The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, <g data-gr-id="46">women</g> and children were accused over the next several months. This was the first recorded case of mass hysteria in a modern state over executions. Unfortunately, this was not to be the last, as examples in other countries suggest.
As Yakub Abdul Razak Memon, a small time <g data-gr-id="59">Mumbai based</g> accountant and younger brother of 1993 Mumbai serial blast mastermind Tiger Memon, literally awaits judgment day, there has been a sliver of shouting from right wing fringe parties demanding the summary execution of Yakub by the state and an even larger outcry demanding clemency. The Yakub Memon case has given us further evidence that carrying out death sentences in any case with political, sectarian, even ethnic fault lines will now be nearly impossible, unless it is done covertly as in the case of Kasab and Afzal Guru. In any case, a civilized state cannot make the death penalty its default policy. This game of political <g data-gr-id="60">hand wringing</g> has had historical precedents in modern Indian history. Sikh terror convicts Bhullar and Rajoana live on though their sentences have been already confirmed by the Apex Court. Tamil parties have weighed in quite effectively for Rajiv Gandhi’s killers because they are Tamil, never mind that they aren’t even Indian. On the other hand, the same divided public opinion will be united like a lynch mob when it comes to common hate figures, like convicts in the December 16 rape-murder case. One must reflect on its consequences.
First of all, it will definitely weaken India’s cause in the fight against terror. It must also be noted that increasingly only the poorest, most isolated and socially hated few, with no clansmen to speak for and whose cases activists won’t find fashionable enough to defend, will go to the gallows. This situation has to be addressed urgently. The time for a broader public debate on <g data-gr-id="55">death</g> penalty has now arrived. Certainly, if at all it is to continue, the death penalty should be limited to mass-slaughter or planned terrorism. But then the state will have to look, sound, and talk fair. <g data-gr-id="61">Becasue</g> the death penalty is still on the statute, Memon has been convicted and his sentence upheld by the highest court, there is little justification in reopening the case now. And if the case is reopened, in fairness to other accused and convicts, it will have to be accepted that the trial has been vitiated. The facts are out there in the public domain.
Yakub Memon surrendered voluntarily in Nepal. As part of the secret operation executed by B Raman, a 1961 batch IPS officer, Yakub Memon handed himself to the Indian government to assist with their investigation on the case and return to his homeland with dignity. B Raman further describes how Memon cooperated with the investigative agencies in India and did not deserve capital punishment. He asserts that there is not an iota of doubt about the involvement of Yakub and other members of the family in the conspiracy and their cooperation with the ISI till July 1994.
Under normal circumstances, Yakub would have deserved the death penalty if one only took into consideration his conduct and role before July 1994. But if one also takes into consideration his conduct and role after he was informally picked up in Kathmandu, there is a strong case for having second thoughts about the suitability of the death penalty in the subsequent stages of the case. In other words, according to those against the death penalty for Yakub Memon, his case does not really fit the rarest of rare case categories. It’s an issue with no definite answer.