Anger and angst were writ large on the faces of students, especially those from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, during the brief question and answer session following a “Public Meeting on Capital Punishment and the State of Indian Democracy” organized by Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA) here at FTK-CIT, JMI on Tuesday, February 19, 2013. The hall was full to capacity with a large number of students waiting outside to listen to the speakers who dwelt on the issue of capital punishment at a time when the hanging of Afzal Guru, accused in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, has triggered a nationwide debate over capital punishment.
Speakers on the occasion were: Iftikhar Gilan, Journalist; A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court; Nitya Ramakrishnan, lawyer in the Supreme Court, and Sukumar Muralidhran, Journalist.
Iftikhar Gilani narrated a harrowing story of his imprisonment in Tihar Jail, where he was jailed on the charges of possessing classified information and violating the Official Secrets Act in 2002. A charge he was later acquitted of. While talking about the necessity of exemplary punishment to serve as a deterrent for criminals, he said that the police and criminal system must be transparent and impartial. Capital punishment, if removed, said Gilani, should be “accompanied with jail reform”. Terming Tihar as “the worst jail in the country,” he said that if there was no reform a thief will come out of jail as a dacoit. As death is irreversible, capital punishment should be avoided, he added.
Justice A.P. Shah (Retd.) maintained that the execution of Afzal Guru had raised several disturbing questions, serious doubts about quality of evidence on the basis of which he was convicted and, also whether he had got adequate legal defense before the trail court.
Afzal Guru was denied the opportunity to challenge the rejection of his mercy petition by the President, Shah said. He also hinted towards violation of fundamental rights at times in certain cases under Article 21 of the Constitution by unjust, unfair and unreasonable way because of prolong delay in the execution of death sentence that has a dehumanizing effect. While advocating to give the accused chance to reform, he said that fabrication of evidence was rampant in the country. Most countries of the world had turned their back on capital punishment, either in law or in practice.
Supreme Court advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan said that despite compelling arguments against death penalty over the years, it remained on the statute book. She said that there was no justification for death penalty in any civilized society. She also raised concern over the “duplicity of the process”.
A senior lawyer, Ramakrishnan maintained that the approval for capital punishment was due to disenchantment with the process which had triggered young people to demand death penalty in the case of the recent Delhi gang rape. The whole idea of human rights, she said, was the fact that a person has certain rights because he or she is a human being, despite of his crimes. She lamented that law had actually taken “a lawless course.” She also raised concern over shrinking of the space for dialogue.
Journalist Sukumar Muralidhran questioned the fairness of the judiciary. How much integrity our institutions have in terms of operating with fairness and lack of prejudice, he asked. In the case of Afzal’s hanging certain norms that are laid out were violated, he said. While arguing about reforms, Muralidharan said that prisoners were living death every day. He also added, there is a deep sense of alienation among the people of Kahsmir. There is an “emotional gulf between Kahsmir and the rest of India”, he said. There is also a competition between the BJP and Congress about “who is tougher and harder,” he said.
At the end of the “public meeting” Manisha Sethi of JTSA read out resolutions, which were passed unanimously by the house with a show of hands.
Resolutions adopted at the Meeting on Capital Punishment and the State of Indian Democracy are:
1. This House expresses its outrage at the secret hanging of Afzal Guru, and the cynical and callous denial of his right to seek judicial remedy.
2. This House demands that the mortal remains of Afzal Guru be handed over to his family without any delay.
3. This House strongly condemns the assault on Kashmiri students and others who were protesting the execution of Afzal Guru, in Delhi and elsewhere, by Bajrang Dal.
4. This House denounces the government’s attempts to harass, intimidate and gag senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani and Delhi University teacher SAR Geelani.
5. This House demands that the Special Cell personnel involved in this exercise of intimidation be suspended immediately.
6. This House condemns the cowardly attempts to rob the Kashmiri people of their right to protest through clamp downs, curfews and censorship.
7. This House demands an immediate moratorium on executions, including those of Simon, Meesakara Mathayan, Bilavendran and Gnanaprakasam.
8. This House strongly feels that capital punishment is a cruel and degrading form of punishment, and has no place in civilized society. India must follow the lead of over 141 countries which have abolished the death penalty and strike it off from its criminal justice system.
On this occasion, JTSA also brought out a 22-page booklet with the title “Capital punishment: An Agenda for Abolition.”
(With inputs from Samreen Mushtaq)