Capital punishment, meaning death by hanging is in the statutes and is the law of the land. In a society governed by the rule of law, is capital punishment justified?
To answer this question based on the nation and its people is going to be my endevour. This punishment has been now explicitly reserved for the gravest of crimes. It takes decades of hearings and sifting of evidence before a case is decided in our system. After that , appeals and multiple benches, end up with a mercy petition which goes through layers of state government, central government each taking their own sweet time before opining on the petitions. While all this is going on under trials or those on death row spend their lives in abysmal conditions, known as jails in this country. I wonder if this is not defined as a punishment almost making a living man dead.
Man is a paradoxical animal. Potentially, a single great man can alter the destiny of his country or that of the world, but a single misguided person can destroy everything around. A criminal act like murder, terrorist act, destruction or waging war against a nation are all the handiwork of a diseased mind. All of us are products of our minds. Quoting the Dhamma pada Buddha says “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.
Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it. Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.” The difference between a terrorist and a criminal and us is that, he who physically hurts has brought into action that which he has thought, whereas we out of fear or lack of courage do not do what we have thought. If we examine the mind chatter and look at it as an outside witness, we would notice that we commit crimes against many persons very often and keep them inside. So in one sense there is a criminal element hidden in all of us.
Then comes the question of socio-economic class caste and ability to use the system. There is absolutely no doubt that the rich and influential can and will escape death row using foul means, in a system where the state acts as an instrument of terror and wars are created and waged by vested interests, it is but natural that only some will get this punishment. Mobs kill in riots and nobody is arrested or even investigated has been the refrain of independent India cutting across the whole political spectrum. Examples of destruction of evidence, terrorizing witnesses, eliminating witnesses and simply crushing protest abound. However, this cannot mean that one can get away with a lesser punishment cause many are able to escape despite being criminals.
The other aspect of capital punishment which rankles my mind is when in the specific instance of Afzal Guru and his involvement in the attack on Parliament, the then Chief Justice of India in his judgement stated “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators, can only be compensated by giving the maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be the conspirator in this treacherous act. The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society and his life should become extinct. Accordingly, we uphold the death sentence.” The invoking of the collective conscience of society as a reason for awarding a death sentence goes against all tenets and norms of justice. Judge must go purely by evidence and proof and collective conscience cannot be invoked as a justification for capital punishment.
The nuances of the Karmic laws and their operations over the multiple rebirths of a human soul seem to give a rationale for the suffering which befalls persons who have been good and the good fortune of those who have been bad. However the concept of an eye for an eye and life for life is ingrained as a concept of justice and also karma in the Indian psyche and the judge was referring to that feeling among the masses. For all our drawing room debates and discussions on capital punishment my bet is that if the common man on the streets is asked about capital punishment for heinous barbaric crimes and acts of terror, the majority will want the severest punishment given and that will be hanging to death. So all this talk of mercy, non-violence and compassion are forgotten in the hurly burly of life and in times where life is cheap and even floods, accidents and daily deaths on the roads of India are mere statistics and change nothing on the ground.
Is capital punishment a deterrent and have crime rates increased in countries where capital punishment has been abolished? Well the answer is generally, it makes no difference, however, the fact that mercy petitions are filed by almost every person on death row and a hard life in prison is accepted in the hope that there will be life after the long years means that life is dear. The inordinate delays and time taken means that deterrence due to capital punishment is never likely, since in the game of political roulette, if you happen to be beneficial to the powers that matter, your petitions will be inordinately delayed and you can live almost happily ever after.
In conclusion, capital punishment must go, for the right reasons that no one except God or the supreme power has the right to take away life. It must go for the wrong reason that our esteemed rulers and opposition politicians will at least not have an instrument to incite the masses for their political gain.
Disclaimer: I hold no brief for any party nor criminal, this is just a view point to be taken as such.
By Vispi Jokhi