Different Presidents, Different Decisions: Tale of Mercy Petitions
Different Presidents, Different Decisions: Here’s the tale of mercy petitions in India.
- The rejection of Yakub Memon’s mercy plea by the President has once again brought the issue of mercy petitions to the limelight.
- While some presidents were kinder, others were not. However, there is no consistency in the decisions taken by different Presidents.
- While Smt. Prathiba Patil rejected only 14% of the petitions disposed by her, Shri Pranab Mukherjee on the other hand rejected 92% of the petitions disposed by him.
- A total of 4802 mercy petitions were disposed by the President of India since independence.
The rejection of Yakub Memon’s mercy petition by the President Shri Pranab Mukherjee has once again brought the issue of mercy petitions to limelight. Historical data on mercy petitions clearly indicates that different Presidents acted differently in dealing with these mercy petitions. While some chose the path of commutation in majority cases, others rejected majority of these petitions. Since 1948, a total of 4802 mercy petitions were disposed out of which 3238 were rejected. In 1564 petitions, the death penalty was commuted to life sentence.
The Mercy Petition
Under Article 72 of the Constitution, the President has the power to grant pardon and decide on mercy petitions. The article does not contain any limitation on the time within which this power has to be exercised. But, the Supreme Court has observed in certain recent cases that delays in disposal of mercy petitions may be minimised and that the condemned prisoners have a very pertinent right in insisting that a decision in the matter be taken within a reasonable time.
Though it looks the President holds the power, former Smt. Prathiba Patil in a well known press release issued in 2012 said that the President takes the decision only with the aid and advice of the Government of India as per Article 74 of the constitution.
Numbers through the Decades
As per information available with the Government and data compiled by Bikram Jeet Batra in his book ‘Court of Last Resort’, the number of mercy petitions filed & disposed by the President have come down drastically in the last four decades.
More than 1000 mercy petitions were disposed in each of decades 1948-1954, 1955-1964 & 1965-1974. Since 1974, the number of mercy petitions filed & disposed has come down drastically. It has come to such a low that only 9 petitions were disposed during 1995-2006. Shri K.R.Narayanan & Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam were Presidents during this time.
The numbers are so skewed that 94% of all the mercy petitions were disposed in the first 26 years while a mere 6% were disposed in the 41 years after that. According to Bikram Jeet Batra, the decline in death sentences in general could be due to the impact of the new CrPC, 1973 which made life imprisonment the ordinary punishment for murder and death sentence the exceptional punishment. He also says that in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the death penalty was a subject of great controversy in the Supreme Court which led to the landmark Bachan Singh formulation of the death penalty being awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare’ case. This looks like a plausible explanation since the number of death sentences and the subsequent number of mercy petitions to the President has come down drastically post the 1970s.
Rejections & Commutations
There seems to be no uniformity in either the rejection of mercy petitions or commutation to life sentence. A look at the percentage of commutations since independence substantiates this conclusion. While commutations accounted for 24% of the decisions in the first few years after independence, these accounted for 29% from 1995-1964. The highest percentage of commutations (more than 50%) was in the period 1965-1974 when Shri V V Giri & Dr. Zakir Hussain were the Presidents. Since then, it has been fluctuating up and down based on the President in office. The least percentage of commutations (8.9%) was in the period 1985-1994 during Shri R Venkataraman’s presidency. This percentage rose to 43.8% during 2006-2015 primarily because of the 19 commutations by Smt. Prathiba Patil.
Different Presidents – Different Decisions
A cursory glance at the data for the last six Presidents reveals the complete lack of consistency in taking decisions on mercy petitions. While Shri R Venkataraman rejected all 40 mercy petitions, Smt. Prathiba Patil rejected just 3 of the 22 petitions disposed by her. Shri Pranab Mukherjee on the other hand rejected more than 92% of the mercy petitions disposed by him. Shri K R Narayanan did not dispose a single petition during his time while Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam disposed only two during this time rejecting one and allowimg commutation in other. Shri Shankar Dayal Sharma rejected 70% of the petitions while allowing commutation in the remaining 30%.
(Rakesh has been working on issues related to Right to Information (RTI) for a decade. He is a Data/Information enthusiast & passionate about Governance/Policy issues.)
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