This Article is From Jul 30, 2015

Lessons From The Yakub Memon Execution

L'affaire Yakub Memon has come to an end. The 1993 Mumbai blasts convict met the end that the state had decided for him. Many would like to believe that it's the end of the argument that kept India engaged and enthralled for at least the last week. There were sharp opinions on both sides of the debate. There were doubts raised over the conviction, the death sentence, on whether Yakub deserved mercy or not. There was also a very strong philosophical argument against the capital punishment per se. All this fits well in the democratic scheme of things. 

But Yakub's hanging should not be the end of the argument. The episode has thrown a bunch of questions for India as a collective. No matter what side of the debate one is on, one must confront these questions so that the country reaches some consensus.

First and foremost is the question of the death penalty itself. At a time when there is a growing call against against capital punishment, India cannot be oblivious to the strong arguments in favour of abolishing of death sentence. But till we arrive at a consensus, we as a country need to chalk out a clear SOP (standard operating procedure) on how to deal with the death sentence once it is meted out to a convict. Our experience till now is not very comforting. Primarily because of the narrow, regional and religious colours that is usually acquired by the debate around the convict. 

It's easy to demonise Asaduddin Owaisi for raking up Yakub's religion while calling for commuting the sentence. But let's settle down a bit and look at the reasons for Owaisi's rant. He has not imagined this "discrimination in death". The cases of Rajiv Gandhi's killers and two death row convicts in Punjab - Bhullar and Rajoana - one accused of assassinating former Chief Minister Beant Singh, are not figments of Mr Owaisi's imagination. In both cases, political parties openly rallied behind the terrorists. It's only fair to ask if Yakub could have avoided execution if some political party in power openly backed him by passing resolutions in one or more state assemblies.
There is also the question of how  mercy petitions of death row convicts are dealt with by the office of the President. While the President is supposed to act on the advice of Home Ministry, it is clear that the government is guided by its own beliefs on the philosophical and moral issue of handing out death sentences. So we have a situation where, for many years, Presidents just refused to take a decision on mercy pleas. President Kalam dispensed just two, accepting one and rejecting one, in his 5 years in office. His predecessor K R Narayanan didn't decide even a single mercy plea during his tenure. Kalam's successor Pratibha Patil never rejected a clemency petition, while commuting about 30 death sentences to life. President Pranab seems okay with sending people to the gallows - he has sanctioned three executions.

Again it's a fair question to ask if  Yakub would have lived  if his  petition had gone to Pratibha Patil.

So there is a need to streamline the process of dealing with the mercy pleas. If need be, fix a timeframe for Presidents to dispense the clemency petitions. 

To be fair, in the case of Yakub Memon, the process of execution has been completely above board. The procedure was followed as stated in the books. The Supreme Court sat through the night to hear the last-ditch attempt of Yakub's lawyers. And after the execution, the body was handed over to the family for a burial. Whatever one's view may be on the trial and facts that came to light later, one cannot fault the system here in the way the execution was handled. Contrast it with the way the UPA hanged Afzal Guru. It was a classic case of cheating a man in his death. 

But there is an urgent need to keep politics at bay in matters of executions. Let it purely be a process of law is. Akali Dal and the Dravidian Parties should not be allowed to play the judge. No one should make political capital of a death sentence. Here, the BJP stands in the dock. Akalis are their allies in Punjab and Mr Modi counts Ms Jayalalithaa among good friends. What kind of tough message does it send to the country on this government's will to fight terror? Selective toughness is not going to go a long way. 

There are important lessons for India in the events of last couple of weeks. An execution cannot be made into an issue of victory or defeat. It cannot and should not be turned in to media spectacle, a sort of national celebration. An execution, no matter how undignified the word may sound, has to be conducted (if it has to be conducted) in a very dignified manner. Differing opinions are the life blood of any democracy. No divergent view should be painted into an "Us vs Them" corner. 

Selective outrage will only lead to assuaging of a selective conscience. Let there be a collective outrage on all injustices and a demand for that collective conscience to be satisfied.

(Mohd Asim is Senior News Editor, NDTV 24x7)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.