Clemency matters


Religion and politics an unsuitable concoction?

At the height of an Akali agitation in the eighties, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, then out of office, reached Delhi under the guise of a truck driver and burnt a copy of the Indian constitution. He personally did not agree with his Akali party’s fiat but went along with the decision as a disciplined soldier. Subsequently, he regretted his act of burning.

I don’t know whether Badal has felt the same way after filing a mercy petition to the president on the clemency of Balwant Singh Rajoana who has been sentenced to death. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has adjudged him an accomplice in the murder of former chief minister Beant Singh. Mixing religion with politics has been the bane of Akalis. But I thought they had come out of their contradictory position. The manner in which the party and the government connived at the “unrest” in the state a few days ago indicates that the passion of religion still has the better of the community.

Most unfortunate was the role of the Akal Thakt. It is a highly respected seat of Sikhs and many others in the country look up to it with prayers on their lips. Its hukamnama on the clemency of Rajoana meets the norms of religious assertion but mocks at the laws and the courts in the country. The decision was not politic but it conveyed the impression that the highest religious authority of the Sikhs could have a perspective that went against the ethos of democratic secular society. The twin principle of “miri piri” (polity and clergy) does not fit into the religious fervour.

What happened in Punjab during the agitation over the clemency of Rajaona reminds me of the lawless and brutal days which the state went through some years ago. Once again the message of the recent happening is that a few determined people, fired by religious fanaticism, could dictate an agenda which made Punjab an uncertain state. The nation heaved a sigh of relief when the fire of extremism was extinguished in Punjab and it began to live like a normal Indian state since three decades ago.

A similar kind of indignation swept through Tamil Nadu when Nalini, a culprit in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, had served her life sentence and was ready to be released. Even the state assembly passed a resolution for clemency. Sonia Gandhi’s family too did not oppose the clemency. But since the release went against the spirit of the judgment, she was kept in jail along with three others. Yet the state did not witness the stir which Punjab did, nor did any party make a political capital out of it as the Akali did.

I personally think that hanging should be dropped from the statute book because it is medieval in practice, tit for tat, a tooth for a tooth in attitude. Some 125 countries in the world have done away with the death sentence. India too without banning the hanging was more or less following the practice till a few years ago, without specifically saying so. Even the Supreme Court endorsed it by underlining in a judgment that hanging should take place in the “rarest of rare” cases. But surely, the results say something else. The statistics show that the cases of death penalty were the highest in the five years following the SC’s advice.

There is no go from a parliament act to stop the hanging. It is time that the political parties in the country paid serious attention to the proposal. The sentence should be for life, meaning thereby that the guilty should not be released till his death. Alternatively, we can adopt the practice followed in America where the court gives a sentence for 40, 50 or 80 years. In any case, the sentence of hanging is reprehensible and should stop.

Yet the existing law has to prevail till the abolition of hanging. What I saw in Punjab was not the protest against death sentence but defiance. True, the situation would have taken an ugly turn if Balwant Singh Rajoana’s execution had taken place. Yet what it conveys is that how weak the state has become over the years in fighting against some motivated elements who decide to mock at the law. The five-star facilities provided to Bibi Jagir Kaur, once a minister but now a convict, in jail takes the cake. Does the government realise what the messages it gives to the people? Is it the extension of the government’s double standards shown in the case of Rajoana?

The point at issue is not whether Balwant Singh Rajoana should be given clemency but whether the pressure and the violence threats should be used to get a favourable decision. When the state government itself becomes partisan, it sends out a wrong signal. It was alarming to find a few officials at Gurdaspur not rising to the occasion and putting down a communal riot firmly. That the government suspended or transferred them shows that it woke up to its duties. But then the damage had been done.

What hurts me more than anything else is the attitude of the Punjab chief minister. How could he file the clemency petition when Rajoana does not want clemency, as he has said in writing? How does the state government come into the picture when the step is legally, leave apart the fact of clemency, questionable?

It is another matter that Rajoana should not be hanged because the death sentence is an outdated practice which the country should have abandoned long ago. The Badal government, I am afraid, has only proved that when the option is between religion and politics, it opts for the first. That the BJP is an integral part of the Punjab government does not surprise me because it too mixes religion with politics when it suits the party.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.