Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Dec 25, 2002
Capital punishment Will it work as a deterrent?
ON Tuesday morning the front pages of newspapers were dominated by court rulings in two cases pertaining to violence that claimed many innocent lives. The first pertained to the trial of activists of the militant organisation Al Umma, accused for the murder of police constable Selvaraj in Coimbatore in November 1997. This traffic contable was murdered for booking a case against two scooterists for violating traffic rules.
Following Selvaraj's death, Coimbatore and its surrounding areas were devastated by communal violence for several days. In the police firing and other violence that ensued, 20 people lost their lives. This incident was also believed to have resulted in the serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore in February 1998, which were said to have actually targeted Mr. L. K.Advani, then the Central Home Minister. Though he was nowhere near the scene of the blasts that devastated Coimbatore city, 59 innocent people lost their lives and over 250 people were injured.
The Fast Track Court that delivered the judgement on Monday awarded capital punishment to four of the accused Mohammed Shafi, Aashiq, Abbas and Abu Tahir. Four others, including the Al Umma Secretary, Mohammed Ansari, were given life imprisonment.
On the face of it, this might sound extremely harsh punishment for the death of a single policeman. But, as the judge Mr R. Premkumar, observed while delivering the verdict, this was the "gravest of grave and rarest of rare crimes". Those on trial for the murder of Selvaraj were driven by a clear revenge motive and merely because they felt that their leader, Ansari, had been insulted at a police station in Coimbatore.
The consequences of this murder were grievous, observed the judge. Following Selvaraj's death, the city's police corps went on strike and the army had to be deployed.
The second case reported yesterday is the acquittal of former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar by a Delhi Additional sessions court. Sajjan Kumar was on trial on the charge of having led a mob that targeted and attacked Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.
The case against Kumar had been lodged on the basis of a complaint by Anwar Kaur, the widow of Nevin Singh, who charged that he had instigated a mob through an inflammatory speech, after which the mob had proceeded to her house, pulled out her husband and burnt him alive.
The former MP was acquitted on Monday with the judge ruling that there "were no eyewitnesses" and the evidence presented was "poor".
There is a point of view that the Coimbatore judgement is too harsh and the evidence there too is quite flimsy. And, anyway, capital punishment should not be resorted to in an era that is far removed from the "eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth" days.
Another point of view, not yet stated but only whispered, is from a section of the Muslim community. These people say that these days, with the entire world frowning upon Islamic fundamentalism and traumatised by the jehadi brand of terrorists, Muslim youth who come up for trial in such cases are bound to be viewed much more harshly by any court trying them. These are the same people who say that while the Muslim student body SIMI was banned a couple of years ago, the Bajrang Dal whose members had carried out heinous attacks, including the burning alive of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons had escaped the ban.
They are quick to point out, and not without justification, the incarceration of the Kashmir Times journalist Iftikar Gilani, also the son-in-law of the Hurriyat separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for over six months in prison. His crime is the possession of a "top secret" document, which has been found on investigation, not to be so secret at all. This so-called secret document is available on some Pakistan Web sites and was published in a journal available in many libraries in Delhi.
Reverting to the death penalty, only last week, a special POTA court in New Delhi sentenced to death the three primary accused in the attack on Parliament. S. A. R. Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru and Mohammed Afzal were given capital punishment for conspiring with the five terrorists (shot dead by the security forces during the December 13 attack), the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Masood Azhar, and other leaders of the terrorist outfit.
The debate rages between those who say India should do away with capital punishment and move towards being a "liberal, humane" society, and those who say that in the face of increased terrorist activities, only deterrent punishment like a death penalty can work.
There is no doubt that terrorism has to be crushed with unflinching resolve and the sternest of action. It has ravaged, and continues to ravage, Kashmir, where the latest victims of the terrorists' guns and bombs were innocent children. But, then, do we need laws like POTA, which can be, and indeed are, misused by politicians to settle personal and political scores?
In a recent interview to Business Line, an eminent lawyer and human rights activist in Ahmedabad, Mr Girish Patel, who admits to being "allergic" to the Sangh Parivar and its brand of politics, said: "I say all these things (about the Gujarat administration's complicity in the March 2002 riots) and get away with them, without being put behind bars, because I am a Hindu. If I were a Muslim and had said all these things, I would have been arrested long ago."
These are troubled times, indeed, in which we find ourselves. When you see the death and the destruction, the tears and the horror, that a terrorist attack creates, invariably traumatising innocent people who have no influence or control over a state or a nation's policy decisions, the instinctive reaction is revenge. The death penalty should be available to a court of law to punish such criminals, is the common refrain. But what revenge can you take against suicide bombers who do not even wish to live, either to escape or face the consequences in a court of law? In a way, they are opting for the death sentence on themselves.
With people like the Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, calling upon Hindu youth to come out and train to be suicide bombers, to match their Islamic counterparts, we are certain to encounter more bloody and violence-filled times. Keeping pace with him, as well as the Islamic fundamentalists, are such rabble-rousers as the VHP General-Secretary, Praveen Togadia, who is flush with the BJP's mammoth success in Gujarat. Every inflammatory speech he makes, asking the Muslims to "behave and live in India like a minority", with limited rights, will only serve as extra fuel for brain-washed jehadis, and will provoke them to further violence.
For all Israel's tough talk and action in Palestine, the suicide attacks on Israelis, at home and abroad, have only increased. With the Hindu/Muslim polarisation in this country at an all-time high, terrorist activities are only bound to increase.
History and experience tell us that the "victor" only wants more, and the "vanquished" gets so desperate at the thought that he has already lost so much, and that there is nothing more to lose.
At the end of the day, capital punishment or no capital punishment, violence and trauma in a society can be controlled by a leadership that can sell the mantra of peaceful co-existence. But, then, what hope do we have of this at a time when the apostle of non-violence, the Mahatma himself, has not too many admirers in his own land?
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