Opinion Matters

Should we abolish death penalty?

Should we do away with death penalty? In recent days the proponents of pardon have included a retired judge of the Supreme Court, a senior political leader and a member of the Human Rights Commission. Their descriptions for the extreme penalty range from vengeful to barbaric and sinful. And for some curious reason, the media is giving considerable space to those who are against, while those in favour of this strong law are made to appear as a miniscule few who are supporting something ethically wrong.

So before moving on to the main argument in favour of the death sentence in India as of now, it’s necessary to mention two things: first is that, it is the people in favour who are currently overwhelmingly in the silent majority. And secondly, this majority has the full support of those who are directly aggrieved as victims of heinous crime, jurists like our former Attorney General, as well as the several security agencies, military, para-military or police who are our frontline in the fight against criminals. In a debate such as this, their stand becomes the burden of victims and fighters while it’s the privilege of a few, mostly elite and untouched, to oppose capital punishment.

No law or social contract is absolute. It has to be relevant to the times. That “State should protect life” is an idealistic absolute. That should be reconciled with crimes such as the February 21 bomb blasts in Hyderabad, or the December 2012 Delhi bus gang rape. The fact of our society today is that common citizens are bereft of the basic safeties and securities. Due to an unmanageable number of crimes the State has been unable to protect the rights of innocent citizens.

Criminals have scant regard for those rights or of law or of consequences due to powers or immunity which our State has not granted anyone with. Indeed many such criminals would be merry to live off from the lard of the jails with their lives and person protected. Further due to the rights ensuing out of prison terms, the incorrigible criminals would be causing devastation in the society while sitting in custody and consulting with their accomplices.

In such a time, waiting for God’s intervention (as desired by our esteemed judge) would be tantamount to waiting for Godot. Leaving governance to God’s hands wouldn’t leave any justification for any State or any of its organs or officials to exist. But if the State lives off the earnings of its population, it’s but natural that it should protect the rights of the general law-abiding majority. In that process if it sees the State and its population are being overwhelmed by attacks on their rights and existence, the State should take up the unpleasant but necessary task of protecting the good with an iron hand. The democratic State is not a handful of self-serving individuals but representatives of the people themselves. By denying existence to the evil the State not only protects the rights and lives of the good, it also vindicates the good after their rights have been denied by animals who don’t deserve human laws.

We should also put our priorities in place. True it is the duty of the State to protect the lives of its citizens. But should it include perpetrators of heinous crime and forget the lawful and innocent? True it’s the “Divine” right to create life; but haven’t religions too, which are primordial laws in their own right, have justified capital punishment in the name of God to deal with grave sins or crimes from time to time. True that the vast majority of countries have shunned the death sentence, but there’re also 40 major countries including the USA, China and most South-East and the Middle East Asian countries which still retain death sentence. Again when it comes to terrorism, many of the countries opposed to death sentence of late have willy-nilly signed up for military intervention. Now that would open up not one big, but many big cans of worms.

Not many people would know that the al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Aulaqi was killed in a drone strike which was the 18th attempt to conk him off. It can be easily assumed that in each of the earlier attempts strikes have felled scores of others, many of whom would be innocent “collateral damage”. That makes it worthwhile to stop and ask why civilized states which have otherwise stopped death sentence are opting for extra-judicial military executions. Is it not a desperate measure for a desperate situation? Would the opponents of judicial death sentences be safe inside their fortifications (be it Parliament or palatial bungalows) if not for these extra-judicial executions? They actually have reconciled to this short term fact that propagators of genocide need to be silenced more than the brain-washed fidayeens.

India’s death sentence is actually a consistent behaviour as against the contradiction of the countries discriminating between domestic and external crime. It’s like one of the many unpleasant decisions of life which one has to take and our courts or Parliament need not be apologetic about it. Ask the father of the abused woman in the morgue, or the families of blast victims, or the people who constantly sacrifice freedom for safety, or the men in uniform who risk life for the rule of law – all of them would mostly agree that death sentence is required in India today.

The challenges are multiple: of reform of the criminal mind, retribution of the crime and also effectively deterring future criminals. No country has been able to guarantee the primary goal of reformation within the time available between police custody and judicial sentence. Death is the extreme consequence which almost anyone dreads. Besides it prevents any further damage which the criminal is capable of inflicting. Hence the death sentence acts as a severe deterrent to serious crime. Death sentence is not about a barbaric sinful act of vengeance, but an assurance by the State that its innocent population shall be protected till there’s any better method to prevent heinous crime.