Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s Stance on Yakub Memon Shouldn’t Bother Us


Breaking news, everyone. Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar were against death penalty too. 
Breaking news, everyone. Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar were against death penalty too. (Photo: The Quint)

Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s Stance on Yakub Memon Shouldn’t Bother Us

Opposition’s Vice Presidential candidate Gopalkrishna Gandhi is in the middle of a political storm, if Shiv Sena and Twitter hashtags are anything to go by. Shiv Sena leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut has raised objection to Gandhi’s candidature because of Gandhi’s stance opposing the death sentence of 1993 Mumbai bomb blast convict Yakub Memon.

In July 2015, Gandhi had written a letter to the-then president Pranab Mukherjee, appealing him to ‘reconsider the rejection of Yakub Memon’s mercy plea.’ On Twitter, Gandhi is being called a ‘terrorist supporter’ who wanted to ‘save’ Yakub Memon, with Republic TV running a hashtag “CongFieldsYakubBacker”.

But where do facts stand? Did Gandhi appeal against Memon’s death sentence? Was he alone in doing so? And what did leaders like Gandhi and Ambedkar think about the death penalty?

What was Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s Appeal to ‘Save’ Yakub Memon?

On 21 July 2015, the Supreme Court rejected Yakub Memon’s curative plea against his death penalty sentence. Yakub Memon was convicted for helping plan and execute the Mumbai serial blasts in 1993. In his letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, Gandhi invoked the ‘humane’ legacy of late President APJ Abdul Kalam.

He also mentions the special circumstance of Memon ‘submitting’ to Indian law, and aiding the investigation in a way which helped confirm Pakistan ISI’s role in the blast. In his letter, Gandhi says

“Yakub Memon submitted to Indian jurisdiction when he may quite easily have evaded justice. A respected officer of Indian intelligence has spoken of his cooperation with the law, thus rendering the death penalty completely inappropriate in his case. Former Supreme Court judges have openly said that his execution would be unjust. Public protestations of this nature and from such quarters are rare. They must give us pause, for whether or not there was a secret understanding with Memon that is being disregarded, a doubt would irretrievably be cast on India’s integrity of process if, in the face of this, Yakub Memon is executed.” 

But this wasn’t a one-off stance taken by Gandhi.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi has been a long-time advocate for abolishing the death penalty, having written a book Abolishing The Death Penalty: Why India Should Say No To Capital Punishment in 2016. In the book, he draws on philosophy, law, social sciences, criminology and human rights theory to argue that death penalty in India should be immediately abolished. He argues,

“States that keep the death penalty alive, and do not realise the absurdity of that oxymoron, may not be accused of a sadistic pleasure in dealing death. But they cannot be exempted from the accusation of deriving a sense of pleasure in the death penalty as a power, a perquisite, a prerogative that no one else enjoys.”

Not the Only One to Oppose Memon’s Death Sentence

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was also not the only public figure who spoke up against Memon’s death sentence. One of the strongest advocates against Memon’s death penalty was B Raman, the former head of the Pakistan desk at RAW, who monitored Memon’s surrender and arrival to India. He argued, in a posthumously published Rediff.com column, that “mitigating circumstances” which would have prevented a death sentence, were not “highlighted in court”. He wrote,

But if one also takes into consideration his (Memon’s) conduct and role after he was informally picked up in Kathmandu, there is a strong case for having second thoughts about the suitability of the death penalty in the subsequent stages of the case. 

If the intelligence officer in-charge of Memon’s surrender opposed his death penalty, why single out Gandhi’s stance?

In fact, a marquee of public personalities submitted a petition to President Pranab Mukherjee to consider the mercy plea against the execution of the death sentence of Yakub Memon. Including, but not limited to:
1. Shatrugan Sinha
2. Mani Shankar Aiyer
3. Ram Jethmalani
4. Sitaram Yechury
5. KTS Tulsi
6. Prakash Karat
7. Brinda Karat
8. Tushar Gandhi

Breaking News! Gandhi, Ambedkar Were Against Death Penalty Too

While objecting to Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s nomination for his stance on Yakub Memon’s death sentence, Shiv Sena MP said, “Gandhi had even written to the President. I want to ask the opposition what kind of mindset is this?”

Except, Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar also had the same ‘mindset’. Two leaders who Gopalkrishna Gandhi has said inspired his stance on the death penalty.

Gandhi was doggedly against capital punishment, and contrary to popular belief (and Whatsapp conspiracy theories), Gandhi had written a letter to the Viceroy on 23 March 1931, appealing to the Viceroy, to commute the death sentence of Bhagat Singh and two others. In his letter, he is quoted as saying,

“Execution is an irretrievable act. If you think there is the slightest chance of error of judgment, I would urge you to suspend for further review an act that is beyond recall.”

In fact, after Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of Godse, Mahatma’s two sons and Jawaharlal Nehru also appealed for the commutation of Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly, Babasaheb Ambedkar also strictly opposed the death sentence and said, “the proper thing for this country to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether.”

On 5 August 2017, a new Vice President would be elected; and the least we can do is not inflict slander on the two candidates vying for this prestigious office.

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