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Time to start death penalty debate

Sachin-KalbagIndia does not hang its convicts easily. Ajmal Qasab, one of the 10 Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai on the evening of November 26, 2008, and massacred nearly 170 people, was hanged at Pune’s Yerawada Jail early Wednesday morning, making it the first state execution since 2004. The one prior was in 1995. Even if India is choosy about executing the death penalty (only three hangings in the last 17 years despite several scores being on death row), there is little debate about the concept itself. It is as if discussing the abolition of the death penalty is taboo.

It should not be, and after the hanging of Qasab, perhaps the time has come for Indian lawmakers to at least kickstart a debate to abolish the death penalty once and for all. The death penalty is a prickly subject to debate in India because the idea of bringing people to justice is often confused with the idea of vengeance; and not with the idea of punishment. In the case of murder, that idea of vengeance translates into killing the person who has killed. Those who want to retain the death penalty also claim that it is deterrence against murder or graver crimes such as terror attacks.


knotty affair: The death penalty is a prickly subject to debate in India because the idea of bringing people to justice is often equated with the idea of vengeance, and not with the idea of punishment

There is no empirical data to prove that the death sentence has prevented murders from taking place or terror attacks being executed. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, India recorded 38,924 murders in 2003. That number rose to 42,923 in 2011. Adjusting for population growth, the murder rate in both 2003 and 2011 was the same: 3.5 murders per 1,000. All this while, the death penalty stood, even if it applied to only the “rarest of the rare” cases.

The larger question to ask in the death penalty debate, however, is philosophical. Over the last three centuries, humans have used extremely gruesome methods to execute criminals, including beheading at the guillotine, asphyxiation in a gas chamber, death by firing squad, stoning, or the garrotte (where the convict is tied to a chair and a metal band is placed around his neck which is then tightened till he dies).

Now close your eyes; imagine these methods in your mind’s eye and ask yourself: how many of these methods make you queasy? If these methods make you queasy, chances are that an image of someone hanging would also have a similar effect.

This is easily explained. It is because over the centuries our ideas regarding what is wrong and what is not have changed. During the French revolution, the oppressed citizens cheered each time a royal was beheaded. Today, a democratic society would balk at the idea of a beheading. A firing squad is something only dictators order, and stoning is considered medieval (and let’s not even venture into medieval methods of execution). The gas chamber is forever associated with Nazi Germany (even though it was used in other countries, too, to execute murder convicts).

But then, the point of this piece is not to talk of the “methods” of execution, but about execution itself.

Understandably, passions run high when we discuss the death penalty for Qasab. He did kill scores of people on his own, including the brave policeman Tukaram Omble whose ultimate sacrifice got Qasab behind bars. In fact, he even gunned down members of a family who gave him water when he was thirsty. How evil is that. So why should he not be sent to the gallows?

It is a valid question, and under the present law, the death sentence was the appropriate punishment. After all, Qasab was facing some 80 charges and his crime was indeed the rarest of the rare. However, it would be pertinent to ask whether the punishment (as opposed to vengeance) would have been more appropriate if he were to be in jail for the rest of his life (without the option of parole).

Now, a counter question: Does executing a terrorist stop other terrorists from launching new attacks? It only turns them into martyrs. Militant groups across the border have already begun hailing Qasab as one.

As India progresses to become a far more compassionate society than it is at present, the death penalty will become an anachronism. That is not to say that there won’t be any murders in a compassionate society. Or that the abolition of the death penalty will overnight turn India into one.

It most likely won’t because the building blocks for a compassionate society are multi-disciplinary and therefore difficult to put together, and it would be a long, arduous and an almost impossible task.

But there is no better time than to start now. Perhaps a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to ultimately abolish it could be the first step.

Sachin Kalbag is Executive Editor, MiD DAY. His Twitter handle is @SachinKalbag
 

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