The death penalty cannot be selective

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 28, 2014 12:18 hrs

Over the past couple of weeks, the flurry over the fate of the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case has confused me. To read the headlines, one would think the law operated entirely on the whims of politicians.

I am not entirely sure how I feel about the idea of capital punishment. There are some crimes so heinous and some criminals so hardened that one does think the world could do without them. One way of keeping society safe from them, and punishing them – perhaps more severely than by giving them a martyr’s death – would be to keep them imprisoned for life. But, in India, a ‘life sentence’ could be served in as little as ten years.

To say that no one has the right to take away the life of an individual does not entirely cut ice with me, because the death sentence is only awarded in the case of particularly brutal, calculated murders, committed by the individual in question – an individual who decided he or she had the right to take away another life.

However, what troubles me most about the treatment of the three men headed for the noose in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case – Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan – is that they are being hailed as martyrs, and that their families are being glorified for keeping the fight against the death sentence alive. 

The fact is, the three men have been spared not because they were found to be innocent, or that their crimes were reassessed to be of a milder nature than originally thought, but because of an ‘inordinate delay’ in their mercy petitions being considered.

Now, even as Jayalalithaa calls for the release of not just these three, but four other accused who are serving life terms in prison – Nalini, Robert Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran – there are other questions being raised across the country.

Predictably, the reaction from Kashmir is: Why was Afzal Guru hanged, if these men are to be spared?

The commutation of the death sentence for the three convicts will crop up again, in the context of Khalistani militants on death row.

There is no doubt that it is a cruel punishment to live through an entire decade, not knowing whether one will be condemned to die, or given a second chance. However, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan are not the first inmates on death row to have had to go through that.

One of the principles that is enshrined in the idea of a democracy is that all its citizens are treated equally. If that is the case, how does it make sense for the death penalty to be upheld or revoked depending on political pressure?

I find it extremely disturbing that these convicts may be released. They will be released to a heroes’ welcome. Even among the Twitterati, the acknowledged intelligentsia of our society, there appears to be an opinion that they have suffered enough.

Too often, I have heard or read that Perarivalan “did nothing but buy batteries”. Surely, he did not think he was being asked to buy batteries for a toy train?

It is for the courts to decide on appeals in murder trials. Within a stipulated time frame, it is up to the President. Occasionally, state and central governments are given the power to intercede. When the mechanism is guided by the book, or by a strong sense of logic and justice, it makes sense. However, when the course of the law is channelled by politics, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Our country has paid, and will continue to pay, a price for creating vote banks. These banks have deepened caste and communal fissures. We are divided by religion, language, heritage, and an entire grid of markers of our identity. If the creation of Telangana is anything to go by, it doesn’t take long for these psychological divisions to become geographical divisions.

When politicians turn to populist measures in every department within their control, it is bound to lead to resentment from certain quarters.

In a democracy, there can be no justification for any two people accused of the same crime to be treated unequally. Under these circumstances, how can the death penalty be selective?

If one man placed on death row for plotting to attack the sovereignty of the nation is to be hanged, how can another man placed on death row for plotting to attack a former Prime Minister be deemed a hero?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on