Owaisi countered that the killers of Punjab’s chief minister Beant Singh and India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had their sentences commuted thanks to political backing, which Memon lacked, presumably because he was Muslim.
Logjam on death row
To understand whether Owaisi is on to something, it is useful to look back at the history of capital punishment in independent India. The nation frequently executed convicts in the decade after independence but as voices against state sanctioned killing grew stronger around the globe leading to the practice being banned in over a hundred nations and moratoriums being placed in over 50 others, we became increasingly hesitant to use the gallows. However, although the Supreme Court ruled as early as the 1970s that death be awarded only in the rarest of rare cases, it wasn’t particularly reluctant to condemn criminals to hang. The combination of the willingness to convict and unwillingness to execute created a logjam on death row.
The last recourse for those sentenced to hang is usually a plea for mercy to India’s head of state. For almost a decade, between 1997 and 2007, such mercy petitions were simply ignored. KR Narayanan and Abdul Kalam were excellent Presidents, but both kicked the capital punishment can down the road. Narayanan didn’t decide on a single case during his term in office, and Kalam made a judgment on just two petitions, accepting one and rejecting one. Pratibha Patil, a controversial replacement for the inspirational Kalam, may have proved lacklustre in office generally, but considered dozens of mercy pleas, and gladdened liberal hearts by commuting a record number of death sentences. The damage to the process, however, had already been done. Rajiv Gandhi’s killers were spared the noose on grounds of inordinate delay, even though Patil rejected their mercy plea.
A similar commutation was offered to Devinder Singh Bhullar, a Khalistani militant convicted for planting a bomb that killed 9 people, though not its intended target, the Congress leader Maninder Singh Bitta.
Before the Supreme Court’s final verdict in those cases, politicians launched campaigns on behalf of the convicts. Tamil Nadu’s legislative assembly passed a resolution against hanging Gandhi’s assassins, while the Akali Dal adopted Bhullar’s cause.
The Akalis have also demanded mercy for Balwant Singh Rajaona, one of Beant Singh’s assassins. Astonishingly, Rajaona has been elevated to the status of Living Martyr (Zinda Shaheed) by the high Sikh religious authority, the Akal Takht.
Pratibha Patil’s successor Pranab Mukherjee has been even more energetic than she was in tackling mercy petitions, but with a very different perspective. He has ruled against commutation in the vast majority of cases before him. Of the 24 people thus condemned, three were convicted of terrorism, or political killings, while the others were murderers of a more common variety. The appellants in the three terror-related cases all happened to be Muslims: Afzal Guru, Ajmal Kasab, and Yakub Memon. The first two have since been hanged, the only individuals put to death by the Indian state in the past decade.
It’s difficult to decide, based on the small sample size available, whether Guru and Memon were ill-served by the judicial process because they were Muslim (Kasab’s case was, of course, open and shut), or whether they were simply unlucky to be convicted in a period when presidents took relatively expeditious decisions on mercy pleas, thus eliminating the "inordinate delay" recourse. I find the attitude of the public to these cases more worrying than anything that happened in court. When Omar Abdullah spoke out against executing Afzal Guru, he faced a backlash that his DMK and Akali Dal counterparts had not. He tweeted about this and created a bigger stir. The BJP made hanging Afzal Guru part of its political platform even while condemning the supposed violation of the "cultural and human rights" of Hindus under trial for bombing civilians, and partnering with the Akali Dal that supported convicted Khalistanis. It’s difficult not to conclude that the party is against terrorists only if those terrorists are Muslim. If it has got away with this blatant hypocrisy, it can only be because a substantial proportion of the population shares that view.
I understand why people feel threatened by Islamist terrorism and extremism, but when they adopt double standards as a consequence, it only causes disaffected Muslims to be drawn to identity politics of the kind peddled by the Owaisis, or something far worse.