Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Death Of The Death Sentence

Death Of The Death Sentence

September 15, 2011

Capital punishment, though legal, is very rarely carried out in India.

1993 – Notorious dacoit Veerappan and gang blow up a bus carrying civilians, and kill atleast 17 police officers. Associates nabbed, convicted and sentenced to capital punishment. Almost a decade later, they are still alive.

1991 – Bomb blast kills Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi and 14 others, injures many more. The 26 accused are given death sentence by the TADA court. On appeal to the Supreme court, only 4 are finally sentenced to death. Two decades later, they are still alive.

2001 – Terrorists infiltrate Parliament House and fire weapons, killing at least a dozen people, including civilians, and injuring many more. 4 criminals are convicted, mastermind Afzal Guru is sentenced to death. A decade later, not only does he live, but terrorists blow up a place outside Delhi high court, killing at least 13 and injuring at least 70 more - demanding him to be set free!

2008 – Pakistani terrorists ravage the city of Mumbai, indiscriminately killing 164 innocent civilians and injuring at least 300 more. One of them is captured alive, given a fair court trial, and convicted based of rock-solid evidence. Though given the death sentence, 3 years from the incident, mass murderer Kasab is still alive and pleads mercy.

The incidents highlighted above are just the tip of the iceberg.

Capital punishment is legal in India. Death, by hanging is the accepted method. However, even the most heinous crime, rarely attracts the death sentence. Even when it does, it is hardly ever actually carried out.

Statistics suggest that since 2004, no one has ever been hanged in India. Wikipedia confirms that about 26 mercy petitions are pending before the President, including the cases I mention above.

The big questions:

Why is India afraid of conducting capital punishment for criminals who deserve it? Once an accused has been proved guilty, why do our courts still hesitate to mete out severe punishment? Why is the death sentence so controversial?

Human rights vs. Capital Punishment:

The biggest argument against the death sentence is that of human rights. Human rights activists believe that capital punishment is the most serious violation of an individual’s rights. Here are further arguments against capital punishment:

1) Violation of the ‘right to live’ – the most basic human right

2) Death is an easy route for escape. It quickly relieves them of suffering and denies them of an opportunity to repent

3) Several years of suffering inside prison is adequate punishment for their crimes, there is no need to take a life

4) Wrongful executions – innocent people may die.

5) Threat of death could help elicit a confession – According to Wikipedia, ‘the threat of the death penalty could be used to urge capital defendants to plead guilty, testify against accomplices, or disclose the location of the victim's body’

While the above arguments make sense, in reality, how much of this is practical?

Violation of the right to live.

Yes, every human being has the right to live. No authority can deprive him/her of it. However, the people in question here, are criminals who have committed heinous crimes. Criminals, like the ones mentioned above, have performed cold-blooded homicide, killing numerous INNOCENT people, and injuring thousands of others. They defend their actions by claiming to have fought ‘for a worthy cause’.

Talking about Kasab’s right to live - Why don’t we ask the family of the victim? Ask a girl who lost her brother when terrorists fired gunshots indiscriminately at the innocent people in Leopold Cafe. Kasab and his gang killed at least 10 innocent people. The right to live – did those 10 people not have a right to live?

Talking of Afzal Guru’s right to live – Why don’t we ask the widow of JP Yadav who was killed foiling the 2003 attacks! The ‘casualties’ as they are easily referred to, also had ‘the right to live’.

On a related note, while on one hand the Government awards Ashok Chakra to such brave men, on the other, it conveniently seeks to pardon the perpetrator of the very crime!

Human rights are fundamental, no doubts about that. But does a murderer who has snatched another person’s right to live, deserve such a right himself?

As for the actual question of whether death by hanging is cruel or not, do read this interesting article titled ‘A Hangman Speaks’ to find out more.

Death denies opportunity to repent.

Honestly, the last time I heard of a ruthless killer who had repented and reformed himself, was in my text books - Angulimala! Do we, as a country, really believe that such terrorists will repent for their actions? Will they perhaps, help India minimise future attacks, by say, a detailed confession about their parent organization? The argument of repentance is very vague and subjective and mere speculation.

Several years inside the prison is sufficient.

Several years ‘is sufficient’. But for whom?

Statistics say that the cost of keeping Kasab alive has already grossed Rs.45 crores! The cost of a high security prison, medical facilities, cost of deploying additional security forces , etc. – all this is exorbitant.

For a country of 1.2 billion people, with more than half the population living BELOW the poverty line, the cost of keeping a criminal alive in prison certainly does pinch. Several years in prison is indeed burden enough on the average tax-payer.

In comparison, it is interesting to note that the value of a terrorist’s life is far higher than that of an innocent civilian in India.

Following the recent blast in Delhi, ‘The PM has announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh for the kin of the dead and Rs 1 lakh for the injured. This is in addition to the Delhi government's compensation package of Rs 4 lakh to the kin of the dead. Those permanently incapacitated will get Rs 2 lakh; seriously injured will get Rs one lakh and those with minor injuries in the blast will be given Rs 10,000. In the case of death of a minor, the family will get Rs 1.5 lakh.’

Kasab’s life = Rs.45 crores, and counting!

Mumbai terrorism victim’s life = Rs. 5 to 7 lakh

Delhi blast victim’s life = Rs. 2 to 4 lakh

Keeping a criminal in prison, may (according to human rights activists), be punishment enough. However, the cost of this exercise is certainly not justified.

Wrongful executions.

The risk of carrying out wrongful executions is real. Innocent people might be led to their death after a wrongful conviction. Having said that, cases where the crime has been proven beyond any doubt, like the Mumbai massacre for example - are clear-cut cases of homicide, where the criminal is awarded the death sentence but still pleads mercy.

Therefore, just as we worry about the miscarriage of justice, we must also ensure rightful executions are carried out, and justice is awarded.

Threat of death could elicit confessions.

Another subjective argument, that can hold weight only if it is supported by hard facts. One wonders about statistics that prove that a criminal has actually taken the bait, and confessed to other crimes, or helped bust a larger criminal ring. Is this speculation substantial enough to merit keeping a criminal alive, thereby also giving him/her a chance to escape?

Having explored the arguments for and against the death sentence, it is interesting to note that the global trend is to abolish capital punishment. Most countries have already put an end to it, and only a few countries, including India, still reserve capital punishment in the ‘rarest of rare’ crimes.

So what do you think the Indian Government must do? Consider the human rights of the convicted criminals and grant them mercy? Or mete out due punishment and execute the death sentence?

What do we want? Death of a convicted criminal? Or death of the death sentence?

Photo credit: Matthew High 


  • Rashmi
    11.09.12 06:37 PM
    I liked this article. Well written but it's sad that our responsible Govt yet values a terrorist's life at the cost of it's innocent citizens!
  • Ajay Dixit
    Ajay Dixit
    20.10.11 12:17 PM
    All the criminals who have been accused of death penalty were unable to live a royal life for which they have done the crimes.
    Now, our government is committed to provide them royal life for their daring works and the government is doing the same.
    Every criminals are now thanking to our government for their great support.
  • Writerzblock
    11.10.11 01:21 AM
    @ Ram Mohan: Thank you for sharing your views. You are right, people know they can get away with the loopholes. I wonder if there will be a way out!! As for Kasab, he might just stand for election one day!!
  • Ram Mohan
    Ram Mohan
    03.10.11 02:22 PM
    All the criminals on the death row have by now understood the use of the loophole provided by our system i.e both death sentence ( to be handed in rarest cases) and mercy petitions are existing together. To top it all State Govt recommendations carry weight in such matters.This is actually providing a fillip to terrorism, pre-planned cold blooded murders etc. Death sentence is losing its use as a deterrent.

    One could actually see the vicarious pleasure that chap Kasab was deriving when pumping bullets towards innocent people at Mumbai VT. The guy actually had a smile pasted on his face.Such a sadist does not deserve mercy.
  • Writerzblock
    20.09.11 06:22 PM
    @ Sid: Thank you. A huge overhaul is definitely necessary. At this stage, I presume we can safely call that 'wishful thinking'!
    Thank you for a mature and balanced debate here.
  • Sid
    19.09.11 11:27 PM
    @Writerzblock. You are right in pointing that out. Its a very complex situation in India. Our police is more good at framing innocent people while people with connections and money easily get away. A massive overhauling of police system and judiciary is needed.
  • Writerzblock
    18.09.11 03:55 PM
    @ Ravi: The debate continues.. you are perhaps right in the first half of your argument. One wonders if there is a proven link at all, between capital punishment and crime rate.

    However, equally so is the question - does setting a criminal free, or reducing his sentence, impact his 'reformation'? Or impact future crimes on society, by say the associates of such a criminal?

    Take the case of a terrorist, for example. By keeping him alive, or by showing him mercy, will his parent organization STOP all future terrorist attacks on society? If yes, then there is a very strong case for mercy!! If no, then I wonder if there is any logical reason in showing compassion and humanity, to someone who shows no promise of reform?

    Kindness and compassion should be shown where deserved!

    Second, any crime has to be punished. I think we all agree on that. If petty crimes like theft, for example, go punished with say a short jail sentence, then shouldn't the rarest of rare crimes (like homicide) be responded to with a punishment of the highest order? If we believe that 'death sentence' is not an acceptable form of punishment, then is life imprisonment the final solution?

    Please take a look at Afzal Guru. By keeping him alive, how many more people have died in the Delhi bomb blasts recently, due to demands on Afzal's 'rights'?!!!

    Do you see any justice in all this?

    I think what we need is a Zero tolerance policy, which once practised in earnest for a couple of years, will drastically bring down crime in our country.

    As always that is debatable, and I look forward to your thoughts on a zero tolerance policy.
  • Ravi
    18.09.11 12:30 AM
    Break this debate down to logical packets, (even though the actions of those sentenced to die may not be so)

    first, the cause - effect query. Have execution of death sentences in any way served as a deterrent. China and Iran execute a large number of people, but statistically, there is no dwindling down of the crime graph.

    Second, would a progressive society want to subscribe to a draconian act of retributive justice ?

    Death affects a larger circle, not just the sentenced, but kith, kin and an order of society that is raised believing that judicial murder is a solution rather than a problem by itself.
  • Writerzblock
    18.09.11 12:21 AM
    @ Sid: That is a totally new dimension that I had not thought of. There is some merit in what you say, about the common man/woman being 'armed for self-defence', but imagine, in a country like India, if a commoner actually shoots down an attacker, for eg., won't it take ages for her/him to actually be set free? Knowing our corruption levels, the rapist will most probably be more well-connected and escape, while the poor victim will end up being punished multiple times. A very engaging debate, this. Thank you for starting it.
  • Sid
    17.09.11 08:31 PM
    @Writerzblock: I believe that the responsible citizens of the country need to be armed to fight the menace of crime. Obviously there should be a method of background check and criminal check before giving a license, but i definitely think that the current situation country is in we should have a more liberal arms law.

    A lot of people believe that more guns will lead to more crime but i think it is the other way. Whether there is a gun control or not, a terrorist, mafia or criminal will have a gun and it will not be licensed weapon, it will an illegal gun from black market. Criminals are not going to be bothered by gun control laws, they will get a gun some way. So if more responsible citizens are armed, a criminal will think twice about doing crime. Here are few arguments i have in favor of a liberal gun law.

    1. Increase in crime- The firearms will be registered with the government with owners name, address, type of firearm, serial number etc. People who want to commit a crime (Criminals) will not bother to purchase and register a firearm. They can buy it in the black market. Legal ownership will allow law abiding citizens to protect their and others life and property. There are and will always be some people who will abuse this power, but for the vast majority of people it will humble them and they will be more responsible.

    2. Riots- I think most people who are part of the mob in the riots are criminals who have refuge from some political party and sometimes the government. These people are united and they have all kinds of arms. The reason innocent people are butchered and raped because we are not united and unarmed. Take the case of Gujarat riots or anti Sikh riots, if we had more responsible citizens who were armed, i don't think so many innocent people would have died. We all know what was police doing then.

    3. Violence towards women- Even with limited gun ownership, women in India even today face domestic violence and harassment on the streets by hooligans. Rape is one of the fastest increasing crime. A legal firearm in the hands of women will help fight this.

    We live in a country where we cant trust the police, where mobs rule. How a common man is supposed to defend himself and his family. We do not live in a truly moral and civilized society. The gun puts a 100 pound woman on equal footing with a 250 pound goon. It removes the disparity in physical strength, size or numbers.

    There are a lot of working examples of this like United states, Switzerland, New Zealand
  • Writerzblock
    17.09.11 12:50 AM
    @ Sid: Could you please explain further? How do you think that would help? It could work towards increasing crime in society, couldn't it?
  • Writerzblock
    17.09.11 12:49 AM
    @ A Singh: 'Everybody differed about who should get off' is certainly the moot point here. Thank you for sharing that very apt quote!

    Thinking abuot what you said, Death sentence does seem to be a form of revenge. Equally so, it is perhaps a fitting punishment for the worst forms of crime. Why we always give benefit of doubt to proven and convicted criminals, beats me!!
  • Writerzblock
    17.09.11 12:47 AM
    @ Joseph James: If I may comment on what you have said to Umashankar, it is true that 'Two wrongs don’t a right make'. HOWEVER, a wrong has to be punished.

    Crimes like homicide, rape, murder are absolutely cold-blooded. Perpetrators of such crimes simply do not deserve to be treated as human, do they? They did not make an 'innocent mistake'. They have executed carefully planned murder plots, in complete consciousness, knowing fully well that they are killing innocent people, and perhaps ruining the life of an entire family/families!!

    Imho, death sentence will certainly act as a deterrent if carried out quickly and in time. At the risk of sounding cliched, justice delayed is certainly justice denied.
  • umashankar
    16.09.11 08:25 PM
    @Mr Joseph James: I'd request you to go through my post at the link provided above. Moore than bothering about the "chilling act of snuffing out a human life in its full tide", messiahs of humanity should be worried about saving countless innocents from being raped, sodomized and served as delicacis, also in their full tides or even infancies . Deterrence, Mr James, is the key.
  • Sid
    16.09.11 06:55 PM
    I really think we need a more liberal arms law.
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    16.09.11 06:40 PM
    I am in two minds about the whole issue.

    By coincidence, I watched Pierrepoint last night, a movie based on the life and career of UK's most famous hangman who executed a total of 608 men and women. Here is a quote he made in an autobiography long after he retired.

    "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people...The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off."

  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    16.09.11 06:14 PM
    @ Uma Shankar: Nithari seems to be a clinching argument in support of the capital punishment. Perhaps it makes us all want to be executioners. But is it that simplistic? In his essay 'A hanging' (Reprinted recently in the Hindu)George Orwell says that the sight of a man walking to the gallows made him realise 'the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in its full tide." Death Sentence can't be the conclusion of a simple syllogism. The fact that a person has taken a life doesn't confer on us the right to take his life? Otherwise, what would be the difference between the 'civilised us' and the 'barbaric him.' Two wrongs don't a right make . Will death sentence act as a deterrent? I don't think a potential murderer looks up the statistics before perpetrating the act?
    Death Sentence is nothing but a coldblooded murder. And that is the reason why several countries in the world have abolished it. All I want to say is the question is not as simple as it looks. It is easy to argue one way or the other sitting in the comfort of our drawing rooms. I am sure witnessing the chilling act of snuffing out a human life in its full tide, will sow seeds of doubt in our minds regarding its rightness.
    Incidentally, 45 crores is not the price of Ajmal Kasab. It is the price we pay for upholding our democratic ideals.
  • Writerzblock
    16.09.11 02:12 PM
    @ Deepu: You hit the nail on the head. In India, there is a grave lack of fear of doing something wrong, because we KNOW we can GET AWAY WITH IT. It is a real shame, to what we flaunt to be a 'developed society'.

    @ Umashankar: Thank you for sharing that hard-hitting post. I agree with you, that it makes absolutely no sense in commuting the death sentence to a life sentence, especially for cold-blooded criminals.
  • umashankar
    16.09.11 07:40 AM
    In a barbaric society like India, Death penalty is a must. If you think I am a lunatic, remember Nithari and that is only what gets reported and converts to prime time news, essentially the tip of the iceberg.

    You may like to read my post - no, I'm not promoting my blog - 'Death of Deterrence' at the following link:
  • Deepu
    15.09.11 03:37 PM
    What is missing in India is the "fear of doing something wrong". That's why be it terrorism or local level goon-ism, everything thrives.
    What we need is a few "Rang de basanti" and "A Wednesday" - simply because the government (whichever it may be) will not take such calls - their eyes remain on polls only.

Leave a comment