The script ran on fairly predictable lines. President Pratibha Patil has been advised by the Union home ministry to turn down the mercy plea filed by the Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru. This comes on the heels of her rejecting the mercy petitions of three convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. This will, of course, reignite the debate on whether the death penalty is desirable in a democracy like India. That is not likely to be resolved any time now. But the more pertinent point is the length of time such emotionally charged cases seem to take.
It is true that there is no time limit for a mercy plea.
But the Afzal Guru case holds out some important lessons. In heinous crimes that warrant the death penalty, it is quite unnecessary to prolong the trials and sentencing as much as we do in India. Guru was convicted in 2004 and was to have been executed in 2006. Now five years later, his fate still hangs in the balance despite the recommendation to the President to reject his plea. In this period, he has become, and many would say undeservedly, a cause celebre with human rights groups who oppose the death penalty. His family has made many public pleas for mercy, something that has been amplified by a 24x7 media. Now that process will begin all over again. But, worse, the whole issue of his death sentence has been politicised. The BJP has been at pains to suggest that the ruling party is too weak-kneed to act against those who subvert national security. On several occasions, BJP leaders have thundered from public platforms asking for his execution as though such powers vested with them. An attack on Parliament certainly qualifies as a rarest of rare crime and no quarter can be given to the perpetrators. It amounts, as one of the honourable justices presiding over the case of the 2000 attack on the Red Fort put it, an assault on the nation’s will to preserve its integrity and sovereignty at all costs.
Justice, then should be speedy, after the accused have explored all legal options. An attack on a national symbol and the punishment for that crime cannot be the preserve of any particular party. It is a matter of national concern. The Presi-dent can still send the home ministry’s advice back for reconsideration but if the government sticks by it, she will have to give her assent. Either way, there has to be a speedy resolution to this case. Prolonging the proceedings is not fair to those who lost their lives trying to defend Parliament, and from a human rights point of view, to the accused. Though in principle the death penalty is not a desirable option, India cannot allow itself to be projected as an easy target and vulnerable in its most hallowed premises.