Some years ago, a very dear lawyer friend suffered an irreparable loss: her elderly mother was brutally murdered in her own home. The case is in the courts, awaiting judgment. Irrespective of the verdict, there is perhaps not a single day when my friend does not herself feel sentenced to eternal punishment. Many of her well-wishers have a remedy: she should ask for the death penalty for her mother’s killers. That, they say, would bring a sense of closure. But, notwithstanding infinite despair as companion, she has instructed her lawyers not to seek the death penalty. She is just as strongly opposed to the idea of capital punishment for the rapists involved in the December 16 case.
Society, some say, demands that the seriousness of a crime be addressed through equally serious punishment: the death penalty. Retribution, the argument goes, is sound basis for achieving social good. It restores a broken society and satisfies our sense of justice. If we hang murderers, as a recent piece in the Hindustan Times by Vir Sanghvi asks, why not rapists? (Reap the whirlwind, September 19). We should, he says, revert to ‘traditional’ belief systems that viewed punishment as retribution.
What then of my friend who must, everyday, live the unfathomable sadness of her mother’s terrible death, but refuses to become like those who killed her parent? In her grief, what does she choose to become? First, in opposing the death penalty for the rapists her stand rejects the idea of rape as an offence to male honour; the idea that it is ‘the worst thing that can happen to a woman’ is actually linked to the notion that the rape of a woman undermines the honour of the men related to the rape victim. Rape is a terrible crime but our understanding of rape does not show as much concern for victims of rape as for masculine notions of family and community honour.
Then there is the issue of punishment itself: we accept that the State can take away our liberty (through imprisonment), Sanghvi says, but deny that it has the right of life and death. However, it isn’t as straightforward as this. There is sufficient evidence that many of those who are imprisoned are also those who have not the means to avoid imprisonment. The same holds for many who are sent to the gallows. In India, there is often little connection between criminal conduct and punishment. People get away with murder. My friend’s opposition to the death penalty is a confrontation between personal grief (which might lead to calls for retribution) and the intolerable burden of social responsibility. It is the manner in which we bear the latter — in the face of exhortations to seek an eye for an eye — that makes us truly human.
What, my friend asked during a conversation, does anyone gain from seeking the death of a murderer or a rapist? What is the personal or social salve that retribution provides? Capital punishment breeds the grand delusion that we have killed the crime through killing the criminal. It is a deterrent to self-examination.
Ultimately, I think it is self-delusion that my friend seeks to avoid: the mirage of personal and social good enclosed within the hangman’s noose. She too, she would say, represents ‘society’ and she does not feel that the easiest answer to removing social evil is through legally approved murder. If an act does no one any good — neither providing personal solace nor solutions to social problems — it is a betrayal of the human capacity to think of alternatives. My friend begs to submit that she too is a member of ‘society’ and is, therefore, condemned to think critically about social good through the grief of her circumstance.
Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal