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Yakub Memon And A Debate Left Hanging

09/08/2016 12:41 PM IST | Updated 10/08/2016 1:51 PM IST
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Activists of Indian right-wing Hindu organization Hindu Sena burn photographs of Yakub Memon.

One year has passed since Yakub Abdul Razzak Memon, convict in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was hanged. The days preceding his death sentence witnessed a gripping exchange of opposing viewpoints on whether he should be hanged or not.

The death penalty, in any case, was effected. A range of petitions were issued in the final days leading up to the execution, which included the mercy petition that was filed by Yakub on 29 July, which was rejected by the President after getting the green signal from the Home Ministry (the matter was discussed with the Prime Minister in view of the nationwide debate on the subject).

"We the public" do not bother to follow up on issues of critical public interest after they disappear from mainstream platforms.

The Supreme Court did not give a 14-day timeframe to Yakub after his mercy petition was rejected and completely overlooked its mandate in the Shatrughan Chauhan case. However, in the case of Devinder Singh Bhullar, the Apex Court had by relying on findings of the Shatrughan Chauhan case, commuted Bhullar's sentence to life imprisonment. The SC did not factor in Yakub's mental illness, which in contrast was taken into account as a 'supervening circumstance' in Bhullar's case.

Further, the Supreme Court in Sangeet Vs State of Haryana criticized previous verdicts on capital punishment on the wrongful interpretation of the rarest of rare doctrine. For deciding whether the death penalty can be awarded, the court should also look at mitigating factors, which were not considered in Yakub's case. B Raman, former RAW official, had underscored in an article how Yakub had cooperated with the investigating agencies, which he had said should serve as a mitigating factor for the commutation of the sentence.

What made the Yakub Memon case fascinating was the intense debate it generated. The extent of public engagement could also be gauged by the efforts that were made by public personalities to have the death penalty commuted to life sentence. The clock ticked as the public waited with bated breath on the outcome in the hours leading up to the execution. The issue became the foremost topic to be debated at a national level at that time. News channels, newspapers and social media were abuzz with news reports and discussions on the subject, prior to the hanging. Since public opinion seemed largely in support of clemency and because of the strong debate that was generated against the death penalty, one had reason to believe the judgement could have been in favour of Yakub. Hopes were raised as a group of lawyers requested the Chief Justice of India to hear a fresh petition, leading to an early morning hearing at the Supreme Court on the day of the hanging, but which also got rejected.

Unless the public follows up on an issue persistently after its "news value" fades, the executive will continue to bypass public opinion and push forth its agenda...

However, after Yakub's execution, the debate that was generated and the level of engagement it had from the public did not ignite a discussion about the severity of capital punishment and the unjust manner in which it has been selectively awarded or revoked -- as is evident in the cases of Bhullar and Yakub, both of whom were charged under TADA and convicted for their role in unrelated bomb blasts in two different cities in the same year, 1993.

Furthermore, the passionate debate that had preceded the hanging faded in no time. Of course, articles appeared that denounced and questioned the methodology that was followed in effecting the execution; and civil society and professionals have been at work on the subject of death penalty on a formal level. But it did not take more than a week for the issue to disappear from news-hour debates and social media -- platforms where it had been debated fervently.

The deep public debate that had preceded the hanging became conspicuous by its near absence following the execution. His execution did not mean the debate had to also stop. That is where the problem really lies: how "we the public" do not bother to follow up on issues of critical public interest after they disappear from mainstream platforms. It stops at the point when the media stops covering it, and the void that is created gets taken up by other news stories. Hence, the authority that is to be made accountable has no reason for being answerable because it can dodge the issue as the passage of time makes it possible. This is tried and tested, and the government knows it. The fact that the matter was crucial enough to be discussed with the PM in the context of the national debate, indicates the importance of public opinion. Unless the public follows up on an issue persistently after its "news value" fades, the executive will continue to bypass public opinion and push forth its agenda, no matter how grave the debate is, because it knows this too shall pass.

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