Thursday, February 24, 2011

Delay in Considering Mercy Petitions- No Less a Crime!

Some time back it was reported that Afzal Guru has expressed his wish that “L.K. Advani becomes the next Prime Minister as he is the only one who can take a decision and hang me”. Surprised? Don’t be. There is nothing surprising about this wish, considering the predicament he is in.

Think about yourself. Knowing that you are going to die on a particular day or in so many months and having to spend your remaining life all lone, away from near and dear, how would you feel? Worse would be for the family of that person; knowing that their loved one is about to die. Even more suffering would be when you are not even sure the exact day of the death but you are certain that you are about to.

We all know we will die one day. But to know that it will happen in so many weeks or so many months if a different cup of tea.

It is a universally accepted fact in the legal circles, that undue delay in executing death sentence is itself a very cruel punishment. Indian Supreme Court has even set aside death sentence on account of undue delay in execution. In the words of US Supreme Court as cited by our Supreme Court “The cruelty of capital punishment lies not only in the execution itself and the pain incident thereto, but also in the dehumanising effects of the lengthy imprisonment prior to execution. The prospect of pending execution exacts a frightful toll during the inevitable long wait between the imposition of the sentence and the actual infliction of death”. Add to it the suspended lives of the spouse, children and parents of the convict for no fault of theirs!

Seeking mercy is a right of every criminal sentenced to death. The process of mercy petition has been included in the law books for a very honourable purpose. But, if there is undue delay in processing these applications we are not actually helping the person but subjecting him or her to more punishment and mental cruelty than what he was sentenced to. Are our Government and its officers so busy that they don’t have time to decide on something as important as a mercy petition? If it takes so much time to decide then it can’t be called ‘mercy petition’.

Afzal Guru is nearly 30th in the queue for consideration of his mercy petition. Earliest petition that is pending for decision is as old as 13 years. 13 years waiting to know whether you will be killed or let off!

For you and me Afzal Guru is just another issue that we can debate. But he himself is a human being like you and me. He has done a crime and been sentenced to death. I am not condoning his crime or questioning the sentence. But are we being fair when we raise his death penalty as a political issue every other day? Is it his fault that his mercy petition is not being processed in time?

As for Government, it cannot be seen as being vengeful in selectively executing a person even if he is involved in as grave a crime as attack on Parliament. And as for opposition, it is below the political morality to cite his example all the time and say that his petition is being withheld due to the pressures of vote bank (meaning Indian Muslims; as if all Indian Muslims were part of the conspiracy to attack Parliament and want to see Afzal Guru freed!), which is demeaning not only the legal process but also Indian Muslims and Indian voters.

We have another high profile and potentially political death sentence coming up for similar situation; i.e. Ajmal Kasab from 26/11 attack. We will have even more acrimonious debates on his execution as and when we reach that stage, though we cannot deny him his legal rights, including right to mercy!

What is required from both Government and opposition is to arrive at a consensus (at least in a matter of life and death) and devise a policy to deal with mercy petitions of persons sentenced to death, in a time bound manner. Any deviations from the deadlines should be allowed only for proper and sufficient reasons, to be reduced to writing and subjected to judicial scrutiny. Further, such deviations should not affect the other applications by way of the so called queue system. Each application should be processed in isolation.

Let us by all means sentence to death those criminals who do not deserve to live, in the opinion of a judge or two. But let us not subject them to more punishments that what they were sentenced to by subjecting them to further cruelty. Let us keep some difference between those criminals and the so called civil society.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Managing Hostage Crises

We have had extensive debates on how as a Nation we should respond to hostage situations. We had very high profile situations, one involving a daughter of then Union Home Minister and another involving a plane load of hostages at Khandahar. In both situations we surrendered to the demands of terrorists to get the hostages released. But, we seems to have not learned any lessons yet!

India is a country that is besieged with conflicts; both of internal and external origin. There are bound to be situations involving hostages in such conflicts. As we all know, right now we are undergoing yet another situation in which a District Collector and an Engineer are being held hostage by Maoists. Maoists are making preposterous conditions for release of the hostages. The State Government has already suspended all the combing operations against the Maoists and has appointed negotiators to talk to Maoists.

The present case is attracting media attention similar to the two high profile situations mentioned above. In the words of a TV chat show host, “how can Maoists be so out of touch with the feeling of masses and abduct a young IAS officer who is very popular and a graduate of IIT Madras?” This victim is young, educated, popular and has become the darling of media, overnight, though not such luck for the other victim who is also an educated and young engineer.

If we go by the indications, State government will negotiate with the Maoists and concede their demands to get the safe release of the hostages. I am sure, the previous occasions involving abduction of security forces and their subsequent “unconditional releases”, also involved back room negotiations and meeting of conditions.

In an armed conflict, if we start negotiating and conceding demands of the opposition (here Maoists, may be LeT or IM or Abhinav Bharat tomorrow) it will become their easiest and preferred tactics. They just have to take a high profile hostage, negotiate and get away with all demands. Most of these demands are often not for the benefit of their supposed constituency but for release of their comrades or easing the pressure on their operations.

Negotiating and conceding demands of abductors can have two major impacts:

1. It negates all the successes that the security forces have managed over time and therefore demoralises them.

2. It encourages the tactics of hostage taking and therefore increases such incidence and victims.

It is the time for our governments to unequivocally declare that under no situation, they will concede any demands of the abductors. Irrespective of the status of hostage, no concessions are to be made under threat. We should have strike forces specialised in dealing with hostage situations and attempting the rescue. We as a Nation must be prepared to bear the cost of even human lives in such situation. Once we take such a strong stand, on the one hand the incentive for taking hostages will reduce and on the other hand the security consciousness of all potential targets also will improve.

If we have to protect the integrity of this nation, we must strive to increase the security for all its citizens and fight forces out to disrupt that security. At the same time, we as the citizens must be willing to accept the risks and not seek to compromise Nation’s interests for our own personal safety.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Soumya is Gone... What Next?

“I am very impressed by your expression of feelings over this issue. Yes I totally agree to your point. But how can we change? who will make a move.. From where should it start..Aren't we hypocrites.... we talk too much of morality and what is the use.. Can women use public transport and travel safely after state. I guess the change should come from families .. schools. the society... boys and girls should be allowed to grow up together..should be taught to respect women/ girls. Instead Look at the media influence.. watch the serials.. the role of women.. are there any positive thinking inculcated in our society. Does democracy means destruction of public property.. Is that a solution? I was furious watching the news and felt good reading ur response.”

This was a comment that I received in response to my post named “Who Should Take Blame for Soumya’s Death”. Thank you, Paravathi, for the kind words. But I am disappointed when you said you felt good reading my response.

My intention was not to make readers feel good but to feel more enraged about the way we are being cheated/treated by the organisations that claim to represent us. I have only stated what is obvious. If anyone has not seen that, it is only because he/she is trying to find targets for shifting the blame or run down those on the opposite side to gain cheap political mileage.

Yes I saw the news too.

I saw retired Justice Sreedevi, Chairperson of Kerala Women’s Commission, seeking death to the accused. Looks like she does not even want to wait till a court try him and establish his guilt. How convenient! You kill one Govindaswamy and everything is going to be fine again. Shortcuts indeed!

I saw Kerala Home Minister informing us that he will seek more Central forces to protect Soumyas during travel. Should we ask for a bodyguard each for all the girls who travel alone in Kerala? Why do we need a Home Minister if he can only seek more ‘assistance’ from Central Government in protecting us?

I saw Railway Divisional Manager saying that it is none of his business to protect passengers! He says it is the duty of State Government. According to him, RPF is only to protect railway assets. I thought passengers are the most valuable assets for any transport organisation, including railways.

I saw one after the other organisations rushing in to provide monitory assistance to Soumya’s family. For what purpose, I do not know. Are we trying to compensate for the loss of life? Or are we trying to wash away our guilt in the money that is being bestowed on the family?

Almost no one spoke of our own culpability. We are not willing to admit our mistakes. What is the result? Yesterday itself a young man was arrested for trying to molest a girl who was sleeping on the top birth of a train. So much for the lessons learnt!! Only time I saw someone willing to take up responsibility was when a young girl in her late teens answered the TV crew that she will now not hesitate to step in whenever she find someone being harassed or attacked. Great going.. Young Lady.. Hope there are many more like you who are not shifting the blame but taking up responsibility.

To come back to your question, Paravathi, how can we change and who will make a move, answer is in the words of that brave girl I mentioned above.

You and I have to do it.

I am taking a pledge in the name of Soumya, that wherever I see a girl being harassed I will do my best to prevent that. I also take a pledge that I will never try to take advantage of a girl travelling alone. It will be my solemn duty to provide security to each girl who is travelling with me. I will never shy away from that duty, even it causes little inconveniences to me.

As for you, I request you to take a pledge you will not go back to ladies compartment. You will travel in general compartments with other people rather than travelling in an empty ladies coach. You will not tolerate any misbehaviour or harassment. You will react; even if entire crowd jeers at you. It is their shame not yours.

Politicians and organisations are too busy to be caring for Soumyas.

Let us take it upon ourselves to make a beginning.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who Should Take Blame for Soumya's Death?

Soumya, a 23 year old girl from Shornur, in Kerala is dead. Her death is being discussed and dissected in the media and among public of Kerala. Of course, we are very good to find faults with others and we are doing the same in this case as well. Depending on which side of the politics we stand, our direction of accusation differs. With state elections round the corner, we will witness more and more accusations and then everything will go back to normal; business as usual!

I am trying to look at some of the aspects of Soumya’s death which we will not like to discuss because the finger is pointing at ourselves!

What happened?
Soumya was employed in a super market in Kochi. Her family is so poor that she had to go to Kochi which is at some distance from Shornur to take up that job. She was returning to her home in Shornur, on 4th of February, because there was a marriage proposal and the boy was expected to come home to see her. The young girl must have been with full of dreams about the proposed marriage and the life ahead. As is the usual practice of all women, who are travelling without male escorts, she got into the ladies coach of the train.

Apparently, the ladies coach was empty. At a place near Vallathol Nagar Railway station, a man named Govindaswamy, who is allegedly a drug addict and psychopath, entered the coach and in hte slow moving train tried to molest her. She cried out for help. Though many people heard the cry no one ventured out to see what happened. She resisted the man and was pushed out (or she jumped out to escape from) by him out of the train. Govindaswmay alias Charlie also jumped out of the train. Both these jumps/ fall were seen by other passengers but they preferred not to stop the train or alert the guard. Wouldn’t that have delayed the train and their arrival at the comfort of their homes?!
When the train reached Shornur, one of the witnesses informed guard about the incidents. The guard immediately alerted security staff at station and searched were initiated. Finally they found the girl about 400 meters away from the Vallathol Nagar station, almost half dead. She was not only raped by the man but also attacked viciously on her head with stone.

She was taken to Thrissur Medical college hospital where in spite of doctors’ best efforts she succumbed to her injuries on 06th February.

The blame game
The argumentative Indians that we are, on death of Soumya, we immediately started debates on the death and the attack and began passing judgements against all those whom we found it convenient to blame. We were all disgusted at the callousness of authorities, lack of security, lack of respect for women, lack of police torture on the attacker Govindaswamy and so on.

If we are on the left side of political spectrum (LDF), we attacked Mamata’s railway. If we are on the right side (UDF), we attacked state government. If we are in the BJP, we attacked left right and centre. We attacked railway stations and stopped trains to express our anger. But as a rule, we all refused to introspect.

I blame not railway, not police, not government but our society and its people i.e., you and me for the death of Soumya. Govindaswamy must be punished for his deeds. But who will punish you and me?
Consider this. What made a 23 year old girl to ravel in an empty ladies coach, even after being aware of all the risks associated with such lonely travel? There were enough coaches which were adequately filled with passengers. Some men travelling alone, and others travelling with their family. Yet, Soumya chose to travel in the empty coach.

Could authorities have prevented this?
Some says this could have been prevented if the ladies coach was in the middle and not right at the end of train. Is it right? Why did authorities attach the ladies coach at the end and not in the middle? Well, they have tried it in the past but reverted back soon when the ladies travelling in those coaches felt harassed, not by Govindaswamies but by you and me, who kept moving through the ladies coach; you know for what.

For a moment, assume the ladies coach was in the middle. What difference it would have made? Govindaswamy would still have entered the coach (given the kind of profile being projected) and attacked Soumya. She would have cried out and travelers in other coaches would hear it but not intervene. Finally, she would have jumped out or he pushed her out of the train. No one would have cared and rest would be as it was.

Now consider ‘adequate security’. What is adequate security? Policemen in ladies coach? No? How about policewomen? Could they have stopped a mad man like Govindaswamy on their own even if attack the very policewomen? I doubt it.

The fact is that there is not enough security that can be provided by the authorities. If you protect one place Govindaswamy will find another place where he can attack his victim. No government can provide foolproof security to all its citizens all the time. Personally, I wouldn't prefer that kind of ‘protection’ to me or my family.

While this is not to stop authorities from taking all possible steps to ensure security of women and men, we need to introspect on our own failures.

We are to be blamed!
The men in Kerala never grow up. They are stuck in their adolescent habits of gawking at girls and even trying to touch them whenever they can. You see it everywhere; in the trains in the buses, in offices, in political parties. The harassment goes on. No girl will venture out of the safety of her home after the sunset. If she does that she might in all probability end up in some ice cream parlour or video shooting centre that are fronts for women trafficking. We all know that. But will we react? Oh no; we do not have the time. We need to reach home to be with our family or we need to hurry to be in the queue of Beverages Corporation!

If Soumya felt reassured by the presence of her ‘brothers and uncles’ travelling in the other coaches; if Soumya’s cries were responded to by at least one passenger in that train; if at least one person decided to pull chain and stop train when two people fell / jumped out of the train; this tragedy could have been averted. We did not do that and therefore, you and me are to be blamed.

What next?
So long as we do not provide a feeling of security to our girls while they are travelling with us in busses or trains, that they can be sure of us not harassing them through words, stares or touches, so long as we do not react to a call in distress, so long as we do not try to stop a crime in progress because that is inconvenient to us, more Soumyas will be raped and killed by Govindaswamies. If we really feel for Soumya, what we can do in her memory is to take a pledge to change ourselves.

By seeking police torture of Govindaswamy, or stopping trains or attacking railway stations and destroying public property nothing will change. Criminals will be borne again and again. They will attack helpless victims wherever they can. If we do not respond to calls for help, till the cry is from our own sister, mother, wife, or daughter or even grandmother, we will soon find that the last cry was from one of them.