Saturday, September 27, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Death as penalty

Dara Singh, accused in the horrific Staines’ murder case, has been sentenced to death. S.P.S. Mann says that capital sentence should not be regarded as a penalty but merely as an act of removing incorrigible criminals and serial killers from society.

DEPRIVING a person of his life after ‘due process of law’ is expectedly a controversial issue.

Let us begin with death itself. Nature (or whatever powers that be) has created our existence between two nodal points, the much-rejoiced birth and death. Both complement the factum of our existence. Both are points on the same continuum. Neither derogates the other or life itself. They merely define the limits of our existence. Much like apostrophe’s in grammar or brackets in maths.

Observation of nature shows that without exception, the animal kingdom derives its nutrition from one form of life or another. It involves extinguishing another life. In fact, death sustains life (in more ways than one), renews it in one form or the other and thus complements it in a profound manner. If the act of taking another life is all that widespread in nature, surely there cannot be any kind of absolute morality against it. So let us not have any false sense of sacredness about individual life.


Important death sentence pronouncements

1. Nathu Ram Godse in Mahatama Gandhi assassination case

2. Sucha Singh in Partap Singh Kairon case

3. Billa and Ranga in Chopra children murder case

4. Sukha and Jinda in Gen Vaidya murder case.

5. Kehar Singh in Indira Gandhi assassination case

6. Nalini and 26 others in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case

7. Bachan Singh in multiple -murder cases in Punjab

8. Shankar V, alias Auto Shankar, in multiple- murder cases

9. Machin Singh in multiple- murder cases

10.Pramanad Katara in murder cases

Life in nature can be short, brutal and, at times, full of the chance element. Societies need to be organised on ground rules to moderate the brutality. These rules may, during the course of social evolution, eventually become codified as law. Often, the primary ground rule is "Thou shall not kill."

However, some people choose to step outside the established limits of accepted value system and resort taking another human life. When they do it, their act is beyond the limits of acceptance. So, what should society’s response be these grave infarctions.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against death penalty is in the dissenting note of P.N. Bhagwati in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab, A.I.R. 1982. It is a brilliantly researched, in-depth note that dwells upon various aspects of this retributive act. Splendid in eloquence and incisive in thought, it is no doubt thought-provoking. After soul searching, I came to the conclusion that in spite of all its persuasive and compelling argument, it may perhaps be a somewhat refracted view.

For instance, the international trend is cited. Various countries have de jure or de facto abolished this penalty. Others have initiated dialogue and debate in their legal and constitutional fraternity. In this regard I would like to point out that various trends have been followed by various countries and people at different times in history. In each case, it was accepted morality till it was replaced by another trend.

Earlier on, conquerors were held in awe and history recorded their names in glory (remember Alexander the Great, Caesar, Ashoka the Great, et al?). Now respecting internationally recognised political boundaries is in vogue. Recently, Saddam Hussein’s wings were clipped for harbouring territorial ambitions. Today, China is frowned upon for having territorial aspirations in Taiwan. A particular trend at a given point in time is not necessarily the correct line of thought and the final say in matters. Every system, social, political or economic, evolves its own morality and ethics according to its specific needs.

Judicial error is another fear quoted in favour of banishing this sentence. An innocent man may be executed, and it has happened. Show me a fail-safe system of doing things. Even the most efficient system has a small failure rate. In fact, it’s not a failure at all but an intrinsic property of the act of doing things. As the position stands today, awarding of death penalty is more of an exception than a rule. This means that extremely few cases qualify for this penalty and even a smaller number are actually awarded.

Further on, from a very, very few are actually confirmed in appeal. Most are commuted to lesser sentences. From the remainder confirmed in appeal clemency appeal lies to the President. Thus, in the end, extremely few cases are actually carried out. These are normally unusually brutal or repeat offenders against whom cases are backed by strong evidence.

By the same reasoning, public transport, railways and airlines should be banned as mechanical failure or error of judgement while driving are frequent causes of death. People should resort to bullockcarts and bicycles for commuting.

Powerful statistical tools like regression analysis are employed to conclusively (if not decisively) show that death does not deter potential killers. Why have a penalty that does not serve its purpose?, runs the abolitionists’ argument. To my mind, since the thought process is an intangible variable, it is difficult to access the impact of fear of death penalty on potential murderes. We simply don’t know how many were deterred as they quietly dropped their murderous plans. Then there is another aspect to this particular argument. Much like the weather pattern, human behaviour is far too subtle and complex to be encapsulated in and be predicted by a statistical or mathematical equation with any reasonable degree of exactitude. Even the most sophisticated of these equations have a rudimentary predictability.

Defeating of the penological and reformative aspect of law too is quoted. By executing a person, he is put beyond reformation. It is said that to correct the perspective, the criminal is already beyond reformation. The primary motive is not to deter or reform through fear of death but to remove from the social system people who pose a serious threat to the lives of other people. For those apologists, who argue for abolition, I wonder if they would like to live in the neighbourhood of such offenders and have their children and other loved family members play around and socialise with them while the experiment of their reformation is carried out in earnest.

A devastating psychological effect is yet another argument in the armour of abolitionists. What about the psychological affect on the mind of the victim while his/her life was cruelly being brought to an end? Often, the end is after protracted torture. The traumatic effect on the lives of the victim’s near and dear ones lingers. Lives are shattered and often the only support of a family is lost just because of somebody’s callous disregard for another person’s life.

Death due to negligence or under grave and sudden provocation is excluded from this discussion. Only planned, premeditated, serial and cruelly carried out murders are being considered as staple for this penalty.

As far as death being a disproportionate punishment, it needs to be understood that murdering another human being for a shortsighted reason is an act disproportionate to any gain that might accrue from such an act. Hence, capital penalty cannot be regarded as being "disproportionate." Then again the question of "proportion" can be considered where punishment is to be given. Capital sentence should not be regarded as a penalty but merely the act of removal of incorrigible criminals and serial killers from society. Certain animals, notably the elephants, kangaroos, and rabbits are routinely culled for lesser reasons.

I do not agree that the governments should spend enormous amounts of money to keep those who kill with premeditation and cold planning in jail so that these people can be unleashed upon society in the future. They have the dangerous potential to repeat their acts. The only issue then is of quietus with sufficient dignity and unnecessary suffering which I am sure they denied to their victims can be debated upon. A good approach would be to end life after putting a person in drug-induced deep sleep. Hanging definitely does not fit the criteria. And those who talk about dignity and sanctity of life would do well to remember that their dining tables are witnesses and their culinary tastes are testament to denial of right to live to so many other life forms.