Seeking mercy is often the last resort for those on death row. No execution can be carried out unless a prisoner’s mercy petition has been rejected by both the president and the governor.
The president receives a mercy petition only if the governor rejects it.
The president can grant mercy based on any redeeming fact about the case, trial or the prisoner’s life. Yet the numbers show that the outcome of these appeals depends less on the crime, or the criminal, than on who happens to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The Constitution gives the president and the governor the power to reduce sentences or pardon prisoners altogether. In capital cases, they usually commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. But they are bound by the advice of the home minister. They can ask the home minister to reconsider, but only once. If the minister insists, they can either comply or exercise a pocket veto, leaving the decision pending for their successor.
Since we only have data on mercy petitions disposed at the centre, this story will focus on the president.
Most of the mercy petitions since independence were disposed of before 1980. Since 1981, presidents have disposed petitions by 176 prisoners.
Since the numbers for several years are unavailable, we have gone as far back as the last year for which the most comprehensive data are available.
As the death penalty became less of a norm and more of an exception, the number of people applying for mercy dramatically declined. By the 1980s, the number of mercy petitions dropped to double digits, and the decline continued.
The pocket veto is the only way for a president to express disagreement with the Home Ministry’s recommendation. It’s a power that some have exercised more than others.
Ramaswamy Venkataraman cleared 55 mercy petitions and left nothing pending for his successor, Shankar Dayal Sharma. Sharma rejected all 15 petitions that appeared before him.
K.R. Narayanan and A. P. J. Abdul Kalam were more cautious. They each rejected mercy for one prisoner (Narayanan’s rejection was stayed and the sentence was later commuted). They largely used their veto to keep the petitions pending.
Pratibha Patil cleared some of this “backlog,” but she also left many petitions pending. At the end of her term, she rejected mercy for five prisoners and commuted sentences for 35. All five of her rejections were later quashed by the courts.
Her record is in stark contrast to her successor: Pranab Mukherjee has so far signed off on 34 mercy petitions. He rejected 32 and commuted two. Three were executed, but two of them — Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab — never had a chance to challenge the rejection because they were secretly hanged within hours of the decision.
But 19 successfully challenged the president’s decision in court. All of their sentences have been commuted to life imprisonment.
The remaining 10 are still pursuing legal remedies.
Between January 2014 and December 2015, the Supreme Court and the High Courts quashed the rejections of 23 people on death row. In the process, they exposed a peculiar irony: an appeal for mercy is reviewed, and the decision rendered, with what often seems like brutal indifference.