India: Death in the name of conscience

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India: Death in the name of conscience”  released today examines the imposition of death penalty to convicts in the name of ‘collective conscience of the society’ which is often interpreted as the ‘judicial conscience’. The report specifically examines (i) manufacturing of ‘conscience’ to justify death sentence, (ii) the use of ‘conscience’ in the judgements imposing death penalty which have already been declared as per incuriam by the Supreme Court, (iii) how ‘conscience’, “which varies from judge to judge depending upon his attitudes and approaches, his predilections and prejudices, his habits of mind and thought and in short all that goes with the expression social philosophy”, plays out as to whether an accused charged with an offence punishable with death shall live or die, and (iv) inconsitency of the Indian judiciary while considering the factors and circumstances to determine between life and death in a capital punishment case.

In the post Bachan Singh judgement which upheld constitutional validity of death penalty in 1980, there has not been a single judgement including those declared as per incuriam in which ‘collective conscience’ of the society and/or ‘judicial conscience’ have not been used to justify imposition of death penalty.

The reliance on ‘conscience’ for imposition of death penalty is deeply flawed, fraught with malafides at every stage, and is often manufactured through scapegoating of the dispensable i.e. the poor, socially disadvantaged and those accused of terror offences. They are often unable to defend themselves in all stages, most notably at the stage of the trial held under intense local social pressure, media trial and hostile environment. For terror-related offences, it will not be an understatement to assert that a clear precedent has been set in India wherein justice system is tweaked by the desire for retribution in order to satisfy the socalled ‘collective conscience’ rather than meeting the basic requirements of justice. In addition, some crimes such as the ones against women and children are so gruesome and become politically significant in the light of massive public outrage that it almost becomes indispensable for the State/prosecution to find the guilty, even if it means tweaking justice, to assuage public anger. That the public anger, as shown against the Nithari killings and Nirbhaya gang rape and murder case, is equally directed against the failure of the State and the system as much against the crimes and the criminals, is often forgotten.

The report examines 48 judgements on death penalty pronounced by two distinguished former judges of the Supreme Court viz. Justice M B Shah and Justice Arijit Pasayat, who are currently serving respectively as Chairperson and Vice Chairperson of the Special Investigation Team on Black Money appointed by the Supreme Court of India, to illustrate how ‘conscience’ of individual judges play out the ‘collective conscience’ and/or ‘judicial conscience’.

Out of the 33 death penalty cases adjudicated by Justice Arijit Pasayat examined by Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), Justice Pasayat (i) confirmed death sentence in 15 cases including 4 cases in which lesser sentences were enhanced to death sentence and two cases in which acquittal by the High Courts were turned to death sentence, (ii) upheld acquittal in 8 cases, (iii) commuted death sentence in 7 cases and (iv) remitted 3 cases back to the High Courts to once again decide on quantum of sentence as death penalty had not been imposed by the High Courts. It is pertinent to mention that out of the 16 cases in which death penalty were confirmed by Justice Pasayat, 5 cases have since been declared as per incuriam by the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, Justice M B Shah did not confirm death sentence in any of the 15 cases of death penalty adjudicated by him. He rather commuted death sentence in 12 cases, did not enhance life imprisonment into death penalty in any case, did not alter acquittal by the High Courts into death penalty in any case, did not remit back any case to the High Courts on the quantum of sentence and did not deliver a single judgement which was declared as per incuriam. He acquitted convicts in three cases out of which he passed dissenting judgements against imposition of death penalty in two cases.

Out of these 48 cases, three cases i.e. Devender Pal Singh Bhullar v. State of National Capital Territory of Delhi and Anr, Krishna Mochi and Ors. v. State of Bihar etc and Lehna v. State of Haryana, the Supreme Court benches comprised Justice A Pasayat and Justice M B Shah along with Justice B N Agrawal. In Devender Pal Singh Bhullar and Krishna Mochi & Ors, the majority view comprising Justice Pasayat and Justice Agrawal confirmed death sentence on all the accused in both the cases. Justice Shah, on the other hand, acquitted Bhullar and altered the death sentence on Krishna Mochi, Nanhe Lal Mochi and Bir Kuer Paswan to life imprisonment and further acquitted Dharmendra Singh. However, there was no disagreement between Justice Shah and Justice Pasayat in commutation of death sentence in Lehna v. State of Haryana.

Though consideration of the aggravating circumstances relating to the crime and mitigating circumstances relating to the criminal as enunciated in Bachan Singh judgement cannot be deduced to a zero sum game, the inconsistency in consideration of these circumstances by the judiciary is all pervasive. These inconsistencies stand exposed on perusal and analysis of various judgements of the Supreme Court, inter alia, (i) relating to consideration of convict’s young age for commutation of death penalty, (ii) the benefit of possible reformation or rehabilitation as a ground for commutation of death penalty, (iii) acquittal or life sentence awarded by the High Courts as a ground for commutation, and (iv) circumstantial evidence as a mitigating factor for commutation of death sentence.

Arbitrariness was the ground for declaring death penalty provided under Section 277 of the Criminal Procedure Act of South Africa as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of South Africa in the case of State v. Makwanyano & Anr. The situation and factors that were taken into consideration by the South African Constitutional Court  for determining arbitrariness is not dissimilar to India – the mirror reflection is possibly worse in India. If death penalty can be declared unconstitutional on the ground of arbitrariness in South Africa, there is no reason why it should be constitutional in India.

A release by Asian Centre for Human Rights

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