What fate worse than death

May 23, 2010


The question of capital punishment squarely spotlights the close relationship between human rights and security. In India, the debate on capital punishment is limited, muted and occurs in an episodic fashion. India revisits this debate in the wake of death sentences recently awarded in prominent cases.


In the last month, Indian courts have handed out the death penalty thrice in high-profile cases, two involving terrorism and one involving sexual violence.

1. April 23, 2010: Three persons convicted in a fourteen year-old Delhi bomb blast case were sentenced to death.
2. May 4, 2010: Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman of the Mumbai attacks, seen by millions live on television, was sentenced to death.
3. On May 12, 2010 Surinder Koli who was convicted of rape and murder in the second of 19 cases registered following the recovery of human remains in a Nithari  yard, was sentenced to death.

The question of capital punishment squarely spotlights the close relationship between human rights and security. In India, the debate on capital punishment is limited, muted and occurs in an episodic fashion.

The Supreme Court of India held in a judgment that the death sentence must be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases.

Kasab joins others on death sentence list, Press Trust of India/ NDTV.com, May 6, 2010.

The last death sentence carried out in India was in 2004, when Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was convicted of raping and murdering a 14 year old girl, was hung to death.  Since then, the man who carried out the sentence, India’s last official hangman, has died.

But all this is trivia. I want to raise two questions in this post.

Why is there so little debate in India about the death penalty? Is it because the courts themselves recognize it to be an extreme measure? Yes, there is debate in the wake of such sentencing, but a cursory look at civil society and popular culture suggests that this is not an issue about which Indians debate anyway. I cannot think of civil society organizations whose single issue is abolition of capital punishment, rather it is part of a package of liberal ideals, emphasized in relation to the issue at hand. Similarly, you don’t see school and college debates about the death penalty. Cinema is ambivalent about the death penalty, including it as a plot detail rather than problematizing it or glorifying it. In vigilante films, of course, death is summarily handed out to the villains. To my mind, the question remains: in a society where people are politically aware and especially articulate in the discourse of rights, why is there no special concern about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment?

What is changing about India’s politics and society? Why have there suddenly been so many sentences? In the last two or three years, the mobile revolution has powered the rise of “citizen journalism,” best symbolized by ‘sms voting’ (voting by text messages) and most recently by the recourse to Twitter quotations by both print and electronic media. Much is written about the intemperate tone of the electronic media, but surely it is effective only because it resonates with people. The sense of “India besieged,” “the ordinary person short-changed,” “justice delayed and denied” playing in parallel to a sense of entitlement which is closer to that of a consumer than a citizen prompts people to press for action. And where the slower than due process time horizons of Indian courts represent inaction, perhaps the death sentence represents decisive action. Is popular pressure to act, expressed through citizen journalism and the social media, resulting in a more frequent recourse to capital punishment? Or are the ‘rarest of rare’ cases becoming less and less rare?

Debates in democratic societies about terrorism are about human rights and security with multiple arguments and points of contention. Human rights violations lead to terrorism. Both antagonistic sides are responsible for human rights violations; the polemical tug of war is about who is worse. State responses to terrorism are scrutinized by human rights activists. States accuse them of being soft on terror. Others accuse the state of being afraid to act. So when a terrorist, filmed by closed circuit cameras and spotted on television, is convicted to death, is that appropriate or inappropriate?

In closing, I also want to point to the implicit equation of terrorism and gender violence as exceptionally brutal crimes. Those of us who write about gender violence as insecurity do so partly as intellectual argument and partly as a very political act of securitization—that is, trying to draw the same attention, resources and sense of urgency to this issue as war and peace merit. But there are two cautions to be made here, if it is a concern with human rights that engages us in working on gender violence in the first place. First, securitization leads to greater secrecy and less accountability. Second, a very severe sentence is a sentence by definition less frequently awarded, so that a heinous crime may actually ultimately go unpunished.

Read more on capital punishment in India and glimpses of the emerging debate:

Only 58 countries still award death penalty, Times of India, May 10, 2010.
Sanjoy Majumder, India and the death penalty, BBC News, August 4, 2005.
India and the capital punishment (Video), from Times Now.
Amnesty International USA, Document – India: The Death Penalty in India: A lethal lottery: A study of Supreme Court judgments in death penalty cases 1950-2006 (summary report), May 2008. Full Report here.
Articles on the death penaltry at Legal Services India site.
Rakesh Shukla, Playing God: The arbitrary nature of capital punishment, InfochangeIndia.org, November 2006.
Is it time to end the death penalty in India? Reuters, May 20, 2010.
Jug Suraiya, Hang in the balance, Times of India, May 5, 2010.
An eye for an eye, says urban India, TOI Crest, May 15, 2010
Saabira Chaudhuri, Why kill Kasab, LiveMint, May 14, 2010.
Manoj Mitta, Death sentence: How the die is cast, TOI Crest, May 15, 2010.
T.M. Krishna, Death of a humane society? The Hindu, May 16, 2010.
Neetu Banga, Is death penalty the right way to punish terrorists? Merinews, May 17, 2010.
Kalpana Sharma, Sentenced to death, The Hindu, May 16, 2010.
Bikramjeet Batra, Justice or revenge? Frontline, May 22-June 4, 2010.

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