When I read the news that the four men who were found guilty of the horrific rape crime in Delhi in 2012 were hanged to death in a Delhi prison, I wondered whether these legal killings make any sense when human being are being killed in thousands all over the world by the Corona virus. Shortly after these hangings, came the shocking news about the Indian security forces’ attack on Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh where it has been reported that 17 policemen lost lives without any indication if any of the Maoist rebels were also killed. And then has come this gruesome news about the violent attack on a Kabul gurdwara where several scores of persons including children have been killed. All these killings seemed to add just to the total count of Corona deaths being reported. The Corona virus pandemic is that extraordinary time when we should be saving lives and not ending lives. Should human beings be killing other human beings whether through wars, terrorist actions, ‘encounter’ killings, sectarian massacres, armed insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, lynchings or death penalties when the whole of humanity is collectively under threat from this terrible virus? All these different forms of human beings killing other human beings seem to lose all significance in the context of Corona virus threat.
In the case of Delhi hangings, some might seek limited significance in the name of justice for the victim who was so brutally raped that she eventually died in a hospital or for this capital punishment acting as a deterrence against rape crime in India in the future. Let us focus just on Delhi hangings for the moment because some people might see justification in the Delhi hangings while outrightly condemning Chhattisgarh and Kabul killings.
Bringing a legal change as was done in India after that horrific rape in 2012 to make the rape crime punishable by capital punishment has not acted as a deterrence against rape crime in India. According to one estimate, women are still raped in India at the rate of one every twenty minutes. The historical experience from all over the world shows that capital punishment has nowhere acted as a deterrence against any activity which is made punishable by capital punishment. It does not make any difference whether the execution takes place through hanging as done in India or a lethal injection in a jail as one of the methods used in the US or beheading as done in Saudi Arabia to take a few examples. A better course of action in this Indian case would have been to imprison them for life. That would have opened the possibility of repentance by the four guilty and perhaps a better understanding of what leads to rape crime and consequently to more informed ways to stop this heinous crime. There are examples in history where hardened criminals during their incarceration repent for what they have done and go through total transformation. Capital punishment puts an end to this possibility. Jailing for life allows the possibility for reformation.
Though in the case of the four guilty who have been executed, there does not seem to be any doubt that anyone of them is innocent and falsely implicated, there are examples where it emerges after the execution that the person executed did not deserve to be executed. The recent ongoing revelations about the activities of the Kashmir police official Davinder Singh raise serious doubts about whether Afzal Guru who was executed in 2013 really was guilty of what he was accused of. There have been doubts also about whether Kehar Singh’s role in Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her security guards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh was such that it deserved death penalty.
Execution is an irreversible act. Life imprisonment opens the possibility of reversing the judgement if later evidence is found that the basis of the earlier judgement was flawed. There is the famous Birmingham Six case in the UK where six men, all Roman Catholics from Northern Ireland, were sentenced in 1975 to life imprisonment for what was claimed by the prosecution as their participation in Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 which had resulted in 21 deaths. The prosecution had claimed that the bombings by the six men were organised by the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organisation that had been carrying on armed campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland and to unite both parts of Ireland to create a united independent Ireland. The Court of Appeal in 1991 quashed their conviction and all the six were set free. Had they been executed in 1975 instead of imprisoning them, a terrible act of injustice would have taken place. The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million for all the suffering they had gone through for having been falsely implicated and imprisoned for 17 years.
Another consideration, apart from the fact that capital punishment has never acted as a deterrence for acts such as rape and murder for which it is considered by the advocates of capital punishment as a deterrence, is the effect on those who have to administer it. In this context, a friend of mine has brought to my notice the work of the famous British barrister, novelist and playwright John Mortimer who died in 2009. Mortimer had acquired special fame in dealing with divorce cases and he recalled one divorce case he had dealt with in which it came to light that the male party, whose sexual predilections were unspeakably gross, was a part-time hangman. Mortimer reflecting on this case had remarked that if the system of capital punishment relied on monsters like that administering it, there must be something wrong with the system. John Mortimer was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment. Apart from the hangmen, all others who are involved in the act of execution suffer everlasting psychological damages with harmful and multiplier implications for everyone in their lives.
Death sentence leads to complacency in society by cloaking over the underlying responsibilities that society has for dealing with the causes that lead to serious crimes.
According to Amnesty International which campaigns worldwide for abolishing death penalty, at the end of 2018, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, and 142 countries constituting more than two-thirds of all the countries in the world, had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. It is time that India moves in this direction of abolishing capital punishment. Let us hope that this exceptional period of loss of lives due to Corona virus pandemic lead to rethinking on the part of those in India who might have defended capital punishment.
Professor Pritam Singh, Visiting Scholar, Wolfson College, University of Oxford.