The seething rage of Mumbai's Bada Kabristan
The government needs to dispel the notion that justice is not being served equally in India.
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Silently and in a single file, they walked towards the Bada Qabristan at Mumbai's Marine Lines. Even after the ground had been filled to capacity and the police had locked the gates of the burial ground, the crowds kept trooping in. There was no sloganeering. Instead there was a pall of gloom. Quiet anger seeped through the air.
A majority of those who came to the Bada Qabristan were young, between 18 and 34. They were not fanatics. Far from it. Many were coming straight from work and were upset that they hadn't been able to get away from office on time.
I asked Ismail Khan and Yunus Sultan whether they knew Yakub Memon or anyone in his family. They said they didn't. What brings you here then, I asked. "We are here in solidarity with Yakub". What Ismail said next hit hard. "We don't mind that Yakub has been executed. He was a terrorist and should be made to pay for his sins. But why is it that in 15 years all the terrorists who have been executed belong to only one community? Why do the Khalistani and Tamil terrorists get away even after the Supreme Court convicts them? The law is not being applied equally in India."
Here were a couple of young men, with everyday concerns like the rest of us, and they were voicing a concern that the Indian state had no good answer for.
On Friday, Arun Jaitley told India Today in an interview that the government does not decide who is to be punished on the basis of their religion. But the reality is that Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, Balwant Singh Rajaona and Rajiv Gandhi's assassins have been able to escape the noose because of the backing of political parties in their states.
Take Bhullar's case. He was convicted by the Supreme Court of having carried out a bomb blast in Delhi in 1993 in which nine people died and 25 were injured, including then the Youth Congress president MS Bitta. In 2003, the Supreme Court dismissed Bhullar's curative petition and condemned him to the gallows. In 2011, President Pratibha Patil rejected his mercy plea. And in 2013 the SC dismissed Bhullar's plea for commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment. Bhullar should have been executed long before Yakub Memon but because of pressure exerted by parties such as the Akali Dal, the case dragged on for so long that in 2014 Bhullar's death penalty was finally commuted to life term because of mental illness. He's currently ensconced at Amritsar Jail.
Balwant Singh Rajoana's case is disturbingly similar. In 1995 he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate then Punjab chief minister Beant Singh. The bomb blast in which Rajoana was involved killed 17 people, including the CM. In 1996, a Chandigarh court sentenced him to death. The district court even set a date for Rajoana's hanging. But the Patiala Jail administration returned the death warrant, citing legal and jurisdiction issues. In 2012, the Punjab CM led an Akali delegation to meet the president and the Centre stayed the hanging of the convicted terrorist.
A look at the timeline of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case shows that the four terrorists - Nalini, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan - were able to get their death sentences commuted to life on account of the inordinate delay in the carrying out of the execution order. This delay was made possible by Tamil politicians. First the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution asking the president to commute their death sentences. The state cabinet even passed an order in February 2014 ordering the jail authorities to free the four death row convicts but thankfully the Supreme Court stayed this controversial order. In 2015, their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
Arun Jaitley says that rioters will also be made to face the gallows, just like terrorists. But the fact is that successive governments in Maharashtra made no attempt to implement the findings of the Justice Srikrishna report on the Mumbai riots in which 900 people were killed. Over 15,000 pages, Justice Srikrishna laid out specific details about the role of Balasaheb Thackeray and the Shiv Sena in instigating the riots. So far only three convictions have taken place in the riot cases. A former Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar and two party activists were sentenced to one year's rigorous imprisonment. Satpotdar got bail immediately and died in 2010 without serving his sentence. Thirty-one policemen were indicted for their roles by the Commission. All of them got away.
While taking part in a debate at the Bombay Stock Exchange on the evening of Yakub Memon's execution, former Mumbai top police officer YC Pawar gave a peek into the biased mindset that policemen carry into the investigation of riot cases. Without mincing words, Pawar bluntly told India Today, "A terror attack needs to be taken more seriously than a riot case because it involves an external enemy. Riots happen because of clashes between local communities so the priority of the cops is to control the situation. Punishing people will only reopen wounds but in terror cases the terrorists must be punished to teach them a lesson." This is exactly the kind of perverse mindset that fuels rage at the Bada Qabristan.
In the run up to Yakub Memon's hanging, bleeding hearts cried themselves hoarse arguing for the need to abolish capital punishment. But a look at hard facts reveals that the Indian judicial system is hardly as bloodthirsty as the naysayers would have us believe. In the past 15 years the courts have handed out 1,600 death sentences. Out of these only four convicts were executed.
In comparison, a liberal democracy like the United States executed 35 people in 2014 alone. According to Amnesty International 55 countries sentenced people to death last year. At least 607 executions were carried out in China, 90 in Saudi Arabia and 61 in Iraq.
While people in India can debate whether the time has come to join the 98 countries that have abolished the death penalty, one thing is clear. Till the time the death penalty remains on the statute books, the government needs to ensure that capital punishment is implemented equally without letting politics make a mockery of the judicial system.
In the aftermath of the execution of Yakub Memon, the Modi government needs to pressurise its allies in Punjab about the need to stop shielding convicted terrorist Balwant Singh Rajoana and ensure he gets the punishment he has been served.
As the restive crowds started dispersing from the Bada Qabristan on the evening of July 30, I asked Ismail and Yunus what happens next. "We are rushing to get home. Lest there is any lafda (problem) and the pandus (policemen) think the entire community is responsible for the trouble".