The quality of mercy, Shakespeare would be disappointed to learn, seems highly strained in India. If Maganlal Barela, a convict on death row in Jabalpur Central Jail, is still alive, he has a newspaper report that broke the story of his imminent hanging to thank for the temporary reprieve. Barela was sentenced to death in 2011 by the Madhya Pradesh High Court for murdering his five infant daughters, after a heated argument with his wives over property. Last month, President Pranab Mukherjee rejected Barela’s clemency petition — nearly 18 months after the Supreme Court turned down his appeal. It is unclear how long Rashtrapati Bhavan took to decide Barela’s fate but within days of it doing so, he was served a black warrant and readied for the gallows. The alacrity with which the establishment pursued his hanging reflects a disdain for his constitutional rights. A prisoner on death row is entitled to challenge in the Supreme Court the President’s rejection of a mercy petition. It is improbable that Barela had a chance to exercise this right in such a short span of time. In fact, the government’s attempt to rush his execution seems highly suspect given that it coincides with the Supreme Court’s recent comments calling it out for inordinate delay in deciding mercy petitions.
That it took a newspaper report to alert lawyers and activists to Barela’s imminent execution highlights the arbitrary system in place to evaluate mercy pleas. The Ministry of Home Affairs is neither required by law to publish a list of pending and processed mercy petitions nor does it have to disclose the reasons tendered by the President. The Central Information Commission in July rejected a request by A.G. Perarivalan — convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case — for those details. In fact, Rashtrapati Bhavan, which had put up a section devoted to mercy petitions on its website, removed it earlier this year. The ambiguity in this process of dispensing mercy may give the government some room to navigate hot-button cases — as it did with the stealthy execution of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru — but it also subjects death row prisoners to an excruciating wait, undermining their rights. Recognising this sordid state of affairs, the Supreme Court has rightly pressed ahead with plans to institute a larger bench in October to review mercy pleas rejected after delay; Maganlal Barela’s will be one among them. Last week, the Court rejected the government’s request to review its decision to commute the death sentence of M.N. Das, whose mercy plea had been rejected after 11 years. The Court must now favourably receive the pleas of Barela and others who have shuttled between life and death thanks to the executive’s arbitrary policies.