first published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page
October 14, 2006
There is a difference between law and equity (or natural justice). The power of pardon is an equitable power. Commuting a death-sentence is a partial pardon By SUBROTO ROY
“Fiat justitia pereat mundus” ~let justice be done even if the world shall perish ~ is a maxim only Immanuel Kant among the great philosophers may have wished to maintain. Yet it serves to remind us that there exist wrong reasons for carrying out as well as wrong reasons for not carrying out the death-sentence on Afzal Guru. Wrong reasons for carrying out the death-sentence include saying that only by his death will families of the victims of the Parliament attack receive satisfaction (justice is hardly the same thing as revenge) or that only thereby can the Indian Republic show itself to be standing up to terrorism. Wrong reasons for not carrying out the death-sentence include saying Afzal’s death would be seen as unjust by many people in J&K and result in further civil or political turmoil there or elsewhere, or that more terrorism will result.
Justice should be done and be seen to be done to Afzal by the Indian Republic ~ here as elsewhere, justice is a matter between an individual and the State. The question remains open whether such justice involves his death or his imprisonment for life or even his being paroled in due course. Unlike Praveen Mahajan for example, Afzal has not committed premeditated first-degree murder or parricide. He is from an Indian State where there has existed some separatist sentiment for decades, and evidently he has been an accomplice to an act of war against India involving attempted kidnapping or mass murder. If he is an Indian national, he may have been treasonous and seditious; if he is a Pakistani national or wishes to be treated as such, he may have been some kind of spy, agent provocateur or saboteur, or an accomplice of such people. The moral question before India today has to do with what precisely is the nature and quality of justice to be dispensed in this particular case, in these particular factual circumstances as far as presently known, given all the principles, precedents, rules and laws available.
Someone may fairly wonder how or why it is possible the President of India has any discretion at all left to commute a sentence of death once the judiciary up until the Supreme Court of India has spoken. The answer has to do with the subtle distinction that is still made in common law countries like Britain, the USA and India between law and equity or “natural justice”. Britain ever since the 13th Century has had an institution known as “Lord Chancellor” in whose person came to be combined the highest judicial and executive roles (Tony Blair’s New Labour Government is due to abolish it). “Chancery” or courts of equity traditionally were parallel to courts of law, recognising that normal legal processes may cause justice to sometimes fail (especially in corrupt times) and hence require direct executive intervention. In the United States today, equity is embodied in Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules, and federal courts are empowered to oversee all other courts including themselves for violations of natural justice.
By way of example having nothing necessarily to do with capital punishment, “solicitation of counsel, clerks or judges” is embracery curialis, recognized as extrinsic fraud and subversion of justice since Jepps 72 E R 924 (1611), “firmly established in English practice long before the foundation” of the USA, Hazel Atlas, 322 US 238 (1943). “Embracery is an offense striking at the very foundation of civil society” says Corpus Juris 20, 496. A court of equity has inherent power to investigate if a judgement has been obtained by fraud, and that is a power to unearth it effectively, since no fraud is more odious than one to subvert justice. Cases include when “by reason of something done by the successful party… there was in fact no adversary trial or decision of the issue in the case. Where the unsuccessful party has been prevented from exhibiting fully his case, by fraud or deception practised on him by his opponent, as … where an attorney fraudulently or without authority assumes to represent a party and connives at his defeat; or where the attorney regularly employed corruptly sells out his client’s interest to the other side ~ these, and similar cases which show that there has never been a real contest in the trial or hearing of the case, are reasons for which a new suit may be sustained to set aside and annul the former judgment or decree, and open the case for a new and a fair hearing….” Hazel Atlas. Fraud on the court includes that “perpetrated by officers of the court so that the judicial machinery cannot perform in the usual manner its impartial task of adjudging cases that are presented for adjudication” Moore’s Federal Practice 60-360.
Equitable action under Rule 60(b) can vacate judgment whenever such action is appropriate to accomplish justice. (In contemporary American federal judicial processes at least in the present author’s experience over two decades, this rather subtle branch of jurisprudence may have become known, however, more in its breach than fulfilment).
The power of pardon is one such supra-legal equitable power of the executive authority. For a state’s chief executive to pardon a crime is to release someone of guilt or to remit punishment. In Britain, the power is with the Government’s Home Office and in the old Commonwealth it was delegated to the Governor-General. In the USA it is a power of the President or State Governors to pardon crimes, and the most famous case was that of President Gerald Ford pardoning his predecessor Richard M. Nixon. Pervez Musharraf recently pardoned A Q Khan. Both highlight the fact the power of granting a full pardon is to be exercised rarely, and may be justifiable only on grounds of “Reasons of State” where someone has done something unlawful which the State is willing to condone for sake of some greater good in the national interest. But a pardon also can be partial, requiring the offender fulfil a condition such as serving a lesser substituted punishment. Commuting a death sentence by requiring the offender to serve life in prison is this sort of conditional pardon.
In India today, the President under Article 72 of the Constitution is empowered “to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute” a sentence of death and also intervene in other cases. Article 161 gives a lesser power to State Governors. These are singular examples of the acknowledged presence of equity in modern Indian jurisprudence, though our customary laws remain a vast untapped source of natural justice, (viz. Tagore Law Lectures 1905-1906 by SN Roy). Just last week, a Supreme Court bench of Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice SH Kapadia ruled the power of reprieve, pardon or remission of sentence may not be exercised for “political considerations or on the basis of religion, caste or other extraneous factors”. There must be bona fide valid reasons. The bench set aside an Andhra Pradesh order passed by a Governor from the Congress Party remitting the sentence of imprisonment awarded to a Congress leader in a murder case involving a Telegu Desam Party victim. In an egregious violation of his discretion, the Governor had said the sentence already undergone was sufficient and directed release, but the Supreme Court in November 2005 admitted a petition challenging the order and stayed it. The Court has now held that exercise of the power is subject to judicial review and it may not be exercised for extraneous, political or mala fide reasons. The Court has thereby enlarged its role in equity (or natural justice) similar to that which American federal courts have had under Rule 60(b). There is also an argument for abolishing Article 161.
In cases of equitable treatment of capital punishment in India today like that of Afzal (or Dhananjay before him), the fact the Executive has notoriously starved our Judiciary of adequate resources ever since Independence (The Statesman, 26 February 2006) also may not be something irrelevant to evaluating the likelihood of a mistake having been made. All things considered, if justice is to be done and seen to be done in Afzal’s case, the Indian Republic should be in no hurry whatsoever in deciding to either execute him or to even release him.
From Facebook 31 March 2014
Why was Afzal hanged in such a hurry and almost in secret? Why did the BJP bay for his death so loudly every day, getting the Congress scared they would lose an election if they did not? Competitive foolishness just as over Telengana. Afzal had not pulled any trigger. That it was an avoidable injustice is made apparent by the Supreme Court commuting the death sentences of other political murderers, including Rajiv Gandhi’s killers and now Bhullar…
From Facebook 24 November 2012
I did not think Kasab should have been hanged principally as it was on the basis of his evidence that India cracked the case and he deserved some jurisprudential credit for that. He was the star witness for the prosecution against the terrorist masterminds who had sent him. Separately, I also do not believe, all things considered, that Afzal should be hanged, though there may be nothing defective in law against his conviction and sentence and he has had some legal bad luck. The law of pardon or commutation is of an equitable nature, beyond the normal law itself…His cooperation with the police would be the reason for his life to be spared — besides the fact that he pulled no trigger to kill anyone himself nor caused anyone else to do so.
From Facebook August 12 2011:
Subroto Roy has now for the first time been able to read the Supreme Court judgement affirming Afzal Guru’s death sentence, commuting Shaukat’s, and affirming the acquittal of Gillani. It does not seem defective in law. Afzal Guru was perhaps misrepresented by lawyers or misled himself into confessing his crimes very early on. But hand-in-glove with the murderous terrorists he certainly appears to have been. The fact he helped the police with his confession may be the only equitable reason for the President to commute the sentence.
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