Three men sit on death row in an Indian jail, convicted of conspiring to kill an Indian politician over twenty years ago. That politician was Rajiv Gandhi, the country’s former prime minister, and then owner of the Congress Party. He was blown to pieces in May 1991 by a female suicide bomber belonging to the Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, at Sriperumbudur in South India while canvassing for an election he was expected to win.
|The suicide bomber waiting, in orange and green|
There wasn’t really ever a doubt about who was responsible; the LTTE had even laid on a photographer to take a video of the assassination, and he was accidentally killed by the explosion (and his cameras recovered, with photographic evidence). Some days later, the rest of the terrorist cell which had actually carried out the assassination was tracked down, and committed suicide when surrounded in a house. And the other members of the support network were arrested, 26 of them, and all condemned to death. As many as 22 of them had their sentences subsequently commuted to life imprisonment, one was pardoned because she was a woman and pregnant, and the other three had their final mercy petitions turned down by the president of the country, and their hanging (yes, India still hangs people to death – more about that in a moment) set for the 9th of September.
Only if you ignore the background.
Rajiv Gandhi came to power on the death of his mother, Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her own Sikh security guards, one of whom was subsequently killed, and the other (Satwant Singh) hanged along with his uncle Kehar (the latter, almost certainly a miscarriage of justice). Indira Gandhi was killed after she ordered the army to attack the most important shrine of the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, in order to flush out separatist Sikh terrorists who had turned it into a military base. Those Sikh terrorists had turned it into a military base because that self-same Indira Gandhi had earlier encouraged their leader, a fundamentalist Sikh preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, to start a violent separatist movement in order to destabilise the government of Punjab, which at that time was under the Akali Dal party, which was opposed to Gandhi’s Congress.
For days after the assassination, armed gangs led openly by Congress functionaries roamed through the streets of North Indian cities, murdering thousands of Sikhs and looting their businesses. Rajiv Gandhi, who took over as Indian Prime Minister on the evening of the murder, had only this to say: “When a big tree falls, the ground shakes.”
This same Rajiv Gandhi later sent Indian troops to Sri Lanka on a “peace-keeping mission”, in which they attacked the Tamil groups fighting the fascist Sri Lankan government of the time, acted as the sword arm of that same Sri Lankan government, and suffered such appalling casualties that by the time they had withdrawn in defeat three years later, the government had long since stopped divulging the casualty toll.
And that attack was the reason Rajiv Gandhi was blown apart by a Tamil girl suicide bomber on 21st May 1991, and why Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan are now on death row.
You understand, of course, to what I refer? Actions have consequences, and consequences have consequences. And while one condemns the criminal, one should remember that the victim might have had plenty of crimes to answer for, as well.
According to Indian law, the death penalty is reserved for the “rarest of the rare” cases. Of course, it’s up to the courts to decide which cases are the “rarest of the rare”, and few death sentences survive the appeals process, which goes through – at the least – two further courts and then the President for clemency.
Therefore, it’s kind of interesting to see which cases actually seem to qualify as the “rarest of the rare” to enough judges to merit the hangman's noose.
These three aren’t the only people on death row in India; there are many others. A lot of these have appeals pending, and others have mercy petitions pending as well. However, a look at them will show quite clearly that they fall into two distinct groups:
1. People from poor backgrounds, some of whom may be mentally ill, who can’t pay for proper legal representation, and may not even be guilty of the crime they’ve been condemned for. One recent case was a man from a village in Assam, who decapitated another man and promptly turned himself in to the police. A crime in the heat of the moment wouldn’t normally attract even life behind bars, don’t you think? This man got death.
2. People whose actions have a political dimension. If you’ve killed a politician, or if you’ve targeted a politician, or if the political class’ prestige has taken a hit due to your actions, you’re toast. You don’t even have to be guilty; as the Supreme Court of India said while condemning a man named Afzal Guru to death for plotting a suicide attack on the Indian parliament, the “collective conscience” of society demanded someone had to pay for the crime.
Meanwhile, if you’re rich or middle class, you can get away with pretty much anything, as long as your victims aren’t politicians or among the rich or famous. If you kill the poor, you’re home free. Certainly, you won’t hang, whatever happens to you. You can literally run over people with your swank car, and then hide the evidence, and you’ll get away with it. You can murder your girlfriend, chop her body into pieces, and cook her in the oven of a restaurant you own – and you won’t get a death sentence.
All that’s not the rarest of the rare, you bet.
The last man executed in India was a man named Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who was hanged in 2004 for the rape-murder of a girl named Hetal Parekh. Chatterjee was a poor man who worked as a security guard; Parekh was the daughter of upper-middle class parents who insisted on his hanging.
So? He was a brutal rapist-murderer, wasn’t he?
Well, I’m not saying Chatterjee was innocent. I am, however, pointing out that he was poor, unable to afford good legal representation, that the media unanimously supported the Parekh family (who were “people like us”) and piled on pressure for his execution – and that the execution neither brought Hetal Parekh back from the dead nor prevented any similar crimes. In fact, the hypocrisy of the entire thing was exposed within weeks when another man was sentenced to life for a crime virtually identical to Chatterjee’s – the only difference was that he was from an affluent background. If Chatterjee had been rich, or if he’d killed some labourer’s daughter, nothing like execution would have happened to him.
Remember also the fact that India still uses hanging as a method of execution. Now, hanging isn’t like a firing squad or like a gas chamber – it’s a fairly skilled job. If you give too little slack in the rope, your victim will strangle (actually, he usually does anyway, but he isn’t supposed to) slowly. If you leave too much rope, you might tear the poor character’s head off (I believe this happened to one of Saddam Hussein’s aides). Hanging’s not for amateurs.
Now, this is India, the land of castes, where each and every occupation has its own caste guilds. Hangmen are rather thin on the ground, and Dhanajoy Chatterjee’s executioner, Nata Mullick, was at the time an 84-year-old relic of the British era, when people got the noose if they looked at the white masters crossly. Mullick became a media celebrity, demonstrated on TV how he would tie the noose to hang Chatterjee, lamented that there were so few executions these days, and tried to wangle jobs for his family members in return for hanging Chatterjee.
All in all, it was a fairly pathetic performance, but the point is, hangmen are in such short supply that executions can become literally impossible due to a shortage of them – or be messed up totally and completely. If there has to be executions, I’d prefer to see something more humane, like a bullet to the back of the skull or something. But there are people who would call it too easy.
But to get back to the point – Rajiv Gandhi’s killer-helpers. They’ve been behind bars for twenty years, the crime itself is long in the past, and the very organisation which ordered his killing has been destroyed, its leader killed. Gandhi’s party, now in power, is reviled and hated by most Indians, and is certainly in charge of the most evil, incompetent, and corrupt government this nation has ever had, so bad that the previous Hindunazi government now evokes fond memories. If you ask the average Indian, they couldn’t give a flying eff whether Gandhi’s killers meet the noose after all these years or spend the rest of their lives in jail, especially as 22 of their alleged fellow conspirators have got that same sentence – and the heavens did not fall.
But, this being a political crime, politics have been thrown into the mix. So, the politicians of the state of Tamil Nadu have unanimously demanded that the three convicted men (all Tamils) be granted clemency, and their hanging has been postponed eight weeks while the politicians wrangle. Quite logically, the government of Kashmir has asked why it can’t similarly demand a reprieve for Afzal Guru, who happens to be Kashmiri. Of course, Guru is a Muslim, which means the Hindunazis are already up in arms against any such proposal.
I predict that the current owner of the Congress Party, Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia, will try and show a “liberal” face by joining in asking for the sentences for the three to be commuted; her party’s credibility is in the crapper, and she needs every single bit of cred she can get. Whatever happens to them, the final arbiter will be politics – not justice.
These, then, are the reasons I’m against the death penalty, as exemplified by this case – quite apart from the fact that the innocent can be killed, and nobody can give them their lives back:
1. It selectively targets the poor;
2. It puts a premium on the status of the victim as to what punishment is given;
3. It leaves it entirely up to the judges to decide which case attracts the death penalty and which doesn’t;
4. It’s carried out so many years later that all concept of “justice” can be thrown in the dustbin;
5. It uses a cruel and unusual method, very prone to going wrong;
6. It has no deterrent effect (just as hanging Indira Gandhi’s killers didn’t stop Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination);
7. It ends up as a political football to be kicked around by different parties; and
8. It leaves the victims' own crimes unacknowledged, let alone unpunished.
As for Justice...well, they hanged her already, didn’t they?