Why capital punishment will continue in India

Notwithstanding the efforts made by the saffron lobby to pretend that Yakub Memon’s religion had nothing to do with his hanging, the belief that the two are inextricably linked will not fade away. As a matter of fact, Tripura Governor Tathagata Roy, who was a member of the BJP before being chosen for the Raj Bhavan post, can be said to have let the cat out of the bag by saying that those who opposed Memon’s hanging were potential terrorists.

The governor’s “insight” underlines two points. One is an inability of the follower of a semi-fascist ideology to understand the norms of a democracy, where it is allowed to hold views contrary not only to what the government says but even what the judiciary may pronounce.

Moreover, the governor seems to believe that it is only Memon’s co-religionists who were against the punishment meted out to him. But, there were many others, including Hindus, who petitioned the president against the execution. Surely, as a true saffronite, the governor would not like to categorize these Hindus as potential terrorists.

His target, therefore, was obviously the Muslims, which is in keeping with the standard Hindutva view that although not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims. It is but one step to go from identifying only a particularly community with terrorism to insinuate that all its members are potential terrorists.

Incidentally, this blinkered outlook ignores the role of Hindu terrorists during the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam in the 1980s with which the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was associated, and in Sri Lanka, one of whom belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The involvement of Hindutva supporters has also been seen in acts of terrorism such as the blasts in 2007 in the Samjhauta Express running between India and Pakistan. The train was travelling to Lahore, which was why there were many Muslims aboard. There were 68 deaths. There are other such cases of Hindu terrorism as well about which a public prosecutor has said that she has been asked by those in authority to go slow on them.

The controversy over Memon related less to his culpability than to the belief that he may have surrendered to the Indian police and, as such, should be seen as an approver and, therefore, not sentenced to death. A newspaper article quoting a former Indian intelligence official fuelled this speculation, but since no definite conclusion was reached about whether Memon had surrendered or had been caught by the Nepal police and handed over to the Indian authorities, the execution went ahead as planned.

What was remarkable about the episode was the protracted judicial process which preceded the 7.35 a.m. hanging. The fact that the Supreme Court was in session till only about two hours before the death sentence was carried out would long be a matter of judicial and political history.

Not surprisingly, Memon’s fate had revived the debate about whether India should follow other “civilized” countries in banning capital punishment. There has been a large measure of support for such an initiative. But, two factors have made its implementation difficult.

One is the continuing threat of terrorism from Pakistan and the fact that suicide bombers sneak in from across the border from time to time, as in Gurdaspur in Punjab recently, to kill at random. One such killer, Ajmal Kasab, was caught alive during the November 26-29, 2008, Mumbai murder and mayhem by Pakistani terrorists. He was hanged in 2012. It is obvious that as long as these acts of terror continue, it will be extremely difficult for any Indian government to ban capital punishment.

The other deterrent is the continuing incidents of rape. As may be expected, there is widespread fear as well as revulsion about these incidents, which were seen at its most intense following the gang rape of a young medical student in Delhi in 2012.

As long as these two factors vitiate the Indian scene, judicial executions will continue even if the Supreme Court has said that it will be exercised in the rarest or rare cases. It is possible, however, that while rapists may escape the maximum punishment, the Pakistani terrorists will not. Nor will home-grown ones like Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013.

The BJP is making a mistake, however, by allegedly going slow on suspected Hindu terrorists and by insinuating that they were arrested by the former Congress-led government at the centre to curry favour with the Muslims.

By articulating this line, Home Minister Rajnath Singh is bringing the question of religious affinity back into these criminal cases, which can make the BJP’s detractors say that Memon’s execution was at least partly due to his being a Muslim.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have succeeded to a considerable extent in curbing the Hindutva hotheads who are longer indulging in their provocative ghar wapsi (home coming) and love jehad antics to urge Muslims to return to their “original” faith of Hinduism and accusing Muslim youths of wooing and marrying Hindu girls in order to convert them to Islam.

But the prime minister is yet to ensure that people like Rajnath Singh and Tathagata Roy do not revive memories of RSS supremo Guru Golwalkar’s (1906-73) categorization of Muslims as “internal enemies”.

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