric law on their statute books. The US is one, and along with China, Indonesia and India, still puts men to death. What is worse is that 60% of the world’s population live in these regions. One need not even talk about Saudi Arabia or Japan where capital punishment is frequently carried out.

It goes without saying that in a nation like India notorious for a corrupt judiciary and poor policing, errors of judgment are quite possible. Added to this, we have a community divided on caste and class lines. As one US Supreme Court judge said famously, capital punishment is for those without capital. It is no different in India, where life can be bought with money, and life is lost for want of money.

Although India applies the death penalty “only in the rarest of rare cases,” there can be no denying that such punishment is no deterrent. Many, many studies have proven that the death sentence has never cut down the number of capital crimes. Some American states did away with the electric chair, but found no significant rise in murders or rapes. And when they reintroduced it, there was no drop in major misdemeanors.

In fact, how do you prevent a crime of passion? No law can stave it off. Is it possible to stop a suicide bomber in his tracks — pushed as he is into a murderous mission by religious fanaticism or an intolerant partisan view? Indeed, advocating death under government supervision may be as foolish as suggesting that stockpiling nuclear weapons serves as a safeguard for peace.

Certainly, India and the others must understand that capital punishment has no place in a civilized society, and administrations must also realize that modern dilemmas and contradictions must be resolved with dignity, and not through easier options like the noose or poison prick.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with two of India’s best regarded daily newspapers, The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years, and who now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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