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The quality of mercy

india Updated: Apr 01, 2012 13:12 IST

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We are not against the death penalty. We think that it does play a role in deterring certain types of crime. But we also agree with the Supreme Court’s 1983 dictum that capital punishment must be reserved for the “rarest of rare cases”. Death, as we all know, is final and cannot be reversed.

Humans, though, are fallible and can, on occasion, make mistakes in gathering evidence and fixing blame.

There are two reasons why Mohammed Afzal should not be sentenced to death. First, while Afzal deserves the strictest punishment for the part he played in the attack on Parliament House in December 2001, we think he does not fit into the “rarest of rare” category. Afzal was neither the main planner of the attack nor its perpetrator.

In other words, he was not, unlike Nathuram Godse, Harjinder Singh Jinda and Beant Singh, personally involved in killing anyone. His role was that of helping the main accused, who are either dead or are yet to be arrested. Second, we need to pay heed to the near-unanimous view in Kashmir Valley that Afzal should not be executed.

That both Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Farooq Abdullah agree on this is because they understand that, like the execution of Maqbool Butt in 1984, the action could further alienate the state from the rest of India and create yet another ‘martyr’ for the separatist movement.

Over the years, governmental and judicial views on the death penalty have been guided by public outrage. Certainly, the attack on our Parliament generated a great deal of anger against the terrorists who carried it out. The Parliament House attack has the same high symbolic value that the assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi, former army chief General A.S. Vaidya and former Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had.

One should note, however, that those accused of killing Gandhiji, Vaidya and Indira Gandhi were quickly executed. Those sentenced for killing Rajiv Gandhi , however, are yet to be hanged. A major reason for this is that while Godse, Jinda and Beant Singh were the killers, those sentenced in the Rajiv case were on the periphery of the conspiracy. From such a perspective, keeping Afzal in jail for the rest of his life would meet the ends of justice.