Unequal in death, Unequal on death row

By Mohd. Zeyaul Haque,

Despite constitutional guarantees of equality before law and equal access to justice for all sections of citizenry, we remain a society marked by great inequality, writes Mohd. Zeyaul Haque.

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The din and bustle of Anna Hazare’s fast last fortnight muffled and pushed to the margins the stunning discovery of mass graves across four districts of Kashmir with 2,156 unidentified bodies. This piece of news, which deserved banner headlines in newspapers and days of blabber on TV, virtually got ignored. An immediate question that came to mind was, would it be the same if mass graves with so many bodies of young men were found in UP or Gujarat, Maharashtra or Karnataka? And would it be the same if the victims were not Muslim?

Graves of unidentified men are marked by numbers in the Kupwara district. Civil rights activists have recently claimed to have unearthed the largest unmarked mass grave in Kashmir, where more than 1,000 bodies are thought to have been buried [Photo Courtesy: bbs.chinadaily.com.cn]

The Constitution’s high-mindedness notwithstanding, the sad fact that Indian Muslims have to confront everyday is that there is a heirarchy of sorrow, and their sorrow is not equal to that of others. Otherwise, how do we explain the grand unconcern over such a horrendous crime? We are told these bodies belonged to the youth who had “disappeared” (or, made to disappear by security forces and J&K police) over the years that the plague of insurgency had afflicted the unfortunate valley. They were among the estimated 8,000 young persons who vanished into thin air.

We do not normally associate disappearances and extrajudicial killings by state machinery with a democracy. Mass graves are the handiwork of Hitler, Pol Pot and Milosevic, not democratically elected leaders. The mass graves are a clear, visceral negation of our claims to democracy.

At the root of much of the misery is the use of excessive force by the state. Earlier investigations had brought out the fact that only around 2.5 percent of people eliminated by state machinery without due process of law had any relationship with extremism. The vigilantism of security forces and state police is enabled by the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act and allied laws that have sidelined the accountability of persons in uniform.

That a heirarchy of sorrow operates in our social life was glaringly visible for the first time in an observation by a survivor of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Taking advantage of the polarisation of the time Narendra Modi had ordered fresh elections and BJP won with a great majority. To that the survivor had said: “It goes out to show that our sorrow does not matter.” Yes, everybody’s sorrow does not equally matter as everybody does not equally matter, Constitution or no Constitution, democracy or no democracy.

Heirarchy permeats and envelops everything. Even states are not equal. What happens in Kashmir and Northeastern states in the name of security cannot be imagined in cowbelt states, except when the victims of state violence are minorities, Dalits or tribals.

A certain level of inequality is understandable. It is, in fact, part of the way our minds are organised and our society is structured. Everywhere people begin to live in groups (families, tribes, villages, clans, castes, panchayats, nations) a certain heirarchy quickly takes hold. It is something like what ornithologists and psychologists call a “pecking order,” a heirarchy of power, a command structure. In short, a clear understanding about who passes orders and who carriers the orders.

This is what made Focault observe that all human relationship is power relationship: Parent-child, teacher-student, general-soldier, superordinate-subordinate. Democracy is a way of softening and humanising that hard truth. A pecking order among birds is a given, but humans have the ability to reorganise the order of things. (By the way, a pecking order describes the dominance-subordination pattern in a group of, say, hens, geese and other birds. In a group of ten the most dominant bird will peck the second most dominant, the third, seventh, down to the ninth most dominant and the least dominant bird. The tenth will peck no one. The second will peck everyone except the first, the Alpha.

That order is established after a lot of struggle and remains stable till the Alpha is removed from the scene through death or disability. In that case another violent struggle for reordering begins and rages till a fresh pecking order is established. Human beings being more intelligent, they have often tried to order their societies more fairly even though they create an international order that is no better than the wild ways of birds and animals.

In our own democracy, more often than not, dominant classes, castes and political organisations trying to keep their dominance intact have done everything that they can to ensure that the inequalities continue endlessly and weaker groups like minorities, Dalits and tribals are denied equality of opportunity, equal protection of law and equal access to justice. They would go to any length to achieve this by creating warped national narratives, by maligning and demonising the weak, by subverting the high principles of the Constitution, by blocking access of the weak to the media.

Recently, when Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution asking the Centre not to execute the Tamil killers of Rajiv Gandhi, J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah wondered in a tweet what would happen if J&K Assembly passed a similar resolution asking for the Kashmiri Afzal Guru’s life to be spared. Omar knows fully well that even though J&K is also a state in the Indian Union, it will not be allowed to do as Tamil Nadu did. All states are not equal.

It also goes on to show that Indians are unequal not only in death, but on death row as well. One of our political parties that had been straining at the leash to have Afzal Guru executed post-haste made one of its Muslim minions to lampoon Omar in public. That cheap gimmick, however, did not dent the validity of the point that Omar sought to make.

In one of her articles the inimitable Arundhati Roy picked a lot of holes in the case against Afzal Guru and made the point that he should not be hanged amid so many unresolved questions regarding his culpability. On the other hand, persons convicted in Rajiv murder case have confessed to their crime. Despite that, the J&K Assembly cannot even be imagined to be doing what the TN Assembly has done.

This marked heirarchy is obvious in the justice delivery system itself. The promptness shown in sentencing the culprits (all Muslims) to long imprisonments in Mumbai blasts case of 1993 looks glaring when one considers the fact that nothing happened to the culprits (Shiv Sena workers and office-bearers) of the massive anti-Muslim riots that preceded it, burning Mumbai for a whole fortnight. Bal Thackeray claimed “credit” for it, as he did for Babri Masjid demolition by Shiv Sena volunteers (among others). The accused of Ayodhya killings and mosque demolition went on to become “national” leaders, Union Cabinet ministers, even deputy prime minister and law has failed to catch up with them. In a nutshell, the actors in the main drama–Ayodhya demolition, killings, Mumbai riots–go scot-free as the actors of the sequel (Mumbai blasts) cool their heels behind bars. That probably is not the best way to convince the weak that everybody is equal before law.

Why it is that Irom Sharmila’s 10-year long fast (she is being force-fed through a tube) catches nobody’s imagination while Baba Ramdev’s fast of a few hours does? Meanwhile, another young Baba dies fasting and nobody takes note. Why have things gone so awry, so askew?

A former professor of political science, Prof. Zahoor Muhammad Khan, says there is a massive disconnect at the heart of the system – the political class, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the power elite. “We have a First World Constitution and system of laws, but a Third World way of implementing them.”

One would like to add that the First World Constitution and laws are being implemented with a mind-set conditioned by centuries of caste prejudices and institutionalised inequity.