The Crime and the Criminal

The Supreme Court of India recently strayed away from the law books for a very rare time when it repealed the death penalty issued for two bandits Mulla and Guddu, convicted for murder of four people in December 1995. The Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices P Sathasivam and H L Dattu, substituted the death sentence with life sentence for the two elderly convicts. The reasoning for such a decision as noted by the bench is that the convict’s poverty has to be taken as a mitigating factor when considering death penalty. The Bench noted that the convicts were from a very poor background and duly recognized the desperation and desolateness that have forced them to become bandits. It also considers the fact that they have already served over a decade in prison with the death sentence haunting them all the time. Convicts have, in the past, been remitted from their death sentences, but this is the first time in post-independence Indian judicial history that poverty has been cited as a reason for the remittance. This is a huge paradigm shift for the judicial system which still reels under an outdated Victorian era decree and an inflexible everything-by-the-book law practice. This order, though might stir up a few enigmatic questions about the alleged equality of law, changes our perception of crime and brings into view the external factors involved in the crime.

One might argue that Law, whatever the factors considered, should treat everyone equally. But can Law really treat everyone equally unless our society treats everyone equally? Doesn’t society constantly shut the doors on the face of the poor and the downtrodden? The economically and socially backward people are in the brink of the society. Perpetually overlooked, these people become the perfect targets for instigators. While their instigators escape law through its umpteen loop holes, the helpless poor get caught in the muddle. Because of lack of resources, these people fail to find proper legal support also. It is a welcome step that law notes the delicate demarcation between the crime and the criminal and has taken into consideration the extrinsic factors involved in the crime. Going forward the judicial system should also facilitate reformation of the erstwhile convicts. Poor and repentant people have more motivation to reform and get back to their normal lives than greed or vengeance driven criminals. Our judicial system can be more proactive in granting remissions for convicts willing to be led in the path of reformation. These steps are necessary to make our law more humane.

Talking of humaneness, another question that requires more public debate is that of the necessity of death penalty itself. One school of thought argues that death penalty will be a deterrent for most heinous crimes. But the fact is heinous crimes are mostly committed either by mentally ill persons or by a mob during riots. In neither of these situations, death penalty can be awarded to the perpetrators. And in rare cases that don’t fall into the mentioned legal quagmires, death penalty has never proved to be an effective deterrent, statistically. In United States of America, Homicidal rates are double the rate in states having death penalties as opposed to the states that have abolished death penalties.  More confounding are the moral questions hovering over this issue. While death penalty says to the criminal that he doesn’t have the rights to take another person’s life, then how do we justify the right of the government to take a human’s life? Doesn’t the notion of death penalty undermine the value of human life itself? These are questions lingering unanswered for a long time and will be around for a while.

The Supreme Court has taken a bold step forward in remitting Mulla and Guddu of their death sentences. But the repercussions of this order go far beyond these two people. It ushers an era of a more comprehensive criminal law which not only punishes the criminals but also facilitates their melioration.  Though this order concerns only the substitution of death penalty by life sentence and not the other lesser penalties, some may fear that this might just be one more loop hole in our judicial system. Such a fear cannot be discarded without proper thought. Should this become another rat hole like the infamous insanity plea, we can only trust that the guardians of our judiciary will consider each case subjectively and judge wisely. Well, there can be a possibility of error, but never can such a meaningful law be dumped because it fails in a few occasions. Once Henry Thomas Buckle put it eloquently, “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it”. Our judiciary has now realized it.

Nallasivan V

[Image courtesy:]