Justice & Afzal

Justice & Afzal

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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After the Verdict: Why the Executive Needed a Vote of Confidence

AFTER THE VERDICT

By Subroto Roy

First published The Statesman, October 20 2005, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net

The last and only time a Head of State of India “resigned” was when Edward VIII (uncle of the present Queen of England) abdicated in 1936 because he wished to marry Mrs Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, and the British Government under Stanley Baldwin felt this was unacceptable to the public and told him so. To his eternal credit, Edward VIII chose true love over the vainglorious trappings of a constitutional monarchy, gave up the kingship, and went with his new wife into a quiet voluntary life-exile in France as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. India’s Presidents cannot act in state except upon advice of the Cabinet. That means they cannot even resign from office except upon advice of the Cabinet. A President may tragically die in office in which case the Vice-President would become the acting Head of State but there is no provision or precedent in India for a President to be made to resign except for Edward VIII’s abdication.

Richard Nixon resigned the office of the President of the United States in 1974 and more recently William Jefferson Clinton was brought under a lot of pressure to do so by the legislative impeachment proceedings against him. Nixon resigned (which made Gerald Ford President) because it had become impossible for him to stay in office having been proved to have lied to the people, and Clinton managed to stay on by the skin of his teeth for similar misdeeds. But the American system is different because the Head of State and Head of Government are united in the person of the President.

In our system, the Head of State embodies the sovereignty of India and does nothing more. Mountbatten as the first Governor-General imagined himself much more than that and caused damage to the subcontinent’s polity which has still to be repaired. But the first four Indian Heads of State, C. Rajagopalachari, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, and Dr Zakir Hussain, were exemplary role-models. Unfortunately since their time the office of the President has suffered some of the shocks too that have been suffered by almost all our institutions. For example, retired Presidents really should vanish most gracefully into quietude to write their memoirs and help raise their grandchildren, yet we have had a former President say that an award received after retirement as President has been his most prized. It is not logically possible for such a thing to happen, since to become President of India is the ultimate honour for any citizen of our country. We elect someone among us to be a constitutional monarch for a period of five years and call that person President. Even if a former Indian President should receive the Nobel Peace Prize afterwards it would not mean his/her having embodied the sovereignty of our Republic was not the ultimate honour.

In our constitutional law, our Head of State cannot choose to resign any more than the sovereignty of India can be made to momentarily come to an end. If, to construct a hypothetical case, a President of India while in office became, heavens forbid, physically or mentally incapable of carrying out the duties of the office, the Government of India as represented by the Union Cabinet may well look to the Vice-President to fulfil the role of the Head of State temporarily but there would be no provision for the President to be made to demit office. The only precedent is that of Edward VIII where his personal love for Mrs Simpson compelled his abdication upon the advice of the Prime Minister.

Bringing ourselves back to Bihar, the Honourable Supreme Court’s finding of unconstitutionality is of grave import. On the positive side, what it indicates yet again is that India’s political institutions, no matter how battered and bloody they become by our self-inflicted wounds, still do work.

Furthermore, for the Honourable Court to have allowed the elections to go forward indicates how fine is the quality of our justice, for the Court has allowed the people of Bihar to speak again, and of course Mr Nitish Kumar and friends have been free to use at the hustings the Court’s finding in their favour. Certainly heads should roll and be seen to roll for all this. The Governor should have gone immediately but has not only not done so, he has let it be known that he was acting under orders himself. If so, the least that should happen is that the party-functionary responsible for this should be sacked.

For some press-commentators to demand that Sonia Gandhi should replace Dr Manmohan Singh reveals an appalling ignorance of constitutional norms; this is not a matter of a “High Command” replacing one acolyte by another as chief minister somewhere – if a Prime Minister resigns, so does the entire Cabinet he has appointed, and a new Government has to be sought to be formed. At the same time it is less than candid for the Leader of the Opposition to demand via the television cameras that the Prime Minister should resign, since the Opposition knows fully well that there is an institution called Parliament which can express its lack of confidence in a Government. And of course it also remains open for the Prime Minister himself to go to Parliament and seek to renew its confidence in his Government when the public confidence has thus come to be shaken.

In fact, the right course of action for the President is to summon the Prime Minister and say something like: “It would appear the Judicial Branch of the Government of India has found the Executive Branch to have breached the Constitution. Reference must now be made to the Legislative Branch, namely, to Parliament, to see if it still has confidence in the Executive. Please ask for a Vote of Confidence in the Lok Sabha as soon as possible.” Of course, Dr Manmohan Singh has been the first Prime Minister in Commonwealth history since Salisbury who has not been himself a member of the Lower House. Curzon had wished to be British prime minister after returning from India but was passed over in 1922 in favour of Baldwin in a decisive demonstration that a prime minister must be a member of the Lower House. That is why Alec Douglas-Home stopped being a member of the House of Lords in order to become British PM in 1963-64. India in the last thirty years has seen parliamentary traditions at the Union and State levels being ruinously weakened (or not even allowed to develop) being replaced all too frequently either by street-fighting or by discretionary bureaucratic decision-making by committee. The present moment is an opportunity for the rot to be stemmed. It may be too optimistic though to believe that it will be taken.