Report of Meeting of All India Human Rights Organisations and Activists on March 8, 2014 in Chennai
More than 25 human rights activists representing People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Delhi, Civil Liberties Committee, AP, Progressive Democratic Forum, Karnataka, BMC / CDRO – West Bengal, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu and journalists, lawyers, other professionals and citizens gathered in Chennai on March 8, 2014 to discuss the issue of death penalty and relevant strategies to build a broad and inclusive movement towards abolition of capital punishment in India.
The assembled representatives of human rights organisations and individuals called on all political parties to come out clearly against the death penalty and declare so clearly in their manifestos ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It is time that political parties played a leading role in educating public opinion in taking a civilisational perspective on this issue and rise above narrow considerations of retribution and move towards complete abolition of the death penalty, thereby joining the ranks of more than 140 countries that have done so.
In this context, they called on political parties to prevail upon the Indian government to become a signatory to the UN general assembly resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
The activists note that the decision of the Supreme Court in January, 2014 in the `Shatrughan Chauhan vs Union of India’ case is historic in-as-much as it commuted the death sentences of 15 prisoners to life imprisonment thereby providing a fillip to the anti-death penalty movement in the country.
The court held that inordinate and unreasonable delay in the execution of death sentence amounts to torture which amounts to violation of right to life under article 21 and hence a ground for commutation of the sentence. Another significant observation was that mental health is an important ground for consideration of commutation of the death penalty. The court held that when a mercy petition goes before the Governor or the President, the decision should not be limited by the legalities of the case and should look into other facts which are not part of the criminal case. In fact, the Supreme Court reiterated, that the power of the President or Governor under Articles 72 or 161 of the Constitution is “a constitutional responsibility of great significance” and it is open to the President to “scrutinise the evidence on record of the criminal case and come to a different conclusion from that recorded by court in regard of the guilt of, and sentence imposed on the accused”.
The Shatrugan Chauhan judgment also gives us scope for looking at the issue beyond the accused as a legal subject, and towards restoring the humanity of the accused. After all even an accused on death row has human rights.
Women’s groups have been saying that the death penalty makes no difference to the victim’s family, that it makes the streets no safer. After the December 2012 New Delhi gang rape, women’s groups have come out more vociferously against the death penalty.
The activists felt that there was an urgent need to revisit the “rarest of rare” provision set out in the Bachan Singh case on the death penalty, which has been subsequently applied by various courts in very subjective terms, reflecting the social ideology of the bench. This has resulted in inconsistent judgments following trials during which the accused coming from poorer sections of society had no recourse to competent legal counsel and were hanged to death unjustly.
In the meeting there was consensus that death penalty has become utterly unjust and has become a tool in the hands of certain political groups. It’s being used like other laws, like the laws of sedition.
The activists resolved to conduct further extensive research and gather information on the way death sentences were being pronounced and the condition of people on death row, to set up a repository of information on the death penalty and to carry out educational programmes in schools and colleges.
Participants felt that the movement against the death penalty should be inclusive of all groups and sections of society. There is need to sensitise judges, civil society, especially youngsters, with creative literature. Activists resolved to come out with new and innovative material which can be put online, to reach a wider audience, as well as to get cartoonists, filmmakers and musicians to enter the anti-death penalty movement.
Dr. V. Suresh, PUCL
Paramjeet Singh, PUDR, Delhi
Sujato Bhadro, BMC/ APDR, West Bengal
Chandrasekahar, Lakshman, Sriman Narayana, Civil Liberties Committee, AP
Ramesh and Ramasamy, Progressive Democratic Forum, Karnataka
Ramdas Rao, PUCL, Karnataka
Kavita Srivastava, PUCL, Rajasthan
G. Saraswati, TSS Mani, K. Saravanan, Sankaralingam, Veerabahu and others, PUCL, TN
Jayaraman, Independent Journalist, Bangaluru
Suhrith Parthasarathy, Advocate and many others.
NOTE: The meeting was organised as a working group meet to follow-up the decision made at the end of the All India Convention against Death Penalty organised by PUDR and CDRO held in Delhi on 1st February, 2014, to re-launch the All India Campaign Against Death Penalty.