30/07/2015 6:15 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

On The Day Yakub Memon Is Hanged, Shashi Tharoor Says Death Penalty Makes Us 'Murderers'

PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
Indian Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor addresses the media at parliament house in New Delhi on April 16, 2010. Junior Indian Foreign Minister and former high-flying UN official Shashi Tharoor, 54, has been in the eye of a storm since the weekend when news broke that a friend, said by Indian media to be his girlfriend, had been given a free stake in a new IPL franchise. Tharoor has denied the allegations. AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

While Yakub Memon's hanging today polarised the nation, Congress Party leader Shashi Tharoor sparked controversy by lambasting the death penalty as a pointless and retributive practice, and asked, "should the state be reducing itself to the level of murderers and terrorists by taking human life?"

Two hours after the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts convict was declared dead on Thursday morning, Tharoor tweeted that "cold blooded execution had never prevented a terror attack anywhere."

In an opinion piece, published by NDTV, Tharoor wrote, "state sponsored killing reduces us to murderers too."

Excerpts from Tharoor's opinion piece.

I joined the public debate by expressing my sadness that our government has hanged a human being, whatever his crimes may have been. State-sponsored killing diminishes us all, I added, by reducing us to murderers too. I stressed that I was not commenting on the merits of this or any specific case: that's for the Supreme Court to decide. My problem is with the principle and practice of the death penalty in our country.

Look at the numbers: there's no statistical correlation between applying the death penalty and preventing murder. About 10 people were executed from 1980 to 1990 for the offence of murder under section 302 of the India Penal Code, but the incidence of murder increased from 22,149 to 35,045 during the same period.

Similarly, during 1990-2000, even though about 8 people were executed, the incidence of murder increased from 35,045 to 37,399. However, during 2000-2010, only one person was executed and the incidence of murder decreased from 37,399 in 2000 to 33,335 in 2010. No correlation: QED.

READ: 1993 Mumbai Blasts Convict Yakub Memon Hanged To Death

Responding to Tharoor's remarks, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Times Now that it was irresponsible of the Congress Party leader to call Memon's execution "state sponsored killing," which he compared to an "extra judicial killing."

Jaitley acknowledged that the death penalty debate is "legitimate," but he said, "because of the advent of terrorism in India we are still not in a position to abolish the death penalty."

Divided On Death Penalty

Over the past week, politicians, intellectuals, activists and the public have expressed polarising opinions on whether Memon should be executed, but today the debate shifted course to the overarching question of whether India should abolish the death penalty.

While highlighting its futility as a deterrent, death penalty critics said that poorer convicts are more vulnerable because they can't afford a good defence, and there is always danger of political, social and religious biases creeping into the decision-making process.

Speaking against the death penalty, Communist Party of India chief Sitaram Yechury said that more than 100 countries have abolished the death penalty because it has proven to be ineffective. Noting that life imprisonment in India extends to 14 years, the Left party leader suggested changing the law to "imprisonment for life" to substitute execution.

Yechury also said that "terrorism in our country knows no religion and is not confined to any region," and justice should be "delivered without any partiality."

The other side said that the death penalty is confined to the "rarest of rare" cases in India, and provides closure to families of victims who are subjected to horrific crimes.

Memon, they said, had exhausted all legal avenues over the course of 22 years, and the Indian judiciary really did pull out all the stops to ensure that he got a fair hearing. On Thursday morning, three Supreme Court judges heard his final petition in an unprecedented pre-dawn session, and gave their final verdict at 5:00 a.m., two hours before he was hanged.

"I think there cannot be a more transparent system," said Home Minister Rajnath Singh, ANI reported. "This has never happened before in history of world, that a nation's Supreme Court heard somebody mercy petition at 2.15am in the night."

But Bharatiya Janata Party's own leader Shatrughan Sinha, who was among the several eminent Indians to back Memon's mercy petition before President Pranab Mukherjee, condemned capital punishment.

Former Aam Aadmi Party leader Prashant Bhushan called the execution "a miscarriage of justice."

READ: There Is No Real Mitigating Factor In Yakub Memon Case

Political Feuding

While Tharoor clarified that he was not speaking about Memon's case, but condemning the death penalty in his personal capacity, Jaitley accused Congress Party leaders of making "irresponsible statements" which "raises a column of concern."

Congress Party leader Digvijaya Singh also caused outrage with his Twitter message which seemed to allude to recent controversial remarks about Memon's mercy petition not being accepted because he was a Muslim without any political backing. Singh also said that such executions can be used by Islamic fundamentalists to cause tensions.

Jaitley asked Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi to explain these "contrarian statements" by its leaders. BJP National spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao said that unless Gandhi explained, Singh's remarks would be taken as the party's official stand.

While his party distanced itself from Tharoor's remarks today, the lawmaker's candid opinion isn't likely to win him any favours with the Congress president, who recently reprimanded him for speaking against the party's campaign to block parliament until the three senior BJP leader resign.

"You always do this, it's become a habit with you," she said.

In his opinion piece, Tharoor rejected BJP's accusation that he was politicising the issue, but he did say that "public opinion and political calculation" influences the decision to impose death penalty.

Excerpt from Tharoor's post.

I don't see anything political in my statement of principle. But since politics has been mentioned, let me respond that it would be disingenuous to suggest that the imposition of the death penalty is free from any political motivations.

After all, the final decision on mercy petitions or to commute a death sentence is taken by the political executive, which advises the President, who has the final say in deciding the execution of a death sentence but, is expected to act in accordance with the guidance of the Council of Ministers. The decision is therefore bound to be influenced by popular public opinion and political calculation.

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