Skewed debate on justice system
Yakub Memon was hanged to death on July 30, 2015. His conviction strongly rested on his ‘confession’ to the police, which used to be admissible under TADA, a draconian law that was widely denounced for being in violation of basic human rights. This hanging in Maharashtra was preceded by hectic activity in Lutyens’ Delhi. I was late to return home on the night of July 29. Yakub Memon would hang in a few hours. On the streets of Kolkata, very late at night, there were men at work. They were toiling very hard on Kolkata’s streets. This road work, the product of their <g data-gr-id="62"><g data-gr-id="62">labour</g></g>, is something whose fruits I enjoy on a daily basis.
From my years of conversation with many of them, I know that their shift often goes on past sunrise, after which they do not necessarily get to rest. That some human beings may work at night, while many others are sleeping is nothing exceptional. It is quite commonplace. It is another matter that the essential service they provide is grossly under-compensated. It is only when those who never work this hard at any hour of the day, let alone at 3 am or 4 am, deign to do something like that; it acquires the elements of a spectacle. Words like duty and conscience do the rounds.
Such selective adulation is an insult to road makers, truck drivers, sex workers and millions of others who spend their nights under oppressive and life-threatening conditions, not for any greater glory to ‘nation’, not to stealthily ‘encounter’ or ‘disappear’ others, but for their mere survival. I remember what my friend Janam Mukherjee once quipped after witnessing an altercation between a Bhadralok in Kolkata (a tribe I belong to) and an auto-driver: ‘That man (the <g data-gr-id="55"><g data-gr-id="55">bhadralok</g></g>) has not worked a single day in his life’. By work, he meant the kind of toil that an auto-driver and his tribe has to go through – hourly, daily, monthly, yearly, generationally.
Barring the few men and women who were part of the hectic late-night Lutyens saga not as part of <g data-gr-id="57"><g data-gr-id="57">job</g></g> description but as part of some grand ethical-moral duty, the rest agreed that justice was done. The Indian Union stands in a minority among UN member nations in using the <g data-gr-id="43"><g data-gr-id="43">death-penalty</g></g>. A majority of the countries that have practiced death penalty in the last 10 years call themselves ‘Islamic Republics’ of some form. The Indian Union is the sole nation-state in South Asia that does not have Islam as the state religion but also practices the death penalty in law and practice.
But not all citizens of the Indian Union share this so-called ‘collective conscience’. Parties with huge support-bases like the DMK, AIADMK, Akali Dal, etc have opposed the death penalty publicly and have led strong movements against it in specific cases. If anything, they were responding to public sentiments against the hanging of a particular convict. So not all collectives in the Indian Union have the same kind of conscience. In this nation-state of routine ‘encounter’ killings, unmarked mass graves, death in custody by torture, ‘disappearances’ and other examples of Khaki manliness that have never been given the death sentence by any court of the land, the late-night events in Lutyens Delhi will ‘go down in history’ as the ‘dance of democracy’. We pay for the upkeep of this and we will continue to do so.
Actually, there is already an unspoken ban on the death penalty in the Indian Union for certain kinds of perpetrators - something that is barely concealed. While the death penalty is the most visible form of murder by the state, ‘encounter’ is the commonest form and ‘disappearance’ is probably the most brutal form. I am probably cynical in stating that the death penalty will not be given for any serving policeman for crimes done during ‘performance of duty’, for targeted massacres of Dalits by forward-castes, for cases involving crimes by BSF, CRPF and Army personnel, for the murder of ‘Indians’ who don’t consider themselves to be so, for a single encounter killing, for air bombing Indian citizens in the city of Aizawl, for the killers of Thangjam Manorama, for any of the massacres of civilians in Kashmir, for rioter of Mumbai 1992-93, Bhagalpur 1989, Delhi 1984, Hashimpura 1987, Kashipur-Baranagar 1972 and many other crimes committed at the sacrificial altar of the state. The list of innocents whose killers will never get justice and the list of those who are regularly framed in false cases for crimes they didn’t commit is reason enough not to leave something like death penalty in the hands of the powers-that-be.
It’s not about criminals, it is about the amount of power over people’s lives that a state not worthy of such trust should have. In such circumstances, the death penalty becomes one more tool of naked power, enforced with supreme confidence by those who are the most powerful in the Indian Union, and best-protected from the consequences of their actions.