As old as the provision in the law, the debate on death penalty is neither dying down nor concluding. A plethora of arguments for and against have been reiterated several times. In the recent past, a consent is being manufactured, a deafening outcry constructed and an apparent public demand being created on the streets of India.
This process is dangerously surpassing some of the legal provisions and constitutional guarantees in its fold. The propaganda that led to this consent has legitimised several dangerous discourses.
Some of the recent judgements of the Supreme Court upholding death penalty in the name of “satisfying collective conscience” certainly added to this. In the last 15 years, we have witnessed three judicial executions. Whose conscience did they satisfy that we continue to witness the same? It will be unfair to look at death penalty in isolation and as a singular demand.
The demand for death penalty in such contexts is nothing but a tried and tested political tool for channelising and diverting the discontent in society. Its selective use by the political class, cushioned by the propaganda setting media often obsessed with sensationalising news, is posing new dangers for our democracy, laws and institutions.
From 2012 to 2018, the compositions of the pro-death penalty herd have changed to suit the political classes’ aspiration of power. The conscience of these herds was at comfort enough when Manorama, Bhanwari, Pehlu, Afrazul and thousand others were raped or lynched and killed. These herds, consciously or sub-consciously, are legitimising jingoistic nationalism and the resultant electoral gains, on the bodies of Indian girls, women and minorities.
The propaganda machinery and their foot soldiers, the death penalty herds, have also shifted the epicentre of discourse from a crime to the accused, from a fair trial to public media trial, from justice institutions to streets and from certainty of punishment to severity of punishment.
In the two recent cases of rape, both in Kathua and Unnao, power was assumed by the combination of saffron supremacy complimented by the safeguards provided by the political establishment. The combination of the two are also evident in series of cases that we have witnessed over the recent years.
As a society constantly fed with intolerance, the demand for death penalty is yet another plot to sabotage pertinent questions challenging militant nationalism, patriarchy, subverting of the constitution and real justice in the legal justice system.
After Unnao, we have forgotten the rape victim’s father who was brutally tortured and killed, a number of encounters in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. The death penalty herds will not demand even justice in these cases and the reasons are well understood.
The demand for death penalty has been further propagated in the current atmosphere of hate. We are living in a context, where the life of a woman, Dalit, tribal, Muslim, Kashmiri seem to hold lesser significance in the name of national interest.
The justice institutions of this country, the courts and commissions, on several instances have repeatedly failed to protect them and deliver justice. The propaganda machinery has legitimised hate, hate crimes committed with impunity, that millions who live in this country today are lesser citizens.
Most of the death penalty herds on the streets are representative of these propagators of hate and hate crimes and for them death penalty in laws and court verdicts is an objective met. Probably an exception to these herds is the Chief of Delhi Commission for Women who chose to fast until death for death penalty.
She might not be a part of the hate brigade, if her declared intentions are believed to be genuine, but this too is surely going to be claimed during elections as their achievement. She is in a position to understand the nuances of these issues, respond to them institutionally and this kind of knee jerk reactions does raise valid questions.
Cross cutting support for death penalty across political parties is part of an uncanny race for electoral gains. 2012 and what followed thereafter, is a testament to this.
The successive governments in power rushed towards legitimising death penalty. It is the easiest way out for them. While in power, apart from the rhetoric of catchy slogans, little is done to protect women, minorities, Dalits and others in this country. Divisions and discriminations on the lines of gender, religion and caste are maintained, for absolute power to be possessed by the goons of ruling parties.
Often, as these two incidents echo, they are the perpetrators of hate and violence. Governments affirming death penalty is a tactic to evade addressing patriarchy, casteism and communalisation, ensuring the real and unchallenged possession of power among its brigade.
Probably it’s the time now to ask the Supreme Court what forms the collective conscience and whose conscience is satisfied when you see someone go down the death gallows. The three who were judicially executed in the recent years, evidently didn’t tamper with the conscience of thousands of those who are accused today in similar cases.
Deafening silence of the superior courts, human rights institutions and governments is a serious concern when citizens of this country are tortured and extrajudicially killed. In these killings, as we are being made to believe, a collective conscience is already satisfied.
The writer is associated with People’s Watch