Mercy and the machinery of death
he Supreme Court judgments in the Shatrughan Chauhan and Murugan cases are a significant victory for a fair administration of the death penalty.
IN Bamnia village in Purulia, West Bengal, the mother of Ajay Kumar Pal, India’s latest mercy-rejected death-row prisoner, lives in abject poverty with very little to eat or wear, surviving on food that villagers give her on some days for clearing dung from their cowsheds. She does not know that the President of India has rejected the mercy petition of her son, and none of the villagers has mustered the courage to tell her.
The President of India, acting on the binding advice of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), rejected the mercy petition of Ajay Kumar Pal in October 2013. Ajay was tried and found guilty of murdering and burning five members of a family (including three children) he used to work for in Ranchi. The High Court and the Supreme Court later confirmed this ruling of the Special Central Bureau of Investigation judge.
The people of Bamnia had only one question about the decision—if the Supreme Court can set aside the death sentence against persons who participated in the assassination of a former Prime Minister, why it cannot set aside a similar sentence against the son of a starving destitute woman. As far as the families of death-row prisoners are concerned, the technicalities of the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shatrughan Chauhan vs Union of India or Murugan vs Union of India (Rajiv Gandhi assassination case) on the inordinate delay by the executive do not matter. For them, it appears that the Supreme Court is taking an anti-death penalty position and they want it applied in their cases. In such contexts, technical explanations seem shallow and meaningless.
Nonetheless, it is important to understand precisely the moves made by the Supreme Court in Shatrughan Chauhan and Murugan. We must be clear that the Supreme Court is not heading towards an abolitionist position and any complacency arising from an understanding to the contrary will be dangerous. The Supreme Court, despite both judgments, is very far from setting itself on the path to abolition, and through these two judgments it has essentially embarked on reforming the administration of the death penalty in India. Implicit in that project is the acknowledgment that the death penalty is here to stay for the foreseeable future. In Shatrughan Chauhan and Murugan, the court has essentially sent out the message to the executive that it cannot take very long to decide on mercy petitions from death-row prisoners without a satisfactory explanation for the delay. In the matter of commuting the death sentences of 18 individuals in these cases, no State government or the Central government could provide an acceptable justification for the delay.