My opposition to the death penalty at times lead to opposition to some death sentences pronounced by my late father

news Tuesday, August 04, 2015 - 05:30
  It is difficult to take a somewhat contrarian view in the aftermath of the recent Yaqub Memon affair. I say somewhat as I am in tandem with the majority view that he was guilty of the heinous crime, he was convicted and sentenced for. I have been through the papers relating to the case as it was presented before the Supreme Court and am not at all convinced that there was any denial of justice to Memon. Quite frankly, I find the covert slur on the judicial system deeply offensive. One might argue why in that case am I taking a contrarian position. There are a number of reasons for this which bear serious adumbration. The first is whether Memon was given any solemn assurance by the intelligence officials that he would be spared the gallows. It has been repeatedly argued that no such reassurance was brought to the attention of any court where his case had been argued either at the trial stage or at the appellate stage. And that happens to be true. The first occasion we heard about such a deal was when the highly respected intelligence official B.Raman's observations were published after his death. Raman enjoyed a very high degree of credibility in his profession and I would have liked the government to make a categorical statement that what he had claimed was untrue. None was forthcoming. Besides we have also got to remember that extrajudicial assurances are a matter of executive domain independent of any judicial process. There are glaring precedents - the dreaded dacoits of the Chambal ravines had surrendered before Jayaprakash Narayan in 1972 specifically on an assurance of this nature which JP had obtained from the government when one of the dacoit's representative had approached him with a desire to surrender. And JP was not even a part of the governmental process! The question that arises here is whether the intelligence officials are authorized to make such an assurance. Here I am reminded of what the late Ben Bradlee, the doyen of the American journalism had once said. According to him, more than three fourth of the intelligence activities would fall foul of the statute in the United States as no realistic intelligence gathering could take place within the confines of law. I still vividly recall how a secret CIA handbook had been published in the 1980's which revealed the methodology frequently employed by the organization. This is not the place to go into details but some of the techniques deemed acceptable to CIA would probably send the Mafia to shame. I have no reason to believe that the Indian intelligence gathering is completely free from these shortcomings. We know for instance how several IRA terrorists were lured by the intelligence agencies to betray their organization and provided new identities to lead new lives. It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility that intelligence officials in India could have lured Memon on assurances which probably did not find mention in the official documents. All that was needed was a categorical denial from the government that this did not happen. The next point which bears scrutiny is that death sentence is the only logical penalty for proven terrorism. It is here that I would register my strongest disagreement. I have had the misfortune of having observed intense terrorism from very close quarters when I lived in Ireland in the late 1970's. There were bomb blasts every day and thousands of innocent people lost their lives. Europa Hotel in Belfast was the most bombed hotel in the world. Armoured vehicles were to be seen at every nook and corner.Belfast hospitals had the most sophisticated and best casualty services in the world. Practically everyday there were grieving family members who needed intense counseling - which is where my specialty was called upon. The antagonism between the two communities would seem surreal now to the present generation. I recall a bunch of terrorists walking into a Protestant church and gun down several of the congregation involved in prayers. I recall George Cartwright, a political leader with a religiously inclined party (DUP) declaring that he would like to buy a big incinerator to take care of the Catholics! That of course only played into the hands of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein, the political party that sympathized with it. Coincidentally I was in Galway, only a stone's throw from Sligo, when Lord Louis Mountbatten was blown up by a bomb along with his 13 year-old grandson. Mountbatten being one of the most respected international figures, the Irish police worked overtime and arrested Thomas McMahon and Francis McGirl, provisional IRA men who were convicted. The important point to emphasize here is that not once was the issue of death penalty (which had been abolished in Ireland) was ever considered. It would also be important to mention the present state of affairs in Ireland. Terrorism is a thing of the past over there after the Good Friday agreement. Even more important is to point out that the two main adversaries during the troubles times, Sinn Fein and the DUP (which consumed two entire generations), are partners in governance today - something I never thought I would be able to witness in my lifetime. In other words, it is factually incorrect to state that in no part of the world has terrorism been brought under control without the death penalty. Arun Jaitley faltered on this count in his interview with Karan Thapar. It is a myth that to deal with terrorism capital punishment is a must. The Irish can readily attest to that. What is needed is an honest political will, honest determination and a sense of direction. I recall ex PM John Major very warmly and effusively compliment his fiercest rival Tony Blair when he worked out a peace deal. Can that happen in the fractured polity that we witness in India today where putting your opponents through discomfiture is the only aim of those in politics? The last point that needs to be rebutted is opposition to death penalty necessarily implies tolerance of terrorism. This is a canard unsupported by any facts but still lives on as it has not been effectively rebutted. The Irish experience which I have cited here is more than enough to give a lie to this pernicious and jingoistic jargon. For the record, my opposition to death penalty is purely on philosophical grounds relying heavily on the postulates of Jonathan Glover, the greatest moral philosopher we have today. Part of his thoughts emerged in some of the better debates we witnessed after this event.  My opposition to the death penalty at times lead to opposition to some death sentences pronounced by my late father, a senior judge who believed firmly that a proven first degree murder deserved no mercy. And yes, I have lost two of my friends (one a medical colleague's 26 year old pregnant wife) in the Irish troubles. Their families still live in that part of the world and not once was there any demand from them for restoration of the death penalty. It is with this background I venture to call for the abolition of this medieval punishment from the statute. It is up to the legislators to exercise their discretion. We must remember that the vast majority of the British population still wants hanging to be restored but the legislators acting on a conscience vote have rejected it overwhelmingly, on at least four occasions. The great judge Lord Denning who fiercely opposed the abolition of capital punishment when it was being debated changed his opinion 20 years later and openly urged the legislators to reject it when it came up for voting. Those are the facts we have to near in mind.  
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