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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 34 August 15, 2015

On Death Penalty

Saturday 15 August 2015, by P.B. Sawant

The following piece was written against the backdrop of Yakub Memon’s execution.

The question is often asked if we have a right to take life when we cannot give it. The right question to be asked in this connection is whether the death penalty is a rational sentence. Will not life imprisonment instead of life extinguishment serve the purpose? The intent of both punishments is to remove the man from the society, since on account of the heinous and inhuman act he committed he does not deserve to remain in it—not taking account of the possibility that he may undergo complete transformation and become even saintly in his behaviour in his later life.

Whether he does so or not, he may at least be compelled to render work useful to the society by detaining him in prison till the end of his natural life. Will that not be at least some compense, for the life or lives he has taken? His repentance for his act throughout his life apart, what exactly do we gain by ending his life instantly? Is it the satisfaction of our instinct to take revenge? Is it the message to the would-be offenders, to refrain from such crimes? Do we want to perpetuate the primitive justice where eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life was the rule?

Every crime is unique. The circumstances in which it is committed, the motive behind it, the passion urging it, the character of the offender and the victim, their stations in life, the cause and the nature of the crime, whether it was instantaneous or planned and so on, distinguish each crime from the other. That is why whatever the sentence prescribed, the crimes continue to occur. Why should therefore we not stop at life imprisonment as the final and ultimate penalty? Will the human civilisation be worse for it?

It is not the mass frenzy but a cool and calm consideration which should guide us, in deciding this question.

The author, a former judge of the Supreme Court (now retired), is an erstwhile Chairman of the Press Council of India.