Eight years ago, the Supreme Court condemned Muhammad Afzal Guru to be hanged for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament House, saying, astonishingly, that “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” Guru was walked to the gallows Saturday morning at the end of the macabre rite governments enact from time to time to propitiate that most angry of gods, a vengeful public. Through this grim, secret ceremony, however, India has been gravely diminished. The reasons for this are not just the obvious ones — among them, that Guru was a bit-actor in the attack on Parliament, and his trial marred by procedural and substantive errors. These arguments were examined by the highest court in the country and found wanting. There is one argument, though, that wasn't ever examined — which is precisely why Guru, like scores of other Indians, ended up on death row in the first place. The answer has a great deal to do with expedience, and nothing to do with justice.
The hideous truth is this: judicial executions in India have all the rationality of the roulette table. Last month, Justices P Sathasivam and Fakkir Kalifullah commuted the death penalty given to Mohinder Singh for killing both his daughter and wife -- this while out of prison on parole where he was serving time for earlier raping the girl. The judges argued that the death penalty ought only be considered when a perpetrator posed “a menace and threat to the harmonious and peaceful coexistence of the society.” One week later, Justices Sathasivam and Jagdish Khehar upheld death for Sundararajan, who kidnapped and then killed a seven year old boy. The judges noted, among other things the “agony for parents for the loss of their male child, who would have carried further the family lineage.” Besides the obvious imprint of gender values on judicial reasoning, it is the arbitrariness of outcome in cases that are similar which tells us something is seriously wrong. In a signal article published recently in this newspaper. V. Venkatesan noted how the Supreme Court has itself admitted that many of those on death row are there because of“erroneous legal precedents set by itself.” (December 10, 2012) Yet, both the judiciary and the government have been reluctant to announce a moratorium on executions until a thoroughgoing review is carried out. This ought not to surprise us: in case after case, the course of criminal justice has been shaped by public anger and special-interest lobbying. Indians must remember the foundational principle of our Republic, the guardian of all our rights and freedoms, isn't popular sentiment: it is justice, which in turn is based on the consistent application of principles. For one overriding reason, Guru’s hanging ought to concern even those unmoved by his particular case, or the growing ethics-based global consensus against the death penalty. There is no principle underpinning the death penalty in India today except vengeance. And vengeance is no principle at all.