On a day when a court sentenced 24 people to prison – with no death penalties – for the 2002 Gulberg Society massacre in Ahmedabad, it might be illuminating to discuss how exactly the death penalty works in India.
India’s judiciary has a rule of thumb for awarding the death penalty: only rarest of the rare murders qualify. What qualifies for this standard, though, depends on the interpretation of the individual judge.
Take the massacre at Gulberg Society on February 28, 2002. A Hindu mob attacked the Muslim apartment complex, killing up to 69 people. Is killing scores of Indians in broad daylight a “rarest of the rare” case? How about the brutality of the crime? Here’s an excerpt from a Times of India report on how Ehsan Jaafri, a resident of Gulberg and former member of Parliament, was killed.
"According to eyewitnesses, Ehsan Jaafri was pulled out of his house around 3.30 pm, stripped, paraded naked and asked to say Jai Shri Ram and Vande Mataram. He refused. His fingers were then chopped off and he was then parade around the locality badly injured. His hands and feet were then cut off, and he was dragged down the road with a fork-like instrument at his throat before being thrown into a fire."
If he wanted, Jaafri could have run away before the mob descended. But he stuck on, turning his home into a refuge for the Muslims of the area – only to meet this gory death.
Although India’s legal system did not hold up Jaafri’s slow torture and death to be a “rarest of the rare” case fit for the death penalty, it did sentence 11 Muslims to death in the Godhra train burning case. That tragedy occurred the day before the Gulberg massacre, and left 59 Hindus dead. The sentence was passed even as the man alleged by the prosecution to be the mastermind of the train burning was actually acquitted by the courts for want of any evidence – sowing deep doubts about the prosecution’s entire case.
These sentences make it clear that when it comes to navigating the Indian legal system, the dice is heavily loaded against disempowered minorities. This isn't the case only in Gujarat. Take, for example, the violence that convulsed Mumbai in 1992-’93 in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
The bomb blasts of March 1993, which left 257 people dead, resulted in 100 Muslims being convicted. Ten people were sentenced to death, though the Supreme Court later commuted the sentences of all but one of them to life.
However, the blasts had been triggered by large-scale riots in the preceding months that left 900 people dead, most of them Muslim. For this violence, only three people have been convicted, that to only for the minor offense of carrying arms.
Another example: the 2006 Khairlanji massacre in Maharashtra where a mob of the dominant Kunbi caste killed four members of a Mahar family. This is what the Frontline reported:
"Before sunset on September 29, a mob of about 40 Kunbis from Khairlanji entered Bhotmange’s hut and dragged out his wife, daughter and two sons. Forty-year-old Surekha, 17-year-old Priyanka, 19-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir were stripped naked and paraded to the village square where the women were probably raped. All of them were beaten with bicycle chains and other implements and their leg bones were broken, presumably to prevent their escape. Finally, they were killed by axe blows. According to the forensic report, they died from 'intracranial haemorrhage and neurogenic shock'. The bodies were loaded on to a bullock cart and dumped in a canal about two kilometres away."
In spite of this terrible brutality, the anti-Dalit violence of Khairlanj did not qualify as a “rarest of the rare” case. In 2010, the Bombay High Court commuted a trial court’s death-penalty to life imprisonment.
The bias against minorities in India’s legal system is pervasive and endemic: an astonishing 94% of Indians on death row for terror offences are either Muslim or Dalit.
These examples and statistics point to just how broken the idea of the death penalty is. In the US, the country which legally executes the largest number of people every year, research has found glaring biases in how racial minorities are treated. A 2007 study of death sentences by Yale University School of Law concluded that Black defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. A 2013 study by the University of Maryland revealed that Black defendants facing trial are more than three times as likely to face a possible death sentence than White criminals.
There are many reasons to abolish the death penalty. As the United Nations General Assembly stated in 2010, “There is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty."
The everyday bias in which the death penalty is disproportionately applied to minorities – violating every tenet of natural justice – means that this method of punishment has no place in any modern society. At a more fundamental level, this method of punishment is against human rights. No crime can justify the abrogation of the right to life of another human.