HOPE is a cruel thing, It refuses to die, Even when things are going against us, we cling to it and trust the unknown in the hope that something favorable will happen, So often that does not happen and then one feels cheated and betrayed. This is what makes one say that hope is a cruel thing.
Now that it is all over, one wonders why one entertained any hope at all. As things fall into their place, bit by bit, it becomes clear that it could not have been otherwise. Kehar Singh has been hanged not because the man was found guilty He has been hanged because it had been decided to hang him.
What was the point at issue? Nobody contended that he should be let off. The only demand was that the sentence of death should be commuted into life imprisonment; the proof was not conclusive enough to hang him. The evidence produced against him amounted only to guilt by association. In this situation if it was a choice between. Life and death, one could not opt for death unless one was determined not to consider the option of life.
What is contained in the Thakkar Commission Report is not known to anyone outside the charmed circle of the Government. Hanging him has therefore left a large number of people with a lingering doubt in their mind whether what was done was at all justifiable. Elementary caution required that any punishment other than irreversible death would have been in order.
From the judicial point of view the whole operation has been suspected from the beginning to end. From the rational point of view. what has been done is so indefensible that those who defend the decision to hang him are either cynically legalistic in their approach or are unable to see beyond what is immediately visible.
What appalls one is the air of cocksureness with which the Government has gone about the job. Appeals for mercy have been ignored and international opinion has been defied. As if that was not appalling enough, the speed of decision making has been breathtaking, and confirms one’s worst suspions. A fortnight after the Supreme Court had made it possible for the President to reconsider the court decision, the President rejected the appeal. This was totally unexpected. Most people were of the view that in interpreting Article 72 in the manner it had been done, the Supreme Court had tried to prompt the President to bail it out of a situation when it had tied itself into knots. But that was not to be. All that the judiciary cans now do is to put a brazen face on it and that is precisely what is being done.
Quite some people have described Kehar Singh’s death as a judicial murder. Whether this is so or not is beside the point. The thing to remember is that such things do. Happen in history. A somewhat similar thing happened a decade ago in Pakistan when Bhutto was hanged. But that it should start happening in India too is a cause for concern. One believed that India was engaged in building an open and democratic society. More than anything else. this required that the rule of law be observed. We however, are determined to violate it. Step by step we are slipping downhill.
Violence In Punjab
Before and during the emergency, we witnessed the spectacle of the State being used as a private property. In the next phase we found the State abdicating its function to protect life and liberty of the individual. Instead it had no compunction in promoting gangsterism; November 1984 is a standing testimony to this aberration in our polity. While gangsterism is growing apace and manifesting itself in different ways in different parts of the country, in Punjab a related phenomenon is at work. While violence is a fact of life there, what is giving it sustenance is the terrorism of the State.
As an activist from Batala once put it to me, “If you have Rs 2030,000 in your pocket, you are a law abiding citizen. If you cannot produce that much of cash, you can be labeled a terrorist, locked up, insulted, tortured, even liquidated and nobody can help you. In plain words instead of protecting the citizen the police have become an agent of oppression. This does not happen in every case. But it happens often enough to keep the momentum of violence going.
The current generation of insurgents is somewhat different from the earlier generation. They are comparatively younger and more ruthless. But for what is happening around them and to them, they might not have found themselves in the ranks of the insurgents. But everything around them seems to propel them in that direction and that is how insurgency is continuing unabated.
If that was one end of the spectrum, the other end is the Refusal to convert a death sentence into life imprisonment. Nobody was asking for anything other than a rational response to what was patently dubious evidence, Nobody was saying that Kehar Singh can be let off, nor was anybody saying that both Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh be let off. There was no doubt that Satwant Singh was directly involved. No rational or sane person put the two cases are par with each other. But the Government was determined to couple the two and that is what should make one pause and think. This is important. There is neither time for sentimentalism nor hysteria. It is time for calm reflection and an attempt to understand why the Government opted to become so obdurate and unyielding.
No clear answer 1s available. Was it insistence on the letter of the law rather than its spirit? Was it an instance of condign punishment being meted out to one who had been held guilty of murder? Was it an attempt to uphold the prestige of the Supreme Court? Or was it an attempt to show Jethmalani his place? Any number of explanations is being offered but, sad to say, none of them carries much conviction. The only thing that stared one in the face is that the Government was determined
“Why these double standards? The Sikh answer is that there is one law for them and another law for others.”
to act in the way it did Need for explanation Even if that be so, surely there has to be some explanation for what happened. People vested with power over the lives and destinies of others do not act without cause. More so when the contrast between Indira Gandhi’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s murder trials is so obvious and so inescapable. Nathuram Godse who shot Mahatma Gandhi did not disown the act. Satwant Singh on the other hand did not act the way he was expected to act. Under legal advice (or whatever might have been his reasons) he did not own up his role. That was not dignified, to put it no more strongly. He recovered his dignity however when he refused to appeal for mercy But what is under discussion is Kehar Singh and not Satwant Singh. The analogy here should be with Nathuram Godse’s brother. He was a part of the conspiracy and this was established in the court. But the court did not sentence him to death, Life imprisonment was seen to be the appropriate punishment for him and rightly so. He served his 14 years in jail and lived to write a book on the subject. A question which every right-thinking man wants answered is why these double standards?.
The Sikh answer is that there is one law for them and another law for others; the non-Sikh answer is somewhat different but when it comes to judging the guilt of Kehar Singh, there is no substantive difference between the two points of view. To be precise, it is non-Sikh opinion which has been more vocal and more uninhibited. The issue is no longer one of showing mercy to a murderer; the issue is one of human dignity and human rights. How the courts and the Government perform in this situation is also a matter of considerable significance.
Why did the Government act in this perverse way? Why did it refuse to draw a distinction between Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh? In a sense, the answer should be obvious. It was not for lack of sensitivity or moral conscience. All these considerations are secondary, if not also irrelevant, in what is called politics. Kehar Singh had to die not because his guilt was incontestable. He was hanged because those who run the country were of the view that this is what would suit their political strategy.
What precisely is this strategy? One wishes one knew. The only thing certain about it are its two principal ingredients: a sense of fear and insecurity and a visible symbol of these nameless apprehensions such as, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Sikhs were in 1984. One has only to recall that tell-tale press campaign which the Congress (1) had mounted then, despite serious criticism of it, to underline the point that what is suggested here is not all that far-fetched.
As anybody conversant with politics would testify, situations never repeat themselves. Every situation is different from the other. Even if it resembles an earlier situation, the cast is different, as are its context and parameters. For anyone to imagine in 1989 that 1984 can be repeated is to be naive, if not also foolish.
And yet, it appears some such odd calculations have gone into the decision which is contrary both to reason and justice. Kehar Singh had to die because some people somewhere thought that it would advance the interests of those in power today. If somebody has a better explanation for this perverse act of calculated injustice, let him not keep it to himself; let him share his wisdom with the rest of us. That would at least help to clarify issues.
In bidding this melancholy farewell to Kehar Singh, it would be well to recognize that he was a mere cog in the ruthless game called politics. The name of the game is power; the more ruthlessly it can be played, the higher the returns.
Article extracted from this publication >> February 3, 1989