Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Rajiv Killers and The Death Penalty Debate

Michel Foucault in "Discipline and Punish:The Birth of the Prison" recounts in grisly detail the execution of Damiens, convicted of regicide, on March 2nd 1757. Torture is a mild word. Reading the details would churn our stomachs. A sample. "the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red hot pincers, his right hand burned with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead". The details continue for three pages.  US constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment". The journey towards that is a mark of civilization and it comes to a head on a pivotal question of what to do with a heinous criminal? What is just and humane punishment?

What are we to do with a killer who kills a defenseless child in the most gruesome manner? Can any parent forgive such a criminal? What are we to do with a Timothy McVeigh, executed for Oklohoma city bombing, whose intent was to kill innocent people including children? What are we to do with Satwant  Singh and Beant Singh who mercilessly unloaded several rounds of ammunition on an unarmed woman who had entrusted her own safety to them? What are we to do when a supposedly innocent Kehar Singh gets executed along with Satwant Singh?

Whether its US or India death penalty is not handed down lightly. Its reserved for the rarest of the rare cases and where the guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Recently all of USA was riveted watching the Casey Anthony murder case involving a mom accused of killing her two year old child. The jury came to a gut wrenching decision that Casey's guilt was not proved beyond doubt. Casey was acquitted, like O.J.Simpson, on all counts. The last time death penalty received wide notice in India was when a rapist who killed a child was hanged in Calcutta. Note, that none of the objectors today in Tamil Nadu voiced any note of protest other than the usual protests by liberals.

The case involving Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan has come to a climax after 21 years. 21 years ago Rajiv Gandhi, ex-PM and possible next PM of India, was murdered gruesomely by LTTE thugs. Without going into conspiracy theories around who else was involved lets just say that the key murderers are all dead (Sivarasan, Subha, Thanu, Pottu Amman and Prabakaran himself). As the murder trial wound its way to the Supreme court finally 4 were sentenced to death. To add drama one pair, Nalini and Murugan, gave birth to a child in captivity. Both were sentenced to death. This created ripples amongst legal circles and human rights activists. The Indian state faced prospect of 'creating' an orphan. Sonia Gandhi and her children out of great magnanimity decided to pardon the mother. When Nalini filed her mercy petition thanks to Sonia's forgiveness it was accepted. The remaining three petitions, as per then CM Karunanidhi's cabinet decision, was rejected. 

Neither me nor anybody other than those connected directly with the trial can say with any certainty about the merits of the case. However we all opine from what we learn through media reports, online sources etc. With that background one can safely conclude that Perarivalan, especially, had a very tangential role if at all. As is usual in India he was tortured mercilessly and made to sign papers. Arrested as a 19 year old he has languished in prison for 21 years. As a 40 year old he now faces the gallows on Sep 9th unless the High Court gives him reprieve tomorrow. Even if one were to ignore the confessions procured by torture and accepts his guilt his crime does not befit the punishment. He stands on par with Kehar Singh who was accused of being a co-conspirator in the Indira assassination case. Santhan's case appears to be more confused involving mistaken identity. Essentially in both of their cases their guilt is very circumstantial at best and at worst fabricated by the police. Seen either way it would be a gross miscarriage of justice to send them to the gallows.

The case against Nalini and Murugan appears to be more genuine. This is reflected in the current agitations clamoring for the release or commutation of death sentence for the trio. Most arguments start off with Perarivalan's coerced confessions, muddled proofs of Santhan and then reluctantly proceeds to include Murugan. When the arguments come to Murugan they take on more specious tones. That he has spent 21 years in prison is cited as punishment enough. That he was at worst an unsuspecting collaborator is promoted. Finally now his daughter has released a message from London pleading for clemency. This is where I break off with the so called Tamil enthusiasts. I don't know though what enthusiasm for Tamil has got to do with addressing evaluations of guilt in a gruesome murder. But then this is Tamil Nadu.

As for the clemency reason for Nalini I find it repugnant. She and her paramour Murugan (I am not sure if they were wedded at that time) decided to take part in a conspiracy to murder a high value target, here I am giving credence to the theory, for the sake of argument, that they are unsuspecting accomplices. In the midst of that they enjoyed marital bliss and Nalini got pregnant. They did not think of their child. The murder they helped orchestrate killed 10+ innocent bystander including an innocent Rajiv Gandhi. Today that child's plea for clemency is doing the rounds on the web. Has anybody thought about the children of the victims who were dirt poor themselves. Nalini's daughter is being educated in London today. Does anybody even know the names of the children of the victims other than Priyanka and Rahul? The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is pertinent to cite here. They were convicted of espionage in the most notorious trial in USA. Both, parents to small children, were sentenced to death. The children were later raised as orphans. Very tragic. Very sad BUT who is to be blamed here? If Murugan had a role to play he should be prosecuted. The death penalty should be carefully weighed depending on the crucial question of whether he was central to the conspiracy or an unwitting accomplice. On that score he should be spared and sentenced to life imprisonment. This is my second breaking point with the agitators.

Amongst the scores of protesters these sentences are now portrayed as some act by North Indians against innocent Tamils. That the rest of India is nonchalant about Sep 9th angers many a Tamil chauvinist. I remember how Ram Jethmalani used to scream about Kehar Singh's innocence in Indian Express. I don't remember any Tamil leader or activist writing anything against death penalty then. In a country like India there are very few issues that assume a pan-Indian quality and evoke a nationwide response. Also let me note here that when Mumbai was ripped by bomb blasts in 1993 Tamil Nadu was tranquil as if Mumbai was on a different planet.

Another relevant but very irritating point is the kind of  people who now pontificate about how death penalty is state sanctioned murder and how that is pure vengeance, not justice. A good majority of these newly minted anti-death-penalty protesters are unabashed, unapologetic worshippers of Prabakaran. Even now they refuse to acknowledge the reign of terror unleashed by Prabakaran against his opponents, Tamils and Sinhalese alike. Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa, Amirthalingam, Alfred Duraiappa, Sabarathinam, Mathiah and an endless list of people were killed in cold blood. In a final shameful act of megalomania he held his own Tamil brethren as human shields and mercilessly ordered his cadre to mow down the fleeing people in the final days of 2009 war. Yet we never heard a squeak of protest from any of these peaceniks.

The arguments furthered by anti-death-penalty protesters are specious at best and at worst downright silly. One could always trust the redoubtable Subavee (an ex-TADA detainee) to provide some entertaining fodder. I always check viduthalai.com (DK media) for news like this. Subavee in his smooth voice with a befriending smile offers an analogy. Subavee reasons that Indian law does not cut off the hand of an assailant just because the assailant had cut off the hand of a victim. Put simply law does not promote 'eye for an eye'. He reasons, therefore death penalty is barbarous since its vengeance seeking. The logic holds good on surface.

In USA, unlike India, the kin of victims can request to witness an execution of the convict. When Timothy McVeigh was executed the kin of a victim observed "I had to see it to convince myself that this monster is dead". Yes, there is a primal, sort of tribal even, instinct in this. Of course there is an element of vengeance. But its a much needed catharsis for the victims. However what Subavee fails to note is that as much as retribution in like is not practiced for other crimes death sentence also is NOT offered to every murderer. Death sentence is not given just because a life is lost. It is reserved for the most heinous acts.

When Godse had to be sentenced the question of the appropriateness of death sentence in a country that pays fealty to Gandhi was discussed intensely. Would Gandhi have pardoned Godse? It makes for good parlor discussion, like would Christ pardon Judas? This is the world we live in. There are monsters in this world. Recently the death penalty invited attention during the Afzal Guru case. Yet another case where the evidence is either circumstantial or practically foisted. Afzal Guru is sentenced to death in the Dec 2001attack on Indian parliament. Afzal Guru, being Muslim, attracted to his defense every self appointed custodian of Muslim interests in India, starting with, who else, Arundhathi Roy and our own Subavee. Subavee, for once is honest, in this video when he narrates how a Muslim organization that invited him to speak on behalf Afzal Guru later backtracked when Subavee asked them to join in abolishing death penalty altogether. Subavee, with a smile, says that the reason was simple, Middle east Islamic states practice death penalty very crudely.

The only valid argument against death penalty is that if a mistake happens its irrevocable. That said I don't consider the Indian form of 'life sentence', 9 years+, as sufficient punishment. The case of Megan Kanka in New Jersey is pertinent here. Megan, a 7 year old child, was molested and killed by her neighbor Jesse Timmendequas. Jesse was sentenced to die. While Jesse waited on death row New Jersey abolished death sentence. Jesse's sentence was commuted to life without parole. Jesse will never see the outside world.

A certain hypocrisy runs through this clamor for releasing the trio. I've not read or heard any Tamil columnist or opinion maker, including the current crop of bloggers, voice anything about death penalty so far. Today when a fellow traveler is indicted everyone is jumping up to action.

Most of these protesters, not coincidentally, were against Anna Hazare's protests and called Anna a blackmailer for compelling the parliament to enact his bill. Anna was advised to stick to constitutional methods. Today these protests are the result of people disliking what constitutional process has produced. The protests, rail roko etc, are patently unconstitutional and are nakedly blackmailing the government.

Calling a 19 year old girl's self-immolation as "courage" is shameful. Senkodi's act is a gross injustice to her parents. Tamil Nadu, thanks to Dravidian politics, has encouraged such stupidities. Leaders regularly commend such acts, reward the families. When would people learn that such acts get nothing. No leader or leader's kith and kin commit self immolation. Vaiko swore on the ashes of his cadre who committed self immolation that he would never align with DMK. Anbazhgan and MK extolled those who committed self immolation during anti-Hindi agitation. Needless to say what their children learnt.

In their zeal to release the trio most are rushing hither and thither like a blinded cyclops. The real issue is the rotten state of courts in India. That it took 11 years to adjudicate a mercy petition is grossly inhuman. That statements procured by torture and lapsed laws (TADA) were admitted in a court of law says much about Indian jurisprudence. Kehar Singh, Afzal Guru, Perarivalan are sad reminders of how justice is dispensed. I'd rather have the courts open a re-trial, conduct it expeditiously and transparently and free them without an iota of doubt. That's more honor to the wrongly convicted. These protests should be more for justice to be done not asking for mercy.

Let justice prevail.

1 comment:

David said...

The death of Rajiv Gandhi was gruesome.But for Prof Chandrasekar's brilliant Detective work and the fortuitous discovery of the camera in the body of the murderer.One of my friends was a lady a congresswoman standing nearby. She was in the hospital for a month acd confessed to me that the smell of death lingered with her for months.The victims have been tried defended and appealed without success. It is dificult to grant a free pardon!