Saturday, February 09, 2013

Afzal Guru hanged: Should we celebrate?

Throughout human history, capital punishment was used as a tool to punish the criminals, and as a deterrent, for crimes ranging from treason to murder, from religious crimes to rape, adultery, etc.  

Various methods were used to kill the convicted.  Some of these methods are:  decapitation (removing the head with an axe or sword), disembowelment (cutting the abdomen to remove the intestine), impalement (piercing a person using pole through length of the body), execution by burning (tying the person to a stake and burning till death), dismemberment (killing a person by pulling out legs and hands), crushing (by placing stones or using elephants), sawing (hanging the person upside down and then sawing the person starting at the groin), crucifixion (person is nailed to a wooden cross and left to die), boiling to death (by immersing in boiling oil or water), flaying (death by removing the skin of the body), slow slicing (removing parts of the body slowly with a knife), or blowing from a gun (a head blown from cannon).

Medieval England 'hanged, drawn and quartered' its convicted criminals eliciting cheers and applause from the crowds.   This method is described by Wiki as:

Convicts were fastened to a wooden panel and drawn by horse to the place of execution where they were hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Their remains were often displayed in prominent places across the country.

One would think that such an event would make people cringe, make people nauseated, make people turn away from the gory spectacle.  One would think that such a method would bring tears to the people, not the applause, and yet, it seems to be a base human trait – to celebrate such public executions.  During the ancient and medieval times, public executions drew large crowds.  When the convict was executed the crowds cheered and celebrated.  

Crowds gathered in huge numbers to witness public executions.  Tickets were sold for viewing.  Vendors sold food and drinks.  People bought souvernirs.  It was like modern-day concert or carnival.  

Many kingdoms regularly scheduled public executions to draw people’s attention away from their woes, away from gloomy economy ailing the country, or take their attention away from a scandal, etc.   And it looks like gladiator games and public executions helped the kings stay in power distracting the people from real issues. 

Baying for blood of the criminal seems to be a base human instinct.  Humans want blood, they want revenge, they want to see the criminal suffer for his crimes.  And they take pleasure in awarding capital punishment to their criminals.   Seeking death sentence is a common demand in most criminal cases.   In modern times, the governments have taken over the monopoly on awarding the death sentence, thereby regulating it.  Some modern societies, like contemporary Indians, demand death sentence, and the government schedules these executions at regular intervals to satisfy the ‘collective conscience’ of its millions who want blood.

Right now, about 58 countries continue to practice capital punishment while 97 countries have abolished it.  Most countries who abolish capital punishment believe that no jury, no court decision, no evidence is infallible.  They also believe that killing another human being by a sane society is not justified even when that criminal has committed the gravest of the crimes. 

India is one of the 58 countries which continues to give capital punishment to its convicts.  

Recently, when Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist who attacked the city of Mumbai killing many innocent people, was hanged, Indians came out into streets to celebrate.  They fired crackers on the streets, and every almost every leader, religious or political, congratulated the country or the government for carrying it out.

Today, Afzal Guru was hanged for his allegedly complicit involvement in an attack on Indian Parliament. 

The Supreme Court verdict which sentenced Afzal Guru to the death sentence read:

The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender.

The question I ask is, can we mete out punishment to satisfy collective conscience of a society?  Do we award punishment according to the law, or according to collective opinion of a majority? Isn't the modern penal and judicial system designed to remove that bias, the bias of emotive society, or the saddened politician, or collective will of a group of people?
We in India continue to hand out death sentence as punishment, applying it only to the cases of ‘rarest of rare’ and yet, the Supreme Court while awarding death sentence to Afzal Guru admits the following:

…there is … no direct evidence of the agreement amounting to criminal conspiracy. However, the circumstances cumulatively considered and weighed, would unerringly point to the collaboration of the accused Afzal with the slain terrorists.

So there was no direct evidence.  There was only circumstantial evidence.  So, should we hand out death sentence on circumstantial evidence? 

Because in another case before Supreme Court, it says the following:

…when conviction is based solely on circumstantial evidence, capital punishment should not be handed out.

So, why death sentence to Afzal Guru based on circumstantial evidence? 

Is Afzal Guru killed today to satisfy millions of Indians, as a means to satisfy a political agenda, or to distract the people from an issue, or is he killed because Indians just want blood? 

According to me, this verdict and this hanging sets a bad precedent.  Shall we convict a person because the majority bays for his blood? Or should acquit him because the majority pardons him? 

[BTW, I did not agree with the Supreme Court verdict back in 2006].


  1. "Most countries who abolish capital punishment believe that no jury, no court decision, no evidence is infallible"

    Not even in case of Ajmal Kasab, where there is video evidence at CST?

    "no direct evidence of the agreement amounting to criminal conspiracy. "

    Is there direct evidence connecting Osama Bin Laden with 9/11 ? Yet operation Abbotabad dealt a severe blow to Al Qaeda. Do you disagree hanging Guru before 2008 may have prevented 26/11?

    1. What you are citing is one specific example where there is video evidence of Ajmal Kasab. However, law cannot be defined as 'apply death sentence when video evidence' is available. Even if such a law exists, there are chances that innocent people are convicted because people make mistakes in identification even when seen on a video - like a low quality security video. There are hundreds of examples where people who were awarded death sentence were later found out to be innocent.

      In a life sentence, one can change the punishment if new evidence shows up to prove the innocence. Once the person is killed, we cannot change the decision.

      Operation at Abbotabad is carried out by US which continues to use the death sentence.

      And the modern system of penal code is based on the concept that it is better to let go ten criminals than to punish one innocent.

    2. Kasab's accomplices were killed during action. To that extent, these deaths can be considered to be a part of a war. Kasab's case is different because he was captured. He was unarmed when he was executed.

      It is true Kasab was tried under the prescribed due process. One of the arguments against capital punishment is that an irreversible step like taking life is incorrect as no process can ever be perfect.

  2. 220 people were executed in USA between 2007 and 2011(source: TOI) , highest among democratic countries. And USA is world's most powerful democracy. Need I say more?

    1. Just because US practices capital punishment is no good reason for every country to do the same. The gun laws, preemptive strikes against other countries, opposing ban on mines, not recognizing international courts, etc, practiced by US are criticized worldwide.

  3. @Sujaida- Be kind enough to tell me what exactly is your concern? Because after reading all your posts regarding Guru all I am getting is you are not content but not the exact reason reason why so?

    1. Is it the judgement in this particular case? You have mentioned before that if the law condemns Guru to death we should abide by such judgement. If so then am I to assume that you have no problem with the maximum punishment if the law is to take its due course?

    2. Or is it the maximum punishment itself? Your argument for such vexation being that ->no jury, no court, no evidence is infallible...

    3. Or is it the both 1 and 2? Such scenario will be analogous to a lap pouring in water in a tub which is leaking so generously that no matter how much you observe, water is not getting accumulated. You must devote yourself to one thing at a time...either the tap or the tub...not both (i mean that's why judiciary and legislature are not one man's estates)

    I agree Afzal Guru may be a victim. But what I want to know now after his death is -> Is his case an isolated incidence of opportunistic politics or I have more to fear?

    1. Rohan Shedage:

      what exactly is your concern?

      My concern can be captured in these two sentences.
      1. I am opposed to meting out punishment to satisfy ‘collective conscience’.
      2. I see a problem when circumstantial evidence is used to mete out death sentence.

      Modern judicial system, based on rule of law, is based on premise that ‘all are equal’ before law. This means that whether the criminal is a king or a pauper, the judicial system will treat him the same. It won’t go about saying, ‘hey, he is a politician, so let’s punish him more, or that he is very rich, so let him go scot free’. No matter who commits the crime, the verdict is same.

      In the same way, it does not matter who the victim is. Whether it is the Prime Minister who is assassinated or if it is the common man, the punishment cannot change.

      Rule of law dictates that the judge should keep the verdict unbiased. Just because people are baying for the blood, he should not mete out the strongest punishment. He should not be swayed by public opinion, or the coercion of Chief Minister. He should not reduce the punishment or increase it just because one MLA or one religion seeks it.

      If harsh punishment is meted out to ‘satisfy collective conscience’, it sets a bad legal precedent. Now, can we acquit someone because people believe he is innocent? Right now, mother of YS Jagan has collected 2 crore signatures requesting the state to release YS Jagan. Should we release him to ‘satisfy the collective opinion’ of 2 crore people?

      Supreme Court agreed that death sentence should used in ‘rarest of rare’ cases. It has agreed that in cases where there is no direct evidence, death sentence should not be awarded. And yet, while admitting that no direct evidence against Afzal Guru, it awards death sentence, only to ‘satisfy the collective conscience’.

      If so then am I to assume that you have no problem with the maximum punishment if the law is to take its due course?

      While the hanging is legal, because it follows the law of the land, because it was done as per the verdict of Supreme court, it does not mean that we cannot challenge legal procedure and interpretation of the law itself. Let me give an example. Though Abraham Lincoln emancipated blacks through his famous amendments, Jim Crow laws were incorporated by states to segregate blacks. For nearly 100 years, those laws segregated and discriminated blacks in United States. Many people criticized the laws and the legal procedures which imposed this segregation. Blacks challenged it through powerful movements. Eventually through a series of landmark decisions in 1950-60s these interpretations were reversed, where ‘equal but separate’ Jim Crow laws were deemed unconstitutional.

      2. Or is it the maximum punishment itself?

      My argument is quite simple. Capital punishment is being done away by most countries. Capital punishment is an archaic instrument which needs to be done away with. Even if we were to continue death sentence, we need to reserve it for ‘rarest of rare’ cases, and it should definitely be not used to ‘satisfy collective conscience’ and when the evidence is circumstantial.

      Is his case an isolated incidence of opportunistic politics or I have more to fear?

      There are no isolated incidents in law. They set precedent for the next case. And before we realize, it becomes the general law of the land.

      We all have more to fear. ‘Satisfying collective conscience’ can be used to kill any enemy- either it is political enemy or the corporate enemy. POTA was used more to settle scores with opposition than to nab the real terrorists. Also, ‘exculpating through popular opinion’ can be used to exonerate politicians, like how Gujaratis exonerated Modi because he won the elections, or how Manmohan Singh exonerated his own government’s actions of UPA I citing the electoral win of UPA II, or like how now YS Jagan’s mom believes she can get his son out of jail by getting 2 crore signatures.

  4. There are no isolated incidents in law. They set precedent for the next case. And before we realize, it becomes the general law of the land.

    That was well-said.

    Thanks for taking time to reply :)

  5. Yes, we should celebrate the following:

    1. In a life-and-death situation, the home ministry chooses the best communication method available viz. speedpost

    2. The postal department delivers the letter on Monday Feb-11

    3. While ordinary people like me know how to track a consignment, the Home secretary does not have a clue

    Mera Bharat mahaan!

  6. Your concern for the rule of law in the case of capital punishment is amazing considering you havent spoken one word against these bloody brainwashed freaks who think they will go to heaven by killing innocents. Where is your compassion for the people killed in train burnings, bomb blasts, indiscriminate shootings by these screwed up idiots.
    Where is your compassion for the guy on the street who is commuting to his job and is killed by these scoundrels for no reason? What about his family? What about his rights to have a life?
    Buddy, use some logic.. try not to follow these indian lefties so blindly.

  7. That is well written .. The judicial killing of Afzal Guru was sad. Norway set the best example of evolved morality when they refused to give death sentence to a mass murderer.


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