By Taazakhabar News Bureau
President Pranab Mukherjee is one of the most merciless Presidents India ever had, while his predecessor Pratibha Patil who rejected only three mercy pleas and commuted the death sentence of 23 petitioners to life imprisonment was the most merciful president and angel of mercy in recent times.
Having rejected 22 out of 23 i.e. almost 97% of the mercy petitions in the 27 months in office since 25 July 2012 Mukherjee has surpassed Shankar Dayal Sharma, who rejected all 14 mercy petitions. But he still has to beat the record of R. Venkatraman (33 rejected petitions) and Zail Singh (20 rejected petitions) to be called the most ruthless among the 13 Presidents of India.
Atbir Singh convicted for brutally murdering his step-mother Sheela Devi (stabbed 5 times) and her children Manish (stabbed 11 times) and Sonu (stabbed 21 times) over a property dispute in Mukherjee Nagar was the only lucky one to get a commutation order from Pranab Mukherjee in August 2014.
India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad, himself a lawyer was not in favour of death penalty. But when Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Minister of State for Home B.N. Datar recommended rejection of the mercy petition of Parmatma Saran a railways employee who killed his wife, President Prasad too concurred and rejected the mercy petition. Saran’s execution was scheduled to take place at the Meerut Central Jail on January 24, 1962.
Meanwhile Shastri’s office received a fresh mercy petition from Saran’s father-in-law and another from Saran’s 87-year-old grandmother who said that her son (Saran’s father) had become insane. The government stopped Saran’s execution and considered the mercy pleas afresh. Dr Rajendra Prasad commuted Saran’s death sentence to life imprisonment based on the fresh advice from the Home Ministry on March 30, 1962.
The most important lesson to be learnt in this case was that even if the crime committed by the convict is barbaric, the convict has a right to be treated on compassionate grounds. The two terms he served ended up making the system of dealing with mercy petitions more transparent and fair.
His successor Dr Radhakrishnan, was also against death sentence. But since he was not trained in law, instead of getting involved with finer details, he simply tried to follow the precedents set by Rajendra Prasad. Between 1953 and 1963, nearly 142 persons were hanged to death in India. Obviously Dr. Radhakrishnan, who was the President from 1962-67 received several mercy petitions. He did not reject or confirm the mercy petitions — allowing them to remain pending. Nehru, requested him to atleast turn down the mercy petitions but he refused. The result was that there were no executions during his president ship.
In his relatively short stint President Zakir Hussain (1967–1969) was nothing more than a rubber stamp — signing and forwarding the files sent to him. He however started the practice of Presidential durbars where members of the public or family members of petitioners could meet him and seek redressal of their grievance.
After Zakir Hussain’s death, V.V. Giri (1969–1974) the fourth President of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed – the President who officially declared Emergency on the advice of Indira Gandhi and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who dealt with three PMs Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Indira Gandhi — were not very proactive in dealing with mercy petitions.
The only petition that was disposed off from 1980 to 1982 was that of killers Ranga and Billa.
Giani Zail Singh (1982 – 1987) who many people say was a mere “showpiece” rejected as many as 30 mercy petitions. But he did save two convicts from the gallows by commuting the punishment to life imprisonment. Prominent among the mercy petitions he rejected included that of founder of Jammu Kashmir National Liberation Front Maqbool Bhat. Bhat the first Indian to mastermind the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore in 1971 petitioned to President Zail Singh for clemency on the grounds of an unfair trial but his petition was rejected.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was involved in the behind the scene drama in 1984. Ravindra Mhatre, a diplomat in Indian mission in Birmingham, UK was kidnapped by JKLF militants who were demanding one million pounds in cash and the release of Maqbool Bhutt. Indira Gandhi refused to negotiate the release of the Indian diplomat. She took a firm stand – “No talks, No deal”. A few days later, the diplomat’s body was found near a farm. A furious Indira Gandhi retaliated by literally ordering Zail Singh to reject Maqbool Bhutt’s mercy petition overnight. Exactly five days later Bhat was hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
Another mercy petition declined by Giani Zail Singh was that of Shashikant Keshavlal Parmar, the last man to be executed in Gujarat in 1989. Parmar was sentenced to death for killing three members of his lawyer’s family including a kid in 1980. The Gujarat High Court confirmed his death sentence in 1982. The Supreme Court upheld the decision. Mali’s mother sought clemency but President Zail Singh turned it down on April 21, 1983. Accordingly the sessions court issued a black warrant fixing his date of execution as June 21, 1989. But his hanging was delayed, for want of an executioner. Finally a hangman called Vishnu hung him to death in Rajkot jail on July 25, 1989.
President Giani Zail Singh disposed off a large number of pending mercy petitions.
His successor R. Venkataraman himself in favor of capital punishment and holds the record for dismissing the maximum number of 44 mercy petitions- more than any President of India. his Though he eventually commuted the death sentence of five persons to life imprisonment, instead of humanitarian grounds it was apparently on account of administrative delay in deciding the case. As he himself write in his autobiography My Presidential Years, “Delay in deciding mercy petitions not only inflicts mental torture on the convicts but also compels decision in favour of commutation, even where a penalty of death is otherwise warranted.” Among others he rejected the mercy petitions of Indira Gandhi’s killers Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh.
‘Kehar Singh’s case raised a few queries in my mind. First, should not the President have discretion to examine any extenuating circumstance and alter the death sentence without the advice of the government? How else can prejudice or partisanship be prevented,” Venkataraman later wrote in My Presidential Years.
Shankar Dayal Sharma (1992–1997) did not seem to care much about the President’s power to commute death sentence or pardon a convict. Behaving like a rubber stamp, he rejected all the petitions without even applying his mind. President S.D. Sharma rejected all 14 mercy petitions filed before him.
President KR Narayanan (1997–2002) was the extreme opposite. He kept all of the petitions pending and finally rejected one out of 10 petitions pending before him. Though he was personally opposed to the death penalty, Narayanan did not want to leave create the precedence of commuting all sentences. His dilemma benefitted terrorists like Mohammad Afzal whose execution was delayed in the process. Even Govindasami’s execution was stayed by the BJP led NDA government and there were no executions during his five year term.
APJ Abdul Kalam the next President (2002–2007) inherited a backlog of eight mercy petitions that Narayanan had left undecided. Apart from this Kalam received five more petition from L K Advani’s MHA (NDA regime) and 12 more from Shivraj Patil’s MHA (UPA rule) taking the total tally to 25. Kalam rejected the mercy petition of Dhananjay Chatterjee, accused of raping and murdering a teenager and commuted the death sentence of Kheraj Ram on 29 September 2006. The 23 other petitions remained in cold storage.
Because of Kalam’s inaction the execution of Afzal Guru a Kashmiri terrorist involved in the conspiracy behind December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament kept hanging fire.
A mercy petition is a serious business. Many lives are affected if the mercy petition is rejected or leads to commutation of death sentence — still the random and arbitrary manner in which whole exercise is conducted is clear by the R. Govindasamy case. President Narayanan rejected his mercy petition, on the basis of NDA government’s advice, in October 1999. A decade later the same NDA government did a u-turn and made Pratibha Patil, commute his death sentence to life imprisonment in 2009 on the basis of a fresh petition. Similarly Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, recommended rejection of Satish’s mercy petition in July 2008, but his successor P. Chidambaram suggested commuting Satish’s death sentence to life imprisonment.
Pratibha Patil who followed him obviously did not wish to create the image of a rubber-stamp President so she started exercising her limited powers to the fullest possible extent and clearing the backlog left behind by Narayanan and Kalam. She decided the fate of 38 mercy petitions in her five-year tenure. Out of these she rejected five mercy petitions and commuted 35 others including those of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins Santhan, Murugan and Arivu. This led to so much criticism in the media that she had to issue a press release justifying her stand.
One of the first things that Rashtrapati Bhawan did after Mukherjee became President was to start a ‘mercy petition’ section on the official website. It started with posting updates on Ajmal Kasab’s execution in November, 2012 and went on till Afzal Guru’s execution in February 2013 when it was suddenly withdrawn. Why? Was mercy not important anymore?
The issue is can the President of India use his powers as and when he wants, if at all? This is what the Supreme Court has to say on the subject:
- The power vested in the President under Article 72 and the Governor under Article 161 of the Constitution is manifestation of prerogative of the State. It is neither a matter of grace nor a matter of privilege, but is an important constitutional responsibility to be discharged by the highest executive keeping in view the considerations of larger public interest and welfare of the people.
- While exercising power under Article 72, the President is required to act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. In tendering its advice to the President, the Central Government is duty bound to objectively place the case of the convict with a clear indication about the nature and magnitude of the crime committed by him, its impact on the society and all incriminating and extenuating circumstances. The same is true about the State Government, which is required to give advice to the Governor to enable him to exercise power under Article 161 of the Constitution. On receipt of the advice of the Government, the President or the Governor, as the case may be, has to take a final decision in the matter. Although, he/she cannot overturn the final verdict of the Court, but in appropriate case, the President or the Governor, as the case may be, can after scanning the record of the case, form his/her independent opinion whether a case is made out for grant of pardon, reprieve, In any case, the President or the Governor, as the case may be, has to take cognizance of the relevant facts and then decide whether a case is made out for exercise of power under Article 72 or 161 of the Constitution.”
Where does this lead us to? Does the answer to this riddle lie elsewhere as former President Venkataraman suggested, “the conditions prevailing in the country’ require that this power of review should vest with the judiciary and not with the President”.