Two groups of Indians facing the gallows in India and two men executed in the United States, but vastly different reactions in both instances exposed a certain inconsistency that needs to be nailed.
Three Tamil men convicted of the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi won an eight-week stay from the Madras High Court in late August after all mercy petitions were rejected. And the legislature in Tamil Nadu state of which Madras (now Chennai) is the capital, passed a unanimous resolution asking that the death sentence be commuted. This followed a massive campaign including through the use of social media for sparing the men, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan (who use single names). But when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah of Jammu and Kashmir wondered aloud what the reaction would be should the assembly in his state act similarly over a separatist on death row, he met with virulent reaction: a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party called for his exit. Few anti-death penalty activists spoke up in Abdullah’s support.
In the United States, prior to the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia on 21 September 2011, there was much mobilization spilling over into global social media. Tens of thousands put their names to petitions. And there was palpable gloom after the US Supreme Court summarily rejected a last minute petition. But the execution the same day of Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist convicted of the brutal killing of a black man in 1998, went largely unnoticed. That Davis, a black man, maintained his innocence until the end and that Brewer showed no regret for dragging James Byrd Jr behind a truck for three miles leading to a horrific torture-death might have influenced the attitudes.
But should there be a hierarchy of undesirability, as it were, in death penalty cases? That would also be tantamount to practicing double standards. Death penalty is wrong in all cases, as human rights organizations including Amnesty International have been pointing out times without number.
Certainly, some iconic cases such as that of Troy Davis, who stood out through his dignity and whose conviction seemed to arouse much doubt, help in rallying public support for the cause of universal abolition.
And yet, a greater consistency would be helpful in promoting a more sustained opposition and would help draw upon support from a wider pool of societies. The American Civil Liberties Union’s approach is the one that NGOs and activists need to emulate. The ACLU opposes restrictions on neo-Nazis and pornographers and on displays of extreme religious faith, with as much force as it defends causes dear to liberals.
In India too, opponents of the death penalty need to band together to fight cases with equal vigour and while allowing for regional accents, should display a coordinated show of strength in order to make a dent with the country’s fickle media and politicians.
One of the bigger battles to come could be over the death penalty pending over the Pakistani Ajmal Kasab, the only man captured alive and convicted after the 26 November 2008 attack in Bombay in which 166 people were killed. The Hindu rightwing has been baying for his blood, as it has been for that of Mohammed Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri convicted of conspiracy in the December 2001 attack on the parliament in New Delhi. (On the Afzal Guru case, see the excellent commentary by the leading human rights lawyer, Nandita Haksar, “Why Afzal Must not be Hanged” http://www.countercurrents.org/haskar270510.htm)
But there is perceptible ambivalence within the BJP and other Hindu right groups over the issue of the death penalty. While the BJP called for the execution of the Tamil convicts over the Rajiv Gandhi killing, it has been less vocal than it has been in calling for speedy implementation of the death penalty passed on Muslim convicts.
Interestingly, it was a BJP home (interior) minister who agreed to waive the death penalty in order to get Abu Salem, an underworld don, extradited from Portugal, which has abolished the death penalty. Abu Salem is one of the main accused over the 1993 attacks in Bombay that killed more than 250 people.
The last known execution in India was in 2004, thanks to a hysterical campaign by the wife of the then Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in West Bengal. The CPM often makes pro-human rights noises. On this issue, it turned a blind eye to the principle of fair trial and right to life.
Meanwhile, an anti-corruption leader who received massive support from the Hindu rightwing recently revealed his true colours by calling for terrorists to be hanged on street corners. Anna Hazare claims to be – and is widely referred to in the media as – a Gandhian. While saying he acknowledged that capital punishment was wrong, he added that the public demanded stern action in the face of terrorism.
Many other people pronounce themselves to be opposed to the death penalty but make some exceptions. The trouble is that one person’s exception is another’s priority case, just as a terrorist for some is a freedom fighter for others. Which is why opponents of the death penalty have to look beyond regional issues and see all victims – Tamils, Sikhs, Kashmiris or those convicted of violent crimes – equally.
Keeping alive those convicted of terrorism yields greater political dividend than making martyrs of them would. Witness Abdullah Ocalan, who led a Kurdish guerrilla struggle in Turkey: his life was spared because Ankara abolished the death penalty as part of reforms aimed at facilitating European Union entry. Ocalan has reportedly mellowed in prison but then so has Turkey, whose stand in support of democratisation in the Middle East has been among the more heartening spectacles of 2011.
Just as activists and NGOs need to be consistent vis-à-vis individual cases, they also need to avoid focusing on death penalty alone to the exclusion of other pressing and related human rights issues. All human rights are universal, indivisible and interrelated. Activists must avoid myopia such as shown by the Spain-based organization, International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP), which has included former Philippines president Gloria Arroyo on its panel, despite the notorious tally of extra-judicial killings during her years in office. (See http://www.icomdp.org/commission/ and http://www.humanrights.asia/news/ahrc-news/AHRC-OLT-007-2011.) Bumping off political opponents is nothing short of death penalty by illegal means.
An impressive number of UN member states have abolished the death penalty, but countries with large populations still lie outside that map. It is vital that they be persuaded to join through sustained, consistent action. And for this, it would be helpful if activists demonstrate their commitment by not only championing the cases of those they view as innocent or those of an ethnic group they can identify with but also death row inmates who might have pleaded guilty of horrific crimes and who belong to foreign or even dominant ethnic groups.