Between Afzal Guru’s hanging at Tihar and the executions of Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh at the same jail lies a gap of 24 years. In this time, India has risen tremendously in economic and strategic terms but the decline in our collective morality is evident in the indecorous secrecy which has attended the latest execution. When Indira Gandhi’s assassins were hanged on January 6, 1989, the country had still not emerged from a crippling insurgency in Punjab that had raged through the State for most of that decade and taken the lives of thousands of people. Yet, India appeared a far more confident democracy then. The government of Rajiv Gandhi did not hide the President’s rejection of the mercy petitions of Satwant and Kehar; both men were allowed an eleventh hour opportunity to contest that rejection in the Supreme Court. When the court dismissed their petitions, the date of their execution was made public. Their families were allowed inside the jail for a final goodbye. As many as 20 members of Kehar Singh’s family and 13 of Satwant Singh’s family, including his father, were given permission to meet the condemned men. Though not all of them managed to get access, at least they were spared the shock of being informed after the hangings, not to speak of the shabby indecency of a notification sent through the postal system that reaches two days later.

By trotting out claims about the threat to law and order in order to justify keeping Guru’s execution under wraps, the government has shown itself in even poorer light, as if its law-enforcing machinery is helpless before such threats. Of course that is not true, and it was used as an excuse. Both in Guru’s case and in Ajmal Kasab’s, what the government clearly wanted was a smooth road to the gallows, one that would be free of legal challenges or a last minute reprieve, such as the one granted by the Madras High Court to the three death row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. But in doing so, the government has gone against not just all democratic norms but fundamental human decency. It has also insulted the country’s judicial system, for the secrecy that attended Kasab’s hanging succeeded in taking away from what was otherwise considered a fair trial. The least the government can do now to make amends for its atrocious behaviour towards Guru’s family is to give them access to his grave in Tihar. Something can still be salvaged from this shameful episode if the government is goaded into adopting proper rules for informing the family members of a condemned man about his impending execution. All this, of course, pending that day when political India is able to work up the humanity to abolish the death penalty itself.

A factual error has been corrected in this article on February 12, 2013

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