Source: The Hindu
by: Nissim Mannathukkaren
The right of dissent — or, if you prefer, the right to be wrong — is surely fundamental to the existence of a democratic society. That’s the right that went first in every nation that stumbled down the trail toward totalitarianism. ¯ Edward R. Murrow
Clayton Lockett, an African-American sentenced to death for murder, went into a “writhing, gasping fit” that lasted for nearly 43 minutes after his “veins exploded”. During this botched execution through lethal injection, Lockett even attempted to speak and get off the gurney. Thereafter, a huge outcry erupted in America. Even in a country that has the death penalty, the outcry was about the violation of “humane” standards in executing those condemned to death by the state. The incident sparked off further democratic debates about the death penalty, popular support for which in the U.S. is at a historic low.
On the contrary, another execution — that of Yakub Memon — by the Indian state, has revealed a creeping pernicious tendency in India, which in some ways is more dangerous than the bloodlust on display. This is the muzzling of dissent from, and opposition to, the majoritarian view as anti-national and seditious. Of course, the majoritarian view would argue that Lockett was an ordinary murder whereas Memon is a terrorist who was convicted for “waging war” against the Indian state.
But this precisely is where the problem lies: the discourse of nationalism and its regression which posits it as the highest ethical principle (ignoring the fact that there are higher principles based on truth and humanity). Ominously, this nationalism is a monochromatic one which does not brook any differences about, say, dealing with terrorism or terrorists. That is why we saw the mobbing of actor Salman Khan’s house, the death threats to journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, the abuse of activists Prashant Bhushan and Kavita Krishnan as terrorists, and the questioning of the nationalist credentials of many citizens for holding contrarian views on the execution of Memon. Similarly, we saw earlier vulgar abuses hurled at the critics of the “Selfie with Daughter” campaign.
It is increasingly difficult to hold reasoned debates and dialogue on the basis of facts in the public sphere. The final nail in this abnegation of democracy is the shocking issuance of notice by the government to three television news channels for their coverage of Memon’s hanging. This eerily evokes the McCarthyist witch-hunt of communists as disloyal citizens in America in the fifties. The binary of national/anti-national is a time-tested and degraded method of strangling oppositional voices that are raising critical issues.
In the “debate” surrounding the Memon hanging, this binary was constantly played out: those who argue for the commutation of death penalty of a terrorist cannot have any sympathy for the pain of the victims of terror; those who point out the infirmities of the criminal justice system cannot have sympathy for the ordinary police or army personnel who lay down their lives fighting terrorism. In fact, we saw the repulsive spectacle on every television channel of pitting those who suffered the loss of their near ones in terror attacks against those who argue against the death penalty. When were human emotions and ideologies ever imprisoned in such black and white categories? Has not the advancement of liberty, rights and justice come about precisely because we transcended these binaries? For every victim who seeks vengeful justice, isn’t there a Coretta Scott King, who was resolutely opposed to the death penalty despite losing her husband Martin Luther King, Jr. and mother-in-law to assassinations?
The seeking of commutation of death penalty, even for terrorists, is not committing treason. It merely reflects the encapsulation of the best thinking in justice in human history. In our thirst for blood, we forget that in the modern era, Cesare Beccaria, the jurist, wrote a treatise against death penalty as early as in 1764; that Venezuela abolished death penalty in 1854; and that even in the U.S. (ironically, India has a particular penchant for imitating this country’s negative features only), 19 states have abolished the death penalty.
Justice is often reduced, as in the Memon hanging, to what the majority or the “collective conscience” of a society wants. If that is the case, then there would be nothing to distinguish a democratic and civilised society from one in which the majority stones a woman to death for adultery. If punishment is merely retributive, why have a figment of civilised behaviour and humaneness in democratic societies? Why do we not then adopt the barbarity of public beheadings and executions? It is no accident that of the 36 countries that have capital punishment in practice, the vast majority are authoritarian regimes.
The construction of the national/anti-national binary proceeds along with the securitisation of democracy in which the viewpoint of security forces, inevitably based on violent means, becomes the common sense of society. Thus we are told that dealing with terror requires “tough” measures like the death penalty. As Indian Police Service officer and columnist Abhinav Kumar wrote: “Letting Memon walk on… flimsy grounds would not only have had a demoralising effect on our police forces, it would have sent a clear message to India’s enemies that it is open season to commit any atrocity without fear of punishment.” Despite the abysmal human rights record of the police (from 2009-2013, there were nearly 2.83 lakh complaints reported against the police and only 238 convictions), Kumar goes on to seek more powers and protection for the police in dealing with terrorism.
Terrorism is seen here only through the narrow prism of crime and punishment without seeing its larger constitutive social conditions. Remarkably, the vast swathe of socio-economic and political policies which can prevent the alienation of segments of the nation and the conditions which generate the support for terror is ignored. Is it not ironic that those who advocate these policies which can ensure peace and prevent the loss of numerous lives are
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