Who is Shabnam Ali?
Shabnam Ali sits on death row at the district jail in Mathura for her role in the murder of all seven members of her family, including her 10-month-old nephew in 2008. Shabnam, and her lover, Saleem were convicted and sentenced to death by a Sessions Court in Amroha in 2010. Their death sentences were upheld by the Allahabad High Court in 2013, and by the Supreme Court of India in 2015. The Supreme Court dismissed their review petitions in 2020, on the grounds that the case merits capital punishment.
Shabnam was a post-graduate in two subjects, English and Geography, and worked as a government school teacher, a fact that was repeatedly highlighted by the courts. Her family was opposed to her alliance with Saleem, a Class VI dropout, who worked as a labourer and belonged to a different community.
According to the prosecution, on April 14, 2008, Shabnam sedated all members of her family, except her infant nephew. Saleem then hacked them all to death with an axe, while Shabnam throttled her nephew. At the time of arrest, Shabnam and Saleem were both in their mid 20s, and Shabnam was seven weeks pregnant. In December of that year, she gave birth to her son in prison.
Shabnam and her death sentence
While determining the quantum of sentence for Shabnam and Saleem, the Allahabad High Court considered the mitigating and aggravating factors in their favour and against. The nature of the offence, the planning that went into carrying out the murders and the fact that Shabnam had killed all members of her family, including a helpless infant, were all considered sufficient to treat this case as the “rarest of the rare”, deserving of the death penalty. Though extensively argued, the High Court refused to consider factors such as Shabnam’s fear of her family or the fact that while in jail, she had given birth to a child who would be orphaned if his parents were executed.
Shabnam’s level of education, and that she should have known better than to commit murder was mentioned as an aggravating factor by the High Court, a theme which the Supreme Court latched on to, and went a step further with. While upholding the sentence of death, the Supreme Court sought to “maintain a link between contemporary community values and the penal system”. To the Court, the fact that Shabnam was a daughter who had committed parricide was an abomination of a scale so large that no mitigating circumstance could negate it. The Court said, “In an educated and civilised society, a daughter plays a multifaceted and indispensable role in the family, especially towards her parents… She is a caregiver and a supporter, a gentle hand and responsible voice, an embodiment of the cherished values of our society and in whom a parent places blind faith and trust.” The Court went on to indict Shabnam for having committed parricide despite being educated. “…this case, the daughter who has been brought up in an educated and independent environment by her family and was respectfully employed as a Shikshamitra at the school, influenced by love and lust of her paramour has committed this brutal parricide… Not only did she forget her love for and duty towards her family, but also perpetrated the multiple homicide in her own house so as to fulfil her desire to be with the co-accused…”
The possibility of reform was explicitly rejected by the High Court, considering the extreme brutality and diabolical character of the offence. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, didn’t bother to engage with the question of reform at all.
What is most striking about the Supreme Court judgment is that though both Shabnam and Saleem were appellants before it, the Court focused only on Shabnam’s culpability, the abdication of her role as a daughter and her giving into lust and committing parricide. Whether the crime amounted to “rarest of the rare” for Saleem was not even considered.
Jurisprudence on Capital Punishment
Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, a 1980 Supreme Court judgment, coined the oft-cited phrase, “rarest of the rare”, which required judges to use capital punishment only when the alternative of life imprisonment was unquestionably foreclosed. In addition to the nature of the crime, courts were urged to adequately examine the social, personal and psychological history of the offenders, as well as factors such as their prior criminal history, reserving the penalty only for offenders who were unequivocally beyond reform.
Three years later, the Supreme Court in Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab expanded the jurisprudence on capital punishment. It observed, “… death sentence must be imposed only when life imprisonment appears to be an altogether inadequate punishment having regard to the relevant circumstances of the crime, and provided the option to impose a sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be conscientiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all the relevant circumstances.”
Need to check shift in judicial reasoning
This shift from unquestionably foreclosed to altogether inadequate punishment consequently lowered the standard for consideration of life imprisonment to that of inadequacy. This has led to a crime-centric focus in sentencing, and judges disregarding any role for mitigating factors, as in Shabnam’s case. The judgments of the High Court and the Supreme Court reek of sexist assumptions. While the abdication of her role as an educated daughter was used as an aggravating factor against her, her role as a mother towards a child that was alive and would be orphaned by the State execution was completely ignored.
For an offence to be the “rarest of the rare”, the emphasis cannot just be on the brutality of the offence, sentencing guidelines also require the State to furnish proof that the accused is beyond reform. As per Bachan Singh, “A real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance to taking a life through law’s instrumentality”. Although the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that life imprisonment should be the rule and death penalty an exception, failure to give mitigating circumstances sufficient consideration leads to a travesty of justice. Capital punishment is the toughest form of punishment the State can impose on its people—this process must withstand the highest levels of scrutiny.
Read all the Latest News, Breaking News and Coronavirus News here