Capital Punishment – Is it Wrong?

The recent awarding of death penalty to Yakub Memon In the 1993 Mumbai Blasts case has once again brought to fore the question of ‘capital punishment’. The Indian state has provided for capital punishment in the Indian Penal Code which states that it is awarded in cases of murder or when the highest offence against the state has been committed. The death sentence is imposed in the ‘rarest of rare ‘cases. Both the High Court and the Supreme Court are invested with the power to hand out such a sentence. Any person who is awarded the death sentence in the HC can appeal in the SC. It should be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that the person is guilty. Only the President of India has the power to repeal such a sentence once the SC has affirmed it, if the accused files a mercy petition.

The world wide stand on this issue is fairly divided. While approximately 90 countries including Australia Canada and almost all of Europe have abolished it while nearly 70 countries including India, USA, China and Brazil retain the death penalty. A sizeable number of countries fall in the category of ‘abolished except in special circumstances’ or ‘not used for the last 10 years’.
Though a legal issue, the nature of the act of administering justice through execution makes it one of ethical concern.

Arguments for and against:

  1. The main arguments for capital punishment are
  2. Retributive justice; crimes heinous in nature deserve a reasonable response
  3. Death penalty as a deterrent
  4. Incapacitation of the criminal i.e. it prevents further crimes
  5. Cost of long term imprisonment of rapists and murderers.
  6. The main arguments against capital punishment are
  7. Religious moral grounds: nobody has the right to play God
  8. Humanitarian view: the chance to make reparation
  9. Fallibility of the legal process and the irreversibility of the act
  10. Not a deterrent : emotionally powerful with zero intellectual merit

The arguments presented by the two sides fall under various approaches to the issue of morality. Thus whether you favor capital punishment or not would depend greatly on the moral convictions you subscribe to. The thing to take note of here is that we are dealing with three entities here, the victim, the guilty and the society. Does capital punishment mean justice for all three? Taking a simplistic view; capital punishment brings no practical reprieve to the victim, a human life is lost; on the other hand not giving a death sentence would mean your sympathies lie with a criminal rather than an innocent victim. In such a scenario the society as a whole plays an important role. The cultural relativist view believes that “good” means what is “socially approved” by the majority in a given culture. However the point raised by Dhruv Dua a student at Delhi University that public opinion in India tends to be frequently erratic and easily swayed could be a major handicap in any system which places the power of decision in the hands of the public.
We could of course, as Deepti Desai, working in the airlines industry, suggests; evolve a system where we retain capital punishment, but have the judgment of the court be affirmed by a public poll or a referendum. In case conflicting judgments emerge the accused could be put to trial again.As is evident there is no one answer to whether capital punishment should be abolished or not. The answers are country as well as case specific. However as human rights movements gather strength capital punishment may not find many takers, till then it continues to exist in a way which attempts to make the process leading up to it more acceptable.

Malavika Vyawahare
Delhi, India