UK: The Kesri Lehar petition asking for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in India was debated in the Main Chamber of the House of Commons on Thursday, 28th February 2013.
The two and a half hour debate, started with an opening speech by Rt. Hon. John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, who said that the national Kesri Lehar campaign urged the UK government to press the Indian Government to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which encompasses the death penalty. Amongst the many issues on Human Right’s abuses raised during the debate, two prominent cases, currently on death row in India, that of Balwant Singh Rajoana, and, Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar were discussed at length. Rt. Hon. John McDonnell referring the cases of Balwant Singh Rajowana and Prof Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, said, “These two cases carry immense significance around the world, the Rajoana case for its historical context and the Bhullar case because it is almost now a symbol of the injustice meted out to so many Sikhs in recent decades.”
“If Balwant Singh Rajoana symbolises the suffering of the Sikhs in that period, Professor Bhullar symbolises the injustice meted out to Sikhs, over the years at the hands of the Indian police and the judicial system.”
Parliament was told that, “Balwant Singh was party to killing Beant Singh, the chief Minister of the Punjab. We now know that Beant Singh personally commanded the police and security forces in the killing and disappearance of possibly more than 20,000 Sikhs-men, women and children. Faced with the failure of the Indian authorities to take action against the former chief Minister for his crimes against humanity, Balwant Singh and a co-conspirator took the law into their own hands. Nobody, including Balwant Singh, claims that he is innocent of the killing, but Sikh organisations, human rights lawyers and human rights groups are urging the Indian Government to take into account the context of his actions, the scale of the human suffering that the Sikhs were enduring at the time, and the anger that young men such as Balwant Singh felt at the failure of the Indian state to bring to justice the chief Minister responsible for the atrocities against the Sikhs in the Punjab. On that basis, they plead for understanding and mercy on Balwant Singh’s behalf and that the death penalty is avoided at all costs.”
It was also pointed out to Parliament that, the German courts have now ruled that that deportation of Professor Bhullar was wrong. He has been convicted of involvement in an attempted political assassination solely on the basis of a confession, which he retracted, with not one of more than 100 witnesses identifying him at the scene, and on a split decision of the court judges. In split decisions in India, the practice of the courts is not to impose a death penalty, but Professor Bhullar has been sentenced, held in solitary confinement for eight years and, despite his deteriorating health, his plea for mercy has been rejected. Despite a further petition to the Supreme Court, the fear is that the Indian authorities could move to execute him at any time. This is a shocking miscarriage of justice waiting to happen unless we can intervene effectively.
There is also concern that India is expanding the scope of the death penalty, new laws passed in 2011 which provide for the death penalty include for the making and selling of illicit liquor.
Rt. Hon. Virendra Sharma, MP for Ealing and Southall, stated that, “We must kill the myth that we are anti-India or that we are interfering in India’s internal affairs. We are taking a matter of principle and fighting for the rights of the people living in India and abroad.”, he further stated that, “We cannot always assume that the judicial system is faultless. Therefore, using death, an irrevocable act, as a punishment for a crime, puts the system at risk of punishing the innocent irreversibly.On talking on the issue of the judiciary in India, Simon Hughes, MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, said that, a Supreme Court bench said that people’s faith in the judiciary was dwindling at an alarming rate, posing a grave threat to constitutional and democratic governance of the country. The house noted that “Amnesty International points out that the use of the death penalty in India is “riddled with systemic flaws”.
MP for Slough, Fiona McTaggart expressed her worries that the rights of religious, ethnic and caste minorities in India are not sufficiently well protected. It seems to me that we have a responsibility to say to India, “We expect you, as the largest democracy in the world, to promote the standards of democracy and human rights that we expect, and to recognise that if the death penalty is used in this way, there is a risk that you will deepen the divisions between ethnic and religious communities in country. There is a risk that you will make your country less safe and less peaceful for all who live in it.”
Concluding the debate, Labour MP John McDonnell said, “To add weight to the British Government’s representations, I urge them to raise the issue again with our European partners and to seek a joint representation from Europe on the subject. I urge the British Government, working with other Governments, to raise this call within the United Nations. With the UN Commission on Human Rights meeting imminently, this is an ideal time to put this back on the UN agenda.”
It seems to me that we have a responsibility to say to India, “We expect you, as the largest democracy in the world, to promote the standards of democracy and human rights that we expect, and to recognise that if the death penalty is used in this way, there is a risk that you will deepen the divisions between ethnic and religious communities in country. There is a risk that you will make your country less safe and less peaceful for all who live in it.””
Richard Fuller, MP for Bedford, added that, there will be consequences for our relationships with India unless the Indian Parliament looks at this issue very seriously again and makes the changes that Members are asking it to do.
Rt. Hon. David Ward, MP for Bradford East, stated that, “I believe that it is our intrinsic right and, more importantly, our fundamental duty to speak up for all people, and especially for minorities who do not have suitable champions for their cause and who face persecution, wherever in the world that might occur and no matter what entrenched views or self-interest they might be battling against. The oppressors often have powerful weapons at their disposal to stifle debate… I have touched on the necessity for India to uphold the basic human rights that are espoused in the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This is an important issue for my constituents, especially those in the Sikh community, who have long borne the brunt of judicial and societal discrimination in parts of India.”
David Ward, went on to state that, “Over the past few years, I have been approached by a number of constituents about the cases involving Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Bhullar. I know those cases well, and I am sad that those people are still on death row. I must be honest and tell the House, however, that on researching this issue more thoroughly, I was deeply shocked to discover the sheer scale of the human rights abuses that the Indian Government have not acted against, over many years. I am a member of Amnesty International, and I regularly receive the evidence that it produces. It is shocking to learn of the extensive use of forced evictions, the excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the fundamental lack of due process that are still prevalent in India. Amnesty states: “Impunity for abuses and violations remained pervasive.” The continuing existence of India’s controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act gives the Indian army arbitrary powers and near-immunity from prosecution.”
Seema Malhotra, MP for Feltham and Heston, said. “We participate in many debates in this House, but this one is literally about life and death. I have had a long-standing personal opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances and I am proud to live in a country where it has been abolished. This is a matter of humanity and, as someone once said, it is not for the state to kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong”
The execution of Balwant Singh and others would not end terrorism or causes of concern, and would damage the image of India.
Another great concern is the fact that in the world’s greatest democracy we have recently seen innocent people suffering and being killed in the crossfire when peacefully protesting for improved human rights. Last year, a horrific case that touched us all deeply was the death of Jaspal Singh. Jaspal was an 18-year-old Sikh college student peacefully protesting against capital punishment last March who was killed when police opened fire on a crowd of just a few hundred to make them disperse.
India is a nation with more than 1,500 languages and dialects and is a showcase to the world in business, culture, arts and crafts. The Sikh community in India and around the world leads in business and agriculture, where it blazes a trail. The work of the Pingalwara charity in the Punjab shows the deepest compassion for those in the community with the least and those with the greatest disabilities. It is also leading the thinking about how to deal with environmental issues so that we can have a clean environment and tackle the vital questions of quality of life and the supply of water and good food for so many. The Sikh religion has at its heart the principles and values of equality that many of us hold so dear.