Our apex judiciary authority states that the death penalty is awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare’ circumstances. Might I suggest that the shroud of the death penalty is also the greyest of greys to look upon, I believe I may not be too wrong. Most of us, and I like to think that it`s not just myself, have either very vague or zero sense of opinion on the death penalty. If someone told us that Mr. X here committed a grave crime, say murdered or sexually violated or threatened national security and integrity, and made implicit in an equally strong manner that Mr. X is irredeemable, we`d hardly resent the severest penalty. But if instead, we were to be exhorted similarly on the quality of mercy and repentance and inherent goodness and things of such ilk, we`d probably blink an eyelid. Our individual opinion on anything larger than life or directly un-affecting daily life, at any given time or situation is shaped significantly per the hand that hammers it home. Moreover, this state of quandary is quite unhealthy for the sustenance of a moral individual, not to mention — particularly galling for the convict.
A study by National Law University, Delhi reports that 755 people have been hanged in Independent India until now. Taking into account the recent hangings of the convicts of the Nirbhaya rape and murder case, four more names may be added to the aforementioned list. The Hindu states that out of the 1,810 people sentenced to death from 2000 to 2014, more than half were commuted to life imprisonment whereas a total of 443 were acquitted by the court concerned. In the past 14 years, only eight people have been hanged. It may be safely said that very rarely does a death sentence lead to an actual execution; in keeping with the spirit of the Supreme Court maxim: rarest of the rare. The mandatory death penalty for an offender under the Arms Act (possessing illegal arms and ammunition, resulting in casualty) has been ruled unconstitutional by the SC.
On the other hand, the state`s stand on the application of the death penalty has been surprisingly inconsistent and subjective. Former Presidents, like the late Pranab Mukherjee, rejected multiple mercy pleas, while some single-handedly recorded over 90 percent of India`s total death sentences pardoned ever. The ultimate penalty is more than often visualized as a symbol for the just sword of authority which the state wields and may bring down with vengeance upon convicts, or used simply to flash its edges to curb and check criminal outbursts and tendencies. The state in all its power reserves the highest penalty only for the worse of the worse. Most supporters of the death penalty are at union with this stand.
The great playwright Anton Chekhov argues a similar point at the helm of his short story, The Bet. One of the guests present states: The State is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to. Moreover, the plot then shifts focus to the acceptability of life imprisonment instead, with the young lawyer’s credo: To live anyhow is better than not at all, followed by the audacious bet that the lawyer accepts and proceeds to indulge under solitary confinement for a total of fifteen years! (God forbid this irony to 2020)
The opposition to the death penalty deems the act as ‘state-sponsored killing or revenge’ with the state stooping low to the standard of the criminal. While others reflect gravely on the two-third figure of death sentences passed to Dalits, the economically backward, and individuals from a religious minority who are usually deprived of the privilege of high profile advocates and proper exposition in a court of law. The point being that: influential and affluent convicts are rescued easily through loopholes and paperwork while the lesser fortunate are constrained to poor advocacy and basic prejudice. The question resounds, Must there not be equal opportunities secured for all convicts?
Gandhi himself viewed against the death penalty and said that death once imposed is irreversible for the charged, who might later be proved of being innocent. It is ironic to note that the first death penalty in Independent India was awarded to Nathuram Godse, the assassinator of Gandhi, although the Gandhi family did reportedly plead mercy against Godse to the then Governor-General of India.
The intellectual battle on, should the death penalty be awarded in India, maybe strong on both ends. However, I for one, lean towards the anti-death penalty and that is ok. We all are conditioned to have subjective opinions or also to be in the grey area of things. Bearing the fear of sounding too biased at the end, I`d like to present a statement given by Gopal Krishna Gandhi at an NDTV Dialogue of 2015, not as an opinion for spreading propaganda but so it may serve as food for thought:
‘…Fruitless exercise has been once again enacted before the public of India (on the hanging of Yakub Menon), that is, the hollow claim of punishment by death being a deterrent. There is no doubt whatsoever that the awful, hideous, and bizarre incidents of terror will continue the world over, irrespective of whether a person here or a person there is hanged. Hanging individuals howsoever complicit they may be in acts of terror is not going to stem terror. What is going to stem terror is the determinant efforts of the government to see where terror comes from, to see how it emanates and why it emanates and go after those causes of terror and meet the fundamentals of investigation and not find a shorthand script to end a particular case and satisfy the blood lust of people.’
So ends the easy part of briefing about the two sides of the coin. The not-so-easy part may begin now wherein the reader must contemplate and decide upon one`s stand, howsoever, pro-, anti- or unique it may be. And that, in essence, will really be: living free and in democracy (wink, wink).
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