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CPM rolls up the rope

Prakash Karat

New Delhi, May 13: Meet the Merciful Marxists, never mind the Bolsheviks preferred a bullet to the head and Meera Bhattacharjee graced a public platform in Calcutta to seek the death penalty.

Prakash Karat today said the CPM had decided to advocate without exception the abolition of death penalty, almost a decade after its Bengal unit led a vociferous campaign to hang teen rapist and killer Dhananjoy Chatterjee.

“The central committee has decided that the party will advocate abolition of death penalty… it is inhuman and, after execution, irreversible,” the CPM general secretary announced at a news conference after a three-day meeting of the politburo and the central committee.

“The party wants, in the rarest of rare cases and most heinous crimes, life imprisonment to be extended for the entire life of the person convicted with no scope for remission,” he added.

Party insiders said the change in stand had come under “severe pressure” from human rights groups, both Indian and global, after the recent hangings of Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab and Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru in quick succession.

The change appears significant in the light of the communist history of death squads being used to annihilate dissenters, particularly the “Great Purge” effected in the erstwhile Soviet Union in the late thirties under Josef Stalin.

An infamous execution in the Soviet Union was of Fanny Kaplan on September 4, 1918, for her attempt to assassinate Lenin. Under Stalin, thousands were executed, including communist leaders, by a specially appointed commission that handed death to dissenters without trial.

The death penalty was officially outlawed in the Soviet Union after the 1917 February Revolution, which was followed months later by the October Revolution that swept the Bolsheviks to power. The death penalty was later restored for some crimes and alternately permitted and prohibited down the decades.

In India, the hanging of Kasab had caused a churn among some Left commentators who had decried the execution.

In December last year, well-known Left economist and columnist Prabhat Patnaik wrote in The Telegraph: “…a civilized and humane society must abjure capital punishment, even when the prevailing laws provide for it.”

Patnaik had also referred to the Russian show of mercy and subsequent retreat. “Many may be unaware of the fact that one of the first acts of the Bolshevik Revolution was to abolish the death penalty; though this had to be rescinded because of the grim reality of the civil war, the direction in which the revolution’s preference lay was clear.”

Citing the hurried hanging of Afzal, Karat today said the death penalty was “arbitrarily implemented” in India. He also pointed out that 97 countries had abolished capital punishment, possibly to justify the revised stand and portray the liberal face of the party under him.

The CPM and other communist parties in India are known for upholding ideology above everything else, including human life. So far, they have been dismissive about demands for the abolition of death penalty.

This was evident at the time the Bengal CPM was campaigning for death to Dhananjoy, the security guard convicted in the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, in the nineties. Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s wife Meera was at the forefront of the campaign. Dhananjoy was hanged in Alipore jail on August 14, 2004, when the Left Front was in power — a point not lost on some veterans.

They pointed out that the change of stand was typical of the CPM which tends to show its “progressive face” when not in power, unburdened by the responsibilities of governance that sometimes demand tough decisions.

But politburo member Sitaram Yechury said the CPM had revised its stand for several reasons, apart from pressure from rights groups. He spoke of the upheaval in parts of the country over the death penalty and the difficulty in extraditing terrorists from countries that have abolished it.

“In practice, we see that death penalty in India is arbitrarily implemented. In many cases, it is seen that new evidence surfaces after a person is hanged,” he said.

Yechury said the central committee had taken a comprehensive view of the matter and unanimously decided to push for abolition of the “inhuman punishment”.

Worldwide too, the trend has been for abolition of the death penalty in communist countries. China, for instance, scrapped the penalty for 13 crimes in 2011. However, it still puts people to death for non-violent crimes such as corruption and drug trafficking and for crimes such as forcing a person to donate an organ.

According to the latest report of Amnesty International, Syed Zahid Hussain Shah of Pakistan, 36, was executed by lethal injection in China on September 21, 2011. He was sentenced to death in Shanghai in March 2010 for drug trafficking.

Cuba had, for a while, suspended the death penalty and commuted the sentences of some prisoners. However, Cuban President Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro, recently justified the death penalty saying suspension had “stimulated acts of aggression and sabotage” against his country.


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