What is that forces people, in a democracy, to stay away from speaking against systemic fault-lines? One would think that democracy, being a guarantor of freedom of speech, would encourage the opposite. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to two distinguished personalities, who have served two of the most powerful institutions in India – a former senior IPS officer and a former Chief Justice, Delhi High Court. The two gentlemen have also served the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as other organisations working for the promotion of civil liberties. The issue was the large number of mercy petitions of prisoners on death row, pending before the Government of India. At least 26 such petitions are reported to be pending before the government, with the oldest among them having been filed a decade ago. The Supreme Court of India recently slammed the Central government over this record. Not only was this shameful, said the Apex court, but it also violated a prisoner’s right to live with dignity, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The event was a live discussion on national television. I and a colleague of mine spoke to the two guests on the finer print behind this issue. Our guests immediately agreed with the view taken by the Supreme Court and informed that the reason behind the delay was mostly political. But of these 26 petitioners, we argued, cases of only a handful had some sort of political connection, the most famous and the most recent one being that of Afzal Guru, convicted for conspiracy in the December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament. Several others are ordinary people, put on death row for gruesome murders. What was the reason behind the delay in deciding their cases? The observations put forward by our guests indicated that they did not have concrete answers.
Or were they keeping the answers to themselves? This question, which I asked to myself, was answered by one of the guests, but off the record. When the show was over and the cameras turned off, he offered me an insight. Awarding death sentence to somebody who has committed a heinous crime is a populist measure, he said, referring to the common man’s perception of justice. And abolishing capital punishment, something that human rights activists are fighting for across the globe, would amount to taking a step that would involve the risk of inviting the displeasure of a large section of the electorate. Translated psephologically, this could mean loss of a few thousand (or more) votes. And no government in India, irrespective of the party in power, has had the courage to look beyond this risk, till now.
Now I haven’t met any relative of a victim of a heinous crime, like murder or rape. So I don’t know whether what my guest pointed out is really the aam aadmi’s perception of justice. But even if it is, it does open another debate - who should be made the guarantor of justice: law or popular perceptions? I was left wondering as to why either of my esteemed guests could not make this observation in full view of the TV audience?
The first step towards correcting one's mistake is acknowledging that one is wrong. When even two retired representatives of the State can not be frank about systemic fault-lines, how can we expect the State itself to be honest in admitting that something is wrong? History has shown us that this couldn’t even be thought of in a monarchy. The modern world is still telling us that this is not possible in an autocratic setup as well. But what prevents a democracy, and a liberal one at that, from truly guaranteeing freedom of speech?