After correctly acknowledging the possibility of reformation as a ground to commute the death sentence, the Supreme Court must now consider the case of 22 individuals awaiting execution in the same vein
Three judges of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice of India, have come to the conclusion that Sushil Sharma does not deserve the death penalty for murdering his wife, Naina Sahni, and trying to dispose of her body by burning it in a tandoor. It is no secret that India’s death penalty jurisprudence, at all levels of the judiciary, is in a shambles and the reasoning adopted in Sushil Sharma’s judgment raises very serious concerns about the justice that has been meted out to 22 individuals on the verge of execution after their mercy petitions were rejected by the President (four of them by Pratibha Patil and 18 by Pranab Mukherjee).
While a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the pleas of 18 of the 22 individuals only on the issue of delay caused by the State in deciding their mercy petition, the issue that I want to explore in the context of the Sushil Sharma case is the manner in which they were sentenced to death. In terms of the law, not all murders, terrorist acts, rapes and murders, acts of treason, etc attract the death penalty. The “rarest of the rare” doctrine was introduced in Bachan Singh to lend some coherence to instances in which the death penalty might be justified by balancing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. However, the “rarest of the rare” doctrine has evolved into one of the most misunderstood and misapplied doctrines not just in public discourse but even in judicial pronouncements from courts at all levels.
The “rarest of the rare” doctrine is often misunderstood as referring only to the heinousness of the crime. The focus is equally meant to be on the mitigating circumstances of the person including whether it has been decidedly shown that she is beyond reformation.
Reasons for commutation
The Court seems to have placed significant weight on the point that the State had not led any evidence to show that Sushil Sharma was beyond reformation. These are very important moves by the Court as it is a clear attempt to move away from multiple judgments in the past where the focus was only on the brutal nature of the crime. This is an important step in the inevitable course correction that the Supreme Court will have to undertake on the manner in which it examines aggravating and mitigating circumstances in death penalty cases.
By taking the position that the State, while demanding the death penalty, should demonstrate that the individual will revert to such crimes, the Court has brought the focus back on the mitigating circumstances and the appropriate burden on the State. It is this aspect of reformation that was articulated in Bachan Singh that has been ignored most often and the obligation is most certainly on the State to show the impossibility of reformation. It is of course not the position in Bachan Singh that any one factor can trump all others and Courts are meant to balance aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Reformation is an issue that is relevant to all prisoners who appear before the Court irrespective of the nature of the crime, age, sex and social background. If judges want to balance away the interests of reformation in favour of other factors, Courts must be left free to do so. However, there must be an obligation and culture of justification as far as reformation of the death row convict is concerned. As judges seal the fate of the convict, the least they must do is explain the evidence presented before them that led to the conclusion that the convict could not be reformed. If no such evidence is presented before the Court, there must be a presumption of reformation and judges must meet a high threshold of justification if they want to override that presumption. A disingenuous strategy adopted in many judgments confirming the death penalty has been to cite the brutality of the crime as indicative of the impossibility of reformation. To argue that an individual cannot be reformed because of the crime she has committed is a perverse articulation of what was intended in Bachan Singh.
Sushil Sharma has certainly benefited from the substantial weight assigned to reformation as envisaged in Bachan Singh. But the 22 individuals who stand on the verge of execution have not had the benefit of such enquiry into the possibility of their reformation. Apart from highlighting the brutality of the crime, in none of their cases did the State lead any evidence on reformation and unlike in Sushil Sharma’s case, neither did any judge ask the State why it had not presented any such evidence. We must have no illusion that we have brought these 22 individuals extremely close to their death without any court of law in this country having paid adequate attention to the possibility of their reformation.
Almost all of these 22 individuals have spent a very long time in prison and it reflects the lack of humanity in our legal system that we have no mechanism to evaluate the changes they have undergone. The most tragic aspect of death sentences in India is that we often have an image of the prisoner that is frozen in time. It is an image of her when she committed the crime and our moral judgment of the person at that point of time is all that seems to matter. There is no place in our public and legal imagination for the effects of long periods of incarceration. Some of them are the most trusted prisoners in the jails in which they are lodged, some others contribute to the administration of the jail by maintaining records and teaching other prisoners about work they could do in jail, some others have picked up skills and earned degrees while simultaneously having introspected about their time in jail. Of course it is not just about the good things. Incarceration and differing levels of alienation from their families have left many of them extremely mentally vulnerable, displaying signs of severe depression and psychosis. In that sense, these 22 individuals have suffered a double injustice. Neither was the possibility of their reformation explored at the time of sentencing them to death nor is the system interested in evaluating them as individuals as they are today.
It would be unconscionable to hang any of these 22 individuals without considering the issue of reformation meaningfully. Otherwise, it starts to look like there is one standard of justice for people like Sushil Sharma and quite another standard when it comes to Shivu, Jadeswamy, Maganlal, Jafar Ali, Gurmeet Singh, Suresh, Ramji, Perarivalan, Murugan, Santhan, Saibanna, Simon, Madaiah, Gynanaprakasan, Bilavendra, Dharampal, Sonia, Sanjeev, Praveen Kumar, Bhullar, Umesh and Sundar Singh.
(Anup Surendranath is the director of the Death Penalty Research Project at the National Law University, Delhi.)
The verdict of death for the bestial gang rape in Delhi last December is based on Supreme Court judgments, which stipulate that capital punishment will be imposed in “the rarest of rare” cases, where the community’s “collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty” because of the abhorrent nature of the crime, which would include “the manner of the commission of the murder,” for instance, “if it was committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner,” or where the victim was “subjected to inhuman acts of torture or cruelty in order to bring about his or her death.”
There are several dangers in a process in which a life is taken because that is what the community wants, as in the Roman amphitheatre, where the mob decided if the defeated gladiator should die. Apart from turning the judiciary into a khap panchayat, how does this august fraternity commune with the community, or divine that its conscience wants blood? In the 21st century, flooded as it is with 24-hour television and social media on tap, outrage can be manufactured, reality distorted. Even when, as after the Delhi crime, the revulsion was real and widespread, how does the judiciary determine that those who were shocked would only recover with the deaths of those who had shocked them? Diplomats, who must assess the mood of the country they are posted in, take it as given that the media only partially reflects it, since the strident few drown out the diffident majority. An Embassy spreads its tentacles wide, speaking to and gauging the mood of people in different sectors, levels and locations, to understand what they really want. No judge can do this. What a judge takes as the collective conscience of the community can only be the slant carried by the media. To base decisions on life and death on this is injudicious.
Secondly, what is the community whose conscience the judge must tap into and channel into a pronouncement of death? For a sessions judge, it will presumably be that of the local community. If that judgment is overturned on appeal, it can either mean that the judge had misread that conscience, or that the High Court felt that the conscience of the larger community of the State did not want blood. If the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence, this would presumably mean that the national conscience was at one with the local, but that of the State concerned was out of step with both. Which is the segment of the community to whose conscience judges must defer? Logically, it should be the one most affected, which would imply that no sentence of death from a sessions court should be overturned. How does a judge in the State or Central capital determine that the local community had not been galvanised into bloodlust?
But what would happen, for instance, in the cases that should shortly come to trial for the murders in the recent communal violence in U.P.? The most appalling cruelty is committed during communal riots. One of the criteria invoked in the Delhi judgment to justify the death sentence, the barbaric and revolting nature of the murder, would apply. In these cases, however there would be no collective conscience to consult, since the community is split in two. Each half would demand the death sentence for the murderers from the other community, but mourn its own murderers as martyrs if they were hanged. In these cases, therefore, where one of the criteria laid down by the Supreme Court conflicts with the other, which will prevail?
Nor should we forget that, while the use of torture to bring about death is rare in crimes committed by individuals, it is routinely practised by the army and the paramilitary in States wracked by political violence. Unaccounted numbers of Kashmiris disappeared into the maws of Papa-II, the infamous torture chamber run by the paramilitary in Srinagar. Those bodies that were recovered bore marks of the most terrible torture. Very large numbers disappeared forever. To say that the collective conscience of the Kashmiri Muslim community is merely shocked would be an insult. It has lived with rage, pain and a searing sense of injustice for two decades; its tormenters have escaped with impunity, because the collective conscience of the rest of the country has not even been stirred.
Across our subcontinent, in Manipur, similar cases abound, including that of Thangjam Manorama, taken from her home in Imphal late at night by a unit of the Assam Rifles, led by two Majors, tortured with a knife, forced into her genitals in the presence of her family, tortured even more brutally later, raped and shot. Her body was not received by dignitaries, it was found lying in a ditch. There have been many other killings like this, but this one, like the gang rape case in Delhi, set off a storm, leading to a “naked protest” by Manipuri women in front of the paramilitary camp. If any crime matched both the criteria invoked in the Delhi judgment, the bestiality of the murder and the collective indignation it produced, this one did. However, the officers and men responsible are immune because the army’s Court of Enquiry held they were all innocent.
Justice not blind
These communities, and the tribals in the naxal belt, will argue bitterly that justice is not blind; it sees who you are and where you come from and, in its scales, the collective conscience of the community only registers when it has political weight. If you are a Kashmiri or a Manipuri, your shock is gossamer.
One of the crimes that the Supreme Court has laid down as likely to shock the collective conscience of the community is a “murder committed in the course of betrayal of the motherland.” It appears murders committed in its ostensible defence do not shock. Patriotism is the last refuge of the serial torturer. If he walks free, though, why should others hang?
There is a further danger. Because public opinion is manipulated with modern technology, the outrage which the judiciary will interpret as an indignation that must be assuaged with blood can only be provoked by the technically adept, or those with the money to influence the media. The men sentenced to death in Delhi, and those hanged over the last year, were mostly from the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. Neither they nor their families had the financial or technical means to harness the media or the social media in their defence. There is, therefore, an inevitable class bias built into a process where a judge pronounces the verdict of death on the basis of a public outpouring of rage, which the accused have no means of contesting.
The brutality that brings their crimes into the ambit of the rarest of rare is bred into their lives. They have gone to bed hungry as children, suffered illnesses without medicine, defecated in the open, been savaged on the whims of adults, treated like dirt. Compassion has never touched them. Life has beaten sensitivity out of them. Men forced to live like brutes will kill like brutes. When these men, society’s victims, find a victim, they take a lifetime’s frustrations out on him or her. Their murders and rapes are unlikely to be refined. Their brutality might appal a court and nauseate the middle class, by whose standards they are judged, but it is a product of what the community has made of them. This is what should shock the collective conscience of the community.
Lastly, and most troublingly, if a man is to be hanged because the judge feels that the collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect him to inflict the death penalty, can a trial be fair, with the accused presumed to be innocent until he is proven guilty? If, before the trial starts, society has already made up its mind, in the judge’s view, that it will only be satisfied with the death penalty, it has also determined who the guilty are. It is hard to believe that a judge can hear a case entirely on merits, and take popular sentiment into account only at the verdict. On the contrary, if it is now the law that a judge must impose the death penalty in cases where he has concluded that the community demands it, he would be shirking his duty if he were to absolve the men on trial, denying the community, whose servant he is, the satisfaction of a human sacrifice.
When the Supreme Court decreed that the death penalty should be imposed only in the rarest of rare cases, it tried, humanely and honourably, to prevent a rash of judicial killings, but the criteria it has laid down inherently lead to decisions that are, in every sense, fatally subjective. The road to the gallows might be paved with its good intentions, but on matters of life and death, the law cannot be so cruelly flawed.
Tarquin, Auden famously wrote, was ravished by his post-coital sadness. Is the “community” in India ever choked by a post-garroting remorse? Conscience is the uncomfortable reminder that we have done something wrong.
In a nation that aspires to be a modern democracy and claims to be a modern incarnation of the most ancient living civilisation, the death penalty is a barbaric anomaly. It is time the collective conscience of the community repudiated it.
(Satyabrata Pal is a Member of the National Human Rights Commission. These views are personal)
A life term for Kodnani and the hangman’s noose for Kasab show the arbitrariness in the judicial administration of capital punishment
Judge Jyotsna Yagnik’s invocation of human dignity while not awarding the death penalty in the Naroda-Patiya massacre case and the Supreme Court’s expression of helplessness while confirming the death penalty of Ajmal Kasab — sentenced in the 26/11 terror attack — go to the heart of the constitutional unviability of the death penalty. We would struggle to make any meaningful distinction in the culpability we attach to these two crimes but our collective response, in terms of the punishment they must receive, has been qualitatively different. While it will be debated whether it was appropriate for a trial judge to invoke concerns of human dignity at the sentencing stage, judge Yagnik’s judgment has also inadvertently demonstrated the inherent unfairness of the death penalty. One can’t help wonder about Kasab’s fate if he had appeared before judge Yagnik rather than judge M.L. Tahiliani. And it is precisely that unpredictability and inconsistency in the judicial administration of the death penalty that is at the heart of the principled objections to the death penalty.
There has been very little discussion on why principled arguments against the death penalty should not apply in Kasab’s case. Raju Ramachandran, the amicus in Kasab’s case, did a terrific job in attempting to get the Supreme Court to commute Kasab’s death sentence but there has been very little else. As a nation and a society we seem to have quietly accepted the death penalty for Kasab despite all the objections that have been raised about the death penalty in the past. Kasab’s case is a significant setback for the move towards complete abolition of the death penalty in India. It was, in many ways, the perfect case for the death penalty. A profoundly hurt and grieving society, the guilt of the accused established through damning photographs and videos, wounded nationalism and the possible involvement of state actors across the border all contributed towards making Kasab’s case a strong validation of the need for the death penalty. It is as though we are acknowledging that there will be moments in our life as a nation where we will need to satisfy our need for collective revenge. A need satisfied with the gloss of the rule of law.
On what basis, then, do we not demand the death penalty for those who masterminded and led the carnage in Naroda-Patiya? Maya Kodnani as an MLA was supposed to represent and protect the interests of those in her constituency and not lead a mob of genocidaires to torture, rape and kill many helpless Muslims. Despite that, our acceptability of the punishments handed down in the Kasab and the Naroda-Patiya cases has proceeded along very different lines. There will certainly be no sustained demand for the death penalty for Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi but there is widespread satisfaction at the confirmation of death penalty for Kasab. That this qualitative difference in our perception of the two crimes has found reflection in the judicial administration of the death penalty is most unfortunate with the invocation of human dignity in one case and no meaningful engagement with it in another.
The issue is not whether the death penalty offends human dignity or not. As a polity, we have unfortunately decided that it does not. The primary issue is whether it is possible to develop a model of administering the death penalty that is consistent and non-arbitrary. Judge Yagnik chose not to impose the death penalty because of her commitment to the position that the human dignity of all convicts must be respected. Judge Tahiliani either does not subscribe to that view or believes that it is inappropriate for a trial judge to take such considerations into account. Either way, it exposes why the ‘rarest of the rare’ framework cannot work in a fair and consistent manner. It ultimately leaves significant scope for judicial discretion where all sorts of factors creep in, and has ensured that comparing the death penalty in India to a lottery would not be an exaggeration. An analysis of death penalty cases in India from 1950-2006 by Amnesty International confirms that administering the death penalty has been an arbitrary exercise. Essentially, it was observed that in many similar circumstances some convicts were awarded the death penalty and others were not.
In the pursuit of consistent application of the death penalty, is the solution then to completely remove judicial discretion? Should we develop a list of very specific crimes where the death penalty is automatically awarded? Before it was found to be unconstitutional, Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code provided that an individual who committed murder while serving a life sentence would be automatically sentenced to death. Emphasising the importance of individual sentencing, five judges of the Supreme Court in Mithu v. State of Punjab found the automatic sentencing to be arbitrary and unjust. The inability of the sentencing judges to take into consideration individual circumstances while deciding the sentence, the judges felt, would cause grave injustice to the accused.
Achieving a balance between judicial discretion and individualised sentencing has proved to be an impossible task. The Supreme Court has tried to address this by developing guidelines in cases like Bachan Singh and Santosh Bariyar without much success. A damning indictment of such attempts has been the recent appeal by 14 eminent judges to the President to commute the death sentence of 13 convicts.
It is stated in the appeal that the Supreme Court itself has admitted to the wrongful administration of the death penalty in these 13 cases and that it would be a grave miscarriage of justice to not commute their sentence. It is time for the Supreme Court to recognise that it is attempting the impossible by trying to achieve a consistent application of the death penalty while maintaining the discretion of judges.
This debate between consistent application of the death penalty and individualised sentencing was at its peak in the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s. In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court raised constitutional concerns about the discriminatory and arbitrary use of the death penalty. After the judgment in Furman, many States responded with new guidelines for imposing the death penalty, including some mandatory death penalty schemes. While the attempt of the States to provide guidelines was upheld, the mandatory death penalty schemes were struck down in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. However, the U.S. experience with ‘guided discretion’ since then has been disastrous and has been documented in great detail by the Steiker Report (2009) commissioned by the American Law Institute (ALI).
‘Tinkering with the machinery’
The ALI’s model framework for the administration of death penalty developed in 1962 provided the basis for the death penalty statutes that the U.S. Supreme Court found acceptable in Gregg. However, after the Steiker Report came to the conclusion that the death penalty continued to be administered in an arbitrary manner, the ALI deleted the death penalty provisions from its Model Penal Code in December 2009 with no proposal to introduce another framework. Justice Harry Blackmun’s judicial view on the death penalty while on the Supreme Court holds an important lesson for India’s judges in the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Nixon, he started out upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty including mandatory death sentences in the 1970s. Until a few months before his retirement in August 1994, Justice Blackmun was a supporter of the death penalty by upholding many attempts to achieve its non-arbitrary application. But in Callins v. Collins in February 1994, Justice Blackmun concluded that efforts of the U.S. Supreme Court over two decades since Furman to ensure fair and non-arbitrary application of the death penalty had proved to be futile. Finding the death penalty to be ‘fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake’, Justice Blackmun revoked his support for the death penalty by declaring that he would no longer ‘tinker with the machinery of death’. The Indian Supreme Court must recognise the impossibility of what it is trying to achieve.
(Anup Surendranath is an Assistant Professor of Law at the National Law University, Delhi, and a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford.)
The public interest litigation seeking stay of the operation of judicial order for executing Balwant Singh Rajoana, a convict in assassination of ex-Punjab chief minister Beant Singh and 17 others, was dismissed by the Punjab and Haryana high court on Thursday on the ground that the petitioner had no ‘locus standi’(legal stand) to file the petition.
The division bench comprising justice Hemant Gupta and justice AN Jindal said that earlier Rajoana had already refused to put appearance before the high court in the murder reference and had also declined the assistance of a counsel to defend himself on government expenses. “He(Rajoana) has not even filed an appeal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court. This court has no such jurisdiction to stay an order passed by the Co-ordinate Bench(one of the courts in high court) by way of an interim order in a public interest litigation,” held the bench. A division bench of the high court on October 12, 2010 had confirmed Rajoana’s death sentence but converted another co-accused Jagtar Singh Hawara’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
The petition filed by an NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights International had requested that till such time the petition filed by the CBI challenging the earlier high court orders in the Supreme Court attains finality, the execution of Rajoana’s death sentence should be stayed, as there is a possibility of setting aside the high court’s order confirming Rajoana’s death sentence. The petititioner also submitted that a co-convict in the case, Lakhwinder Singh has also filed an appeal in the Apex Court.
However, citing an Apex Court’s judgment in a case of 1992 ‘Simranjeet Singh Mann vs Union of India’, the division bench said that the public interest litigation was dismissed in this case which was filed by a president of a political party challenging the conviction and sentence awarded to two convicts. The Apex Court judgment reads, “In the present case, no fundamental right of the petitioner before us is violated; if at all the case sought to be made out is that the fundamental rights of the two convicts have been violated. The two convicts could, if so minded, have raised the contention in the earlier proceedings but a third party, a total stranger to the trial commenced against the two convicts, cannot be permitted to question the correctness of the conviction recorded against them. If that were permitted any and every person could challenge convictions recorded day in and day out by courts even if the persons convicted do not desire to do so and are inclined to acquiesce in the decision. …”
The division bench also cited two more Apex Court’s judgments, i.e. in ‘Karamjeet Singh Vs. Union of India(1992)’ and ‘Ashok Kumar Pandey Vs. State of West Bengal(2004)’challenging death sentence of one Dhananjay Chatterjee, reiterating smilar view while dismissing PILs.
August 31, 1995 : Ex-Punjab chief minister Beant Singh and 17 others assassinated by a human bomb Dilawar Singh outside Punjab and Haryana Civil Secretariat.
July 31, 2007 : Trial court awards death sentence to Hawara and Rajoana. Gurmeet Singh, Lakhwinder Singh and Shamsher Singh awarded life imprisonment and Nasib Singh sent to 10 years imprisonment.
October 12, 2010 : High Court confirms Rajoana’s death sentence, converts Hawara’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
March 5, 2012 : Additional sessions judge, Chandigarh orders Rajoana’s execution on March 31 at 9 am.
March 22, 2012 : HC dismisses PIL seeking stay on orders of Rajoana’s execution.
Describing this as his “personal view”, Justice Ganguly said the Constitutional guarantee of right to life cannot be subjected to “vague premises”. The doctrine of the crime falling in the’rarest of rare’ category in awarding the death penalty was a “grey” area as its interpretation depended on individual judges, he said, adding the “sentencing structures” should be in consonance with the goals set by the Constitution. The remarks were made by Justice Ganguly yesterday at a two-day seminar on ‘Abolition of Death Penalty in India‘. The seminar was organized by the Jindal Global Law School at Sonepat in Haryana. The sitting judge of the apex court said sending a convict to the gallows, is legal but “barbaric, anti-life, undemocratic and irresponsible”.. The guilt of an accused should be proved beyond “lingering” doubt in cases warranting the award of capital punishment, which has so far not yet been evolved.
He cautioned that before giving death penalty, a judge must be “extremely careful” and weigh “mitigating and aggravating circumstances”. The Judge said the state must adduce evidence that the accused cannot be reformed.
Capital punishment is retributive justice and abolishing it is a risk that modern states need to take, says Pamela Philipose.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude, begins with a line that could be read as a powerful argument against capital punishment: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
The imminent extinction of a sentient life endowed with thought and memory, linked intimately to the lives of others, is a fearsome thing. So it is entirely understandable why that angst-ridden question — Should India remove capital punishment from its statute books? — refuses to go away. Here we are, with our much-feted legacy of non-violence, with our burnished democratic Constitution and Credentials, still attached by the feet to the ever-shrinking corner of the globe which continues to defend the death penalty.
It has been an uneasy defence for sure. The umbrella formulation that the death penalty should only be accorded in the “rarest of rare cases”, put forward in 1980 by the Supreme Court in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, has remained an uncertain talisman with Indian courts interpreting it in an astoundingly variegated manner, but it has remained a talisman nevertheless. Indian Presidents, too, have routinely dragged their feet over rejecting mercy pleas. The country has also, incidentally, seen attempts to institutionally “reform” the administration of the death penalty. The ‘Model Prison Manual for the Superintendence & Management of Prisons In India’ (2003) recommends that all prisoners going to meet their fate at the gallows be made to wear “a cotton cap with flap” so that he/she will not be able to see the gallows — an highly ineffectual aid, surely, under such circumstances.
Internationally, India continues to remain in an ambiguous position. It is party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that requires countries to move towards the abolition of capital punishment, but has desisted from ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the Convention and last November it voted along with China and Saudi Arabia to oppose a UN resolution for a moratorium on the death penalty.
So while there may be some curling of toes over the prospect of denying criminals on death row their right to life, the Indian State has consistently balked at doing away with the hanging option. By and large, the argument put forward by the Law Commission of India in 1967 continues to hold sway. In its 35th Report, the Law Commission pronounced that “Having regard… to the conditions in India, to the variety of the social upbringing of its inhabitants, to the disparity in the level of morality and education in the country, to the vastness of its area, to the diversity of its population and to the paramount need for maintaining law and order in the country at the present juncture, India cannot risk the experiment of abolition of capital punishment.”
The fact is that 139 countries in the world — and their number is rising not declining — despite serious security challenges have taken this “risk”, precisely because it is a risk that modern and modernising states should take, given that not doing so would compromise the very notion of an enlightened state. Remember that many of these countries have had long and grisly trysts with capital punishment. Pre-19th century England, for instance, had over 200 “crimes” that could invite a hanging sentence. The list included thievery (goods valued at five shillings and more), maiming horses, impersonation and ‘sodomy’.
One of the justifications for persisting with the death penalty is, of course, that inchoate, arbitrary, unquantifiable and often irrational concept known as “public opinion”. Indian courts, incidentally, have been sensitive to “public opinion”. In a judgment, Dhananjoy Chatterjee v State of West Bengal, that had led in 2004 to the last public hanging India has witnessed so far, the Supreme Court stated: “Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to society’s cry for justice against the criminals. Justice demands that courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime…”
But “society’s cry for justice” is an uncertain foundation for justice as Arthur Chaskalson, who served as Chief Justice of South Africa from 2001 to 2005, reiterated. He put it this way, “Public opinion may have some relevance to the enquiry, but in itself it is no substitute for the duty vested in the Courts to interpret the Constitution and to uphold its provisions without fear or favour. If public opinion were to be decisive there would be no need for constitutional adjudication…”
The founding fathers and mothers of post-Independence India did not ban capital punishment and retained the 1861 Indian Penal Code providing for the death penalty. But it was not as if they did not envisage the possibility of the country exercising that option at some point. Amiyo Kumar Ghosh, a member in the Constitutent Assembly, while opposing an amendment that wanted a partial ban on capital punishment, went on to say, “I think that with the growth of consciousness, with the development of society, the State should revise a punishment of this nature…”
The questions we then need to ask is why, despite the long decades that have intervened since those words, India still cannot countenance such a possibility. Why does it continue to perceive the hangman’s noose as coterminous with the scales of justice? Why does it settle for peremptory and irrevocable responses to heinous crimes, when the world is engaging with ideas of restorative rather than retributive justice? Can’t post-independence India not hold itself to standards higher than those set by its one-time imperial rulers, standards that had been sharply critiqued by the freedom movement?
A passage from Bhagat Singh’s last petition to the Punjab governor should give us pause: “As to the question of our fates, please allow us to say that when you have decided to put us to death, you will certainly do it. You have got the power in your hands and the power is the greatest justification in this world. We know that the maxim ‘Might is right’ serves as your guiding motto. The whole of our trial was just a proof of that. We wanted to point out that according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead instead of to be hanged.”
He and his comrades in arms, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were hanged on March 23, 1931.
Procrastination on mercy petitions is inhumane to death-convicts.
An inordinate delay of 11 years occurred in considering the mercy pleas of the three death-convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, with their pleas being ultimately rejected on August 11, 2011 by the President of India. This is only one instance of the inhuman, unconscionable and arbitrary manner in which mercy pleas of convicts condemned to death are kept pending by the government for years on end.
Simultaneous with the rejection of the pleas of these three convicts, the Home Ministry has recommended to the President to reject the mercy plea of Afzal Guru. He was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court on August 5, 2005 and the government has not taken a decision on his clemency petition for six years now.
These are some of the prominent cases among pending mercy petitions, but not the only ones. Eighteen mercy pleas are pending with the President as on August 16, 2011, the earliest among them dating back to 2005. The government seems to be totally indifferent to the pathetic plight of such convicts who are kept in suspense for many years. Courts in all civilised states, including India’s Supreme Court, have recognised that any prolonged delay in executing a death sentence can make the punishment, when it comes, inhuman and degrading. The trauma and psychological stress, coupled with solitary confinement, creating a conflict known as the “death row phenomenon,” in themselves amount to a cruel punishment. The prolonged anguish of alternating between hope and despair, the agony of uncertainty and the consequence of such suffering on the mental, emotional and physical integrity and health of not only the convict but also his family members should never be allowed in a civilised society.
In a leading case from Jamaica decided by the Privy Council in 1993, the court said: “There is an instinctive revulsion against the prospect of hanging a man after he had been under sentence of death for many years. What gives rise to this revulsion? The answer can only be our humanity. We regard it as inhuman to keep a man facing the agony of execution for a long extended period of time. To execute these men now after holding them in custody in agony of suspense of so many years would be inhuman punishment.”
In 1983, the Supreme Court of India observed that a self-imposed rule should be followed by the executive authorities that every such petition should be disposed of within a period of three months from the date it is received. In other cases, the Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment because of the unconscionable delay and suspense involved for the convict. As recently as on September 18, 2009, the Supreme Court specifically reminded the government of its obligations with regard to the 26 mercy petitions that were then pending with the President. The Government of India has been not only oblivious of the inhuman aspect of the procrastination but has disregarded the repeated directions of the Supreme Court.
The case of Afzal Guru has been a gross instance of political considerations coming in the way of deciding a mercy plea. Afzal Guru has been a political pawn, with the Bharatiya Janata Party in an unseemly manner demanding his immediate execution and making it an election issue. Meanwhile, for political considerations the government has delayed taking a decision, giving flimsy grounds such as that the file was not returned by the Delhi Government for four years.
As a matter of fact, it was revealed by the Delhi Chief Minister that the previous Home Minister had deliberately instructed the Delhi Government not to take action promptly on Afzal Guru’s file. Afzal Guru’s mental agony can be seen from a pathetic statement he made in June 2010. He said: “I really wish L.K. Advani becomes the next Prime Minister as he is the only one who can take a decision and hang me. At least my pain and daily suffering will ease then.” On the United Progressive Alliance government’s ambivalent attitude, he said: “I don’t think the UPA government can reach a decision. The Congress party has two mouths and is playing a double game.” Whatever his crime, surely Afzal Guru does not deserve this agony.
On September 30, 2009, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said he would consider afresh the cases of the 26 convicts awaiting the death sentence whose mercy petitions had been lying with the President for several years. He said the Home Ministry would examine each case turn by turn — as if deciding petitions submitted to the President was an act of grace or mercy.
It is a fallacy to believe that the power of granting pardon given to the President and the Governor under the Constitution is an act of grace or mercy. The power conferred on the President and the Governor is a part of India’s constitutional scheme and is an integral part of the criminal justice system in the public interest. The convict has a constitutional right to have his or her petition considered by the President or the Governor on relevant grounds, including miscarriage of justice. And it should be decided expeditiously. To use the felicitous words of a U.S. Supreme Court judge: “When granted the pardoning power is the determination of the ultimate authority that public welfare would be better served by inflicting less punishment than what the judgment has fixed.”
It appears that the Home Ministry has now fast-tracked death penalty cases because of petitions filed in courts. On June 12, 2011, the Gauhati High Court issued notice for the delay of 12 years in the case of Mahendra Nath Das. In July this year, the Supreme Court issued notice to the government in the case of Devender Singh Bhullar, forcing it to speed up the rejection of his mercy petition. On July 8, 2011, in a Public Interest Litigation petition moved by a non-governmental organisation against the government’s inhuman and arbitrary practice of keeping such petitions pending, the Supreme Court issued notice to the government.
It is time the entire system of disposal of the so-called mercy petitions was set right once and for all by an authoritative pronouncement and correction by the Supreme Court. Individual cases such as those of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case that are now in court would raise the larger question of the working of the pardoning system by the government, and why cases of the other convicts on death row who are kept in similar suspense should not be simultaneously considered. This can only be done if the present system is examined and corrected by the Supreme Court for the benefit of all mercy plea petitioners.
(The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, and former Solicitor General of India and Advocate-General of Maharashtra.)
There is confusion over the courts’ differing views on death penalty. Mathematical consistency in sentencing is difficult because no two murders are identical. Allowance has also to be made for the judges’ background, beliefs, social philosophy and value system. Within these limitations, the Supreme Court has been able to achieve a reasonable degree of consistency
Beant Singh Bedi in THE TRIBUNE CHANDIGARH
Capital punishment is a highly controversial area of criminal jurisprudence. It has divided the world into two camps: Abolitionists and Retentionists. Both can claim among them eminent thinkers, criminologists, theologists, jurists, judges and law enforcement officials. The chief arguments of the Abolitionists are:
Death penalty is irreversible. It can be — and has been — inflicted upon innocent people. But there is no convincing evidence that death penalty serves any penalogical purpose.
Its deterrent effect remains unproven.
Retribution in the sense of vengeance is outmoded as acceptable end of punishment.
Imposition of death penalty nullifies the purpose of reformation and rehabilitation of the criminal, which is the primary purpose of punishment.
Execution by whatever means is a cruel inhuman and degrading punishment.
The Retentionists argue that a murderer who takes the life of another forfeits his right to his own life. They emphasise the deterrent and retributive aspect of death sentence by arguing that the civilised society must express its revulsion against heinous crimes like murder. True, there have been instances of those persons who, after conviction and execution of murder, were discovered to be innocent. But this, according to the Retentionists, is not a reason for abolition of death penalty but an argument for reform of judicial system and sentencing procedure.
The deterrent value of death penalty has been judicially recognised in a number of cases. In Paras Ram (1973), where a superstitious father had sacrificed his four-year-old innocent son, the Supreme Court while upholding the death sentence inter alia observed that when the crime is of primitive horror and its manifestation is in the form of inhuman and criminal violence, deterrence through court sentence must perforce operate through culprit coming before the court. This view has been reiterated in a number of cases.
The Law Commission of India, it its 35th Report, has vouched for the deterrent effect of capital punishment. However, whether or not death penalty acts as a deterrent may not be statistically proved either way because statistics as to how many potentially murderers were deterred from committing murder but for existence of capital punishment for murder are difficult, if not altogether impossible, to conclude.
The Indian Penal Code (1860) prescribes death as an alternative punishment for the seven offences, murder (Section 302) being one of them. Section 302 says: “Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life and also be liable to fine.” The sentencing procedure is prescribed in Section 354 (3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (1973) which reads “when the conviction is for an offence punishable with death or, in the alternative, with imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of years, the judgement shall state the reason for the sentence awarded and in the case of sentence of death the special reasons for such sentence.”
The constitutional validity of these two provisions of law was challenged before the Supreme Court in Bachan Singh (1980) to be tested on the anvil of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. Avoiding the expression of opinion as to which of two antithetical views held by the Abolitionists and Retentinists is correct, the Supreme Court repelled the challenge by inter alia observing: It is sufficient to say that the very fact that the persons of reason, learning and wisdom are rationally and deeply divided in their opinion on this issue is a ground among the others for rejecting the petitioner’s arguments that retention of death penalty in the impugned provisions is totally devoid of reason and purpose.
A forceful plea was made before the Supreme Court for laying out standards or norms restricting the area of imposition of death penalty to a narrow category of murders. The plea was rejected by the court holding that first, there is little agreement among penologist and jurists on what information about the crime and criminal is relevant and what is not relevant for fixing the dose of punishment. Secondly, the criminal cases do not fall into the same behavioral pattern. Thirdly, standardisation of sentencing procedure which leaves little room for judicial discretion to take account of variation in culpability ceases to be judicial. And fourthly, standardisation of sentencing discretion is a policy matter which belongs to the sphere of legislation.
The court ruled that the scope and concept of mitigating factors in the area of death penalty must receive a liberal and expansive construction of the court in accordance with the sentencing policy writ large in Section 354 (3). It cautioned that judges should never be blood thirsty — hanging of the murderer has never been too good for them. Significantly, in Bachan Singh (1980), though the court had avoided standardising any categories of murder in which the death sentence should be awarded, in Machhi Singh (1983), the court did formulate certain categories of murder in which the death sentence was to be awarded.
The standardisation of the categories of murder in which death sentence must be awarded again came up for consideration in Swamy Shradananda (2008). The court noted with agony the deficiency of the criminal justice system and the lack of consistency in the sentencing process given by the Supreme Court. It noted that Bachan Singh laid down the principle of “rarest of rare cases”. Machhi Singh crystallised the principles into five definite categories of cases of murder and in doing so considerably enlarged the scope for death penalty. However, the court noted with dismay that the reality is that in later decisions neither the “rarest of the rare cases” principle nor Machhi Singh were followed universally or consistently.
The lack of consistency in sentencing process has even been judicially noticed. In Aloke Nath Dutta (2006), Judge Sinha gives some very good instances from a number of Supreme Court decisions in which on similar facts the court took contrary views on giving death penalty to the convict. This leaves the common man confused and bewildered. But mathematical consistency in sentencing is not possible to achieve because no two murders are identical. Allowance has also to be made for the background, beliefs, social philosophy and value system of the presiding judge. Within these limitations, the Supreme Court has been able to achieve a reasonable degree of consistency.
Mention may also be made of the hiatus between the public expectations and the court verdicts. To cite two recent examples, Jessica Lall, a bartender in New Delhi’s Tamarind hotel, was fired point blank and killed on her refusal to serve liquor to the accused. Even in a more gruesome incident, Priyadarshani Matoo, a young LL.B student was stalked by the accused for about two years and ultimately was raped and murdered by him in cold blood. Naturally, these incidents jolted the conscience of civil society and incited public furore. The people demanded death for both the culprits who happened to be the spoiled brats intoxicated by the heady brew of power and pelf of their parents (to borrow from Priyadarshani Matoo, 2010).
In the Jessica Lall case, the accused was acquitted by the trial court while the Delhi High Court reversed acquittal and convicted the accused for murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court. In the Matoo case, a somewhat similar result followed. The trial court acquitted the accused. This judgement was reversed by the Delhi High Court, which convicted him for murder and rape and sentenced him to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court, while maintaining conviction, commuted death sentence to life imprisonment.
In the perception of civil society, these murders were very gruesome which tended to endanger the life and safety of law abiding citizens and so deserved death. These judgments, no doubt, disappointed the public expectations, but on the anvil of the rule of “rarest of rare cases” laid down in Bachan Singh and followed in almost all cases since then, the Supreme Court was justified in awarding life sentence as it did. Perhaps court perception sometimes does not match the expectations of civil society.
A study of case law since Bachan Singh (1980) shows that the court is perceptibly veering away from capital punishment to life imprisonment. In this context, a new development may be noted. It was observed in Jagmohan Singh (1973) that life imprisonment in effect meant only 12 years in prison. However, in Swamy Shradhananda (2008), it was noted by the court by referring to a catena of cases starting from Gopal Vinayak Godse (1961) to C.A. Pious (2007) that the punishment for life imprisonment implies a sentence of imprisonment of the convict for the rest of his life.
Following this line of authority, the Supreme Court in Swamy Shradananda case (2008) where the convict (a tantrik) had committed gruesome murder of his wife, taking into consideration some mitigating circumstances, commuted death sentence of the convict and substituted it with imprisonment for life and directed that he shall not be released from prison till the rest of his life. In the United States, this type of sentence is known as life imprisonment without parole (LWOP). Some penologists argue that LWOP is a far more severe punishment than death.
Interestingly, 311 prisoners serving life sentence in Italy petitioned their government in 2007 for the right to be executed. They cited LWOP as a living death where they die a little every day. It is easy to condemn capital punishment as barbaric, but is spending the rest of one’s life in prison so much less cruel to the prisoner or is it merely a way of salving society’s conscience and removing the unpleasantness for the staff and officials? Thus, the debate between the Abolitionists and Retentionists the world over continues.
The writer, a former Additional and Sessions Judge, Punjab, is currently Member, Governing Council, Indian Law Institute, New Delhi
Expedite mercy petitions
The Union Government’s process of taking action on the petitions of those on death row for Presidential clemency has been very slow. The President’s power of pardon under Article 72 of the Constitution is not individualistic but institutional. The President can take a decision on a mercy petition only on the advice of the Union Home Ministry on behalf of the Union Council of Ministers.
A Supreme Court Bench consisting of Justice Harjit Singh Bedi and Justice J.M. Panchal has ruled that if the executive authorities, as a “rigorous self-imposed rule”, are not inclined to take action on a mercy petition within three months from the date of its submission to the President, the condemned convict would be free to apply for commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment. Otherwise, it will be violative of his right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
In February 2010, there was some forward movement when Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram met President Pratibha Patil. It was decided that beginning with the oldest mercy petition, the Union Home Ministry would send a formal letter to Rashtrapati Bhavan asking for recall of the file. Once the mercy petition was re-examined in the Home Ministry, the case would be sent back to the Rashtrapati Bhavan either with a request for the death penalty to be commuted to life imprisonment or with a reiteration that the case was fit for death penalty.
Though Home Ministry officials say that the file movement has commenced, it is very slow and needs a gentle push. Apparently, the President is not inclined to reject mercy petitions in a hurry notwithstanding the Union Home Ministry’s pro-active role on the issue. The debate about the continuance of capital punishment continues. Research shows that the relationship between deterrence and severity of punishment is complicated. It is not obvious how deterrence relates to severity and certainty. Criminal policy must be evidence-led rather than based on intuition which is often found to be wrong. In the absence of any significant empirical attention to this question by Indian criminologists, one cannot assume that severity of punishment correlates to deterrence to an extent which justifies the restriction of the most fundamental human right through the imposition of death penalty.
Those who escaped gallows
Jagtar Singh Hawara, assassin of former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh (Punjab and Haryana High Court, Oct 13, 2010). The court upheld the death penalty of Balwant Singh, another co-accused, who confessed his hand in the crime.
Cab driver Shiv Kumar for rape and murder of BPO employee Pratibha Srikantamurthy (Bangalore Fast Track Court, Oct 8, 2010).
Santosh Kumar Singh for rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo in New Delhi (Supreme Court, Oct 6, 2010)
Six convicts of the 2006 Dalit family murder case. They get life imprisonment for 25 years (Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court, July 14, 2010).
Contract killer Mani Gopal for murder of the witness, a eunuch, inside the Tis Hazari court premises in 2003 (Delhi High Court, Aug 31, 2009)
New Delhi: In a rare instance, the Supreme Court has admitted that its earlier judgments, in one and the same case, upholding the death sentence awarded by the trial court and confirmed by the High Court were a mistake and violation of human rights of the accused. The court in a second review upheld the Assam Governor’s order commuting the punishment to life sentence.
A Bench of Justices Aftab Alam and A.K. Ganguly in a recent order said: “Instances of this court’s judgment violating the human rights of the citizens may be extremely rare but it cannot be said that such a situation can never happen. On a review of the reasoning in the petition, we find that the finding in the judgment is vitiated by errors apparent on the face of the record.”
Writing the judgment, Justice Ganguly said: “Human rights are the basic, inherent, immutable and inalienable rights to which a person is entitled simply by virtue of his being born a human. They are such rights which are to be made available as a matter of right. The Constitution and legislation of a civilised country recognise them since they are so quintessentially part of every human being. That is why every democratic country committed to Rule of Law put into force mechanisms for their enforcement and protection.”
In the instant case, the Assam trial court held Ram Deo Chauhan alias Raj Nath Chauha guilty of murdering four members of a family in March 1992 and slapped the death penalty on him. This was confirmed by the Gauhati High Court and later by the Supreme Court in July 2000.
In a review petition, the convict took the stand that he was a minor aged 16 at the time of the offence and the hence the death penalty could not have been awarded by the courts below.
A three-judge Bench by a majority of 2:1 rejected the review petition and again confirmed the death sentence. But Justice K.T. Thomas, in his minority judgment, felt that since there was a doubt whether Ram Deo was a minor or not when the offence was committed, it would be in the interest of justice to commute death to life imprisonment.
Later, acting on a an article written by Ved Kumari, Professor of the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, the National Human Rights Commission headed by the former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma felt that Justice Thomas’ reasoning was the correct approach and recommended that the death sentence be commuted and the Governor accordingly did so.
However, on a writ petition, the Governor’s order was set aside by the Supreme Court in 2009 holding that the NHRC had no jurisdiction to intervene in the matter.
Governor’s order restored
Allowing the review petition against this order, the Bench said: “On a very careful consideration of this issue, this court thinks that in view of various questions of far-reaching importance having been raised in this second review, it may be a travesty of justice if this petition is dismissed. If a person has been guaranteed certain rights either under the Constitution or under an international covenant or under a law, and he is denied access to such a right, then it amounts to a clear violation of his human right and NHRC has the jurisdiction to intervene for protecting it. We are of the opinion that in doing so, NHRC acted within its jurisdiction.”
The Bench restored the Governor’s order of commutation of the death sentence.
Three recent judgments delivered by courts at different levels in cases that were in the media glare stood out for their judicial sagacity.
THE recent trend of judicial pronouncements being assailed at the slightest provocation should be of concern to those who look upon the judiciary as the last institution of hope to buttress a crumbling system of governance. (The news of the Karnataka “thamasha” convinces me more than ever that the judiciary is our only hope against chaos.) The unfortunate situation is serious if one reckons the grave charges levelled even against personalities as high as a few former Chief Justices of India. I do not for a moment suggest that all judicial orders need to be accepted without demur or that every court decision is well reasoned and beyond reproach.
Undoubtedly, some of them are poorly written and argued, demanding circumspection and analysis. Also, the availability of a process of appeal to the highest court of the land should be a source of great comfort for those who are cynical of the quality of the lower judiciary. What I am pleading for is only a rational discussion of judgments without the sway of emotions or narrow sectarian or political proclivities. I am speaking in the context of at least three cases that were decided recently by different courts: the Supreme Court, a High Court and a trial court of sessions. These have been discussed and criticised in the media by a spectrum of public figures and experts.
Many of the commentators who were active in this connection are the best in the country, although a few carried a bias arising from their well-known political and other predilections. One must remember that such debates have a profound influence on the people’s perceptions of an institution such as the judiciary. This is why commentators need to be careful and responsible when they air their views on court judgments, even if this means they risk sounding all too trite. Whether those who commented on the three judgments – the Ayodhya, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Pratibha Murthy cases – rose to the exacting standards that I set here is doubtful.
The most contentious of the three cases is certainly the one relating to legal rights over the land on which the Babri Masjid once stood, until it was unjustifiably and crudely demolished on December 6, 1992. The judgment, in what is distinctly a civil case, given by a three-member Bench of the Allahabad High Court, decreed a three-way division of the disputed land among the three litigants. While this has been found acceptable to some sections of the population in Ayodhya and elsewhere, others believe that the ruling went beyond the questions posed to the Bench and that some of its statements, especially with regard to the place of birth of Rama, were based more on traditional faith carried over to the present, than on facts established by documents. One jurist went to the extent of criticising the ruling as the product of an attempt at mediation in “panchayati” style. This I thought was uncharitable. Fortunately, no one who was unhappy with the judgment has until now cast aspersions of bias on any of the three judges. This is great testimony to the quality of our higher judiciary.
I am no expert on Ayodhya, which is an extremely complicated tangle. I am, however, persuaded by the fact that feelings on the issue are surcharged, and any decisive ruling in favour of one of the parties would have definitely excited emotions so badly that the Court order could have led to a major inter-religious conflagration. This is what possibly agitated the minds of the judges when they gave a compromise formula. In my view, this was judicial sagacity of the highest order that deserves to be commended rather than denounced.
Even the strictest possible analysis of the verdict shows that it was not exactly extra-legal, but one that accommodated rival points of view to the extent possible. It is the role of the judiciary to ensure that in such sensitive social issues the mean path is adhered to so that equilibrium in the community is maintained. The fact that the judgment did not lead to a disturbance of peace is itself proof that it was the best compromise possible. The judiciary in a plural society needs to rise above differences of religion and caste, and the Allahabad High Court judgment did succeed in achieving this difficult objective.
The Mattoo case dealt with the brutal rape and murder, in January 1996, of Priyadarshani Mattoo, a Delhi law student, by one of her seniors, Santosh Singh. This was a crime of the most abominable variety. It was initially handled by the Delhi Police and later transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation once it became known that the father of the accused was a senior Delhi Police officer. The CBI laid the charge sheet after sustained inquiries. The trial court was convinced that Santosh Singh was the culprit. It, however, acquitted him on the basis of certain inconsistencies in the forensic evidence let in – such as chain of custody of samples picked up at the scene.
The CBI escalated the matter to the Delhi High Court, which accepted the prosecution story in toto and sentenced Santosh Singh to death. The latter appealed to the Supreme Court. Delivering the judgment recently, the two-member Bench held the accused guilty but commuted his sentence to one of life. The judges cited the youth of the accused and the fact that he got married after acquittal by the trial court and became a father as reasons why he deserved compassion. This has naturally not gone down well with the victim’s family and their lawyers. They strongly believe that the mercy shown to Santosh Singh was misplaced and that the Supreme Court had erred in ignoring the feelings of the victim’s father, who had carried on a relentless campaign to avenge the cruelty.
It may sound contrived when I say that my heart goes out to the Mattoos, who could not have suffered a greater tragedy in their lives. I do not think we can find anybody, barring the close relatives of the accused, who demonstrates an iota of sympathy for Santosh Singh. Except some of us who stand for the abolition of capital punishment, none would have disagreed with the Supreme Court if it had confirmed the death sentence. This was because the crime was barbaric and had been established firmly despite the fact that there was no eyewitness. The point is that courts cannot take a one-sided view of a crime, even when it has been proved beyond doubt. Justice laced with sympathy is a time-honoured concept that has been accepted widely by civilised society over centuries. The Supreme Court here did not say that it disbelieved the prosecution, nor did it seek a higher standard of proof, even though Santosh Singh was held guilty mainly on circumstantial evidence. The court’s position was only on the point of compassion to the accused because he had a very young child. Also, his youth offered hope of penitence and reform.
People like us, not directly affected by the tragedy, are undoubtedly impressed by the Supreme Court’s remarkable stand, which required tremendous courage to take because of the likelihood of adverse criticism from the victim’s family and friends and the media. Undeniably, some of us are at variance with the Mattoos, who lost a lovely daughter who had a promising career before her. The conflict between rival stands – those who are touched by the judicial compassion and those looking to avenge the barbaric killing – will never be resolved. This is the tragedy of many cases brought before criminal justice agencies, and we have necessarily to live with such a paradox.
The case of the rape and murder of a business process outsourcing (BPO) employee, Pratibha Murthy, in Bangalore by a taxi driver, Shivakumar, in 2005 is only slightly different from the Mattoo case. Unlike in the latter case, the accused was a total stranger to the victim. The case was tried by a so-called fast track court and the judgment delivered only on October 8, 2010. Few doubted the guilt of the accused, and his conviction was rightly welcomed by all. The controversy is over the quantum of punishment.
The trial judge’s award of a life in jail (until death) has been criticised as lenient, because of the fear that life sentence opens up the possibility of the convict’s release at the end of 14 years, the period prescribed by the Criminal Procedure Code for such a sentence. I am not sure whether the judge’s stipulation that the convict be held in prison until he dies is sanctioned by law.
It is possible that the State may go on appeal, under pressure from the victim’s family and the weight of public opinion. In any case, the quantum of punishment imposed on the taxi driver is debatable. There is no final resolution of this. However, is it not time to take a fresh look at what “rarest of rare cases” would mean in the context of rising violent crime, especially when the victim is both raped and murdered?
In sum, the three judgments display a certain maturity of the justice system in the country, despite all the criticism against its susceptibility to political pressure and the poor quality of the lower judiciary. There is the further dismay that the judiciary, except in rare cases, does not attract the best of talent. Finally, there are the wide differences between the executive and the judiciary over the manner in which appointments should be made to the High Courts and the Supreme Court.
The three judgments offer the hope that these shortcomings in the system will not inhibit judges from being innovative, compassionate and bold in cases that attract media attention. This is why any overhauling of the system in response to charges of politicisation and downright lack of integrity against individual judges needs to be done after due deliberation. I believe this represents the consensus among the common people in the country.