I know I’m not supposed to think or feel this way, but I can’t help it; I do. I support the death penalty. Or, rather, if a petition landed on my table to scrap capital punishment in India — as it has from time to time — I’m just not that sure I would sign.
On the whole, I’m pretty much an always-angry activist type. I have marched for minorities; encounter killings enrage me; I loathe the religious Right; I flaunt my feminism; and I have lobbied to legalise homosexuality in India.
In other words, I fit right into that sorry little cliché: I am a liberal. So why am I not convinced that this regressive law — of punishment by death — should be abolished? My mind keeps trying to talk my heart into feeling differently, but I have to confess, it has failed so far. I got thinking about the debate all over again this week, after the CBI told the courts that the man who murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo should get the death sentence.
By now you all know this story: A 23-year-old woman is stalked and harassed by the son of a powerful police officer. He rapes her, strangles her with a wire, and leaves her on the floor to die with 19 assault wounds. Then, because of a botched-up investigation, not just does the murderer walk free, he returns to practise law at the capital’s High Court. Ten years later, a media campaign finally succeeds in reopening both, the case and the trial.
And here’s the point: I find it impossible to watch the brave but bitingly lonely battle that Priyadarshini’s ageing father has fought all these years, and then not want the death penalty for the man who murdered his daughter.
Chaman Lal Mattoo has the frailty of a man who may not live much longer but the courage of someone determined to make his mark before he goes. He is 75, and all alone — with neither the money to buy a battery of lawyers nor the power to purchase justice. The only time anger makes room or any other emotion in his hollow, sunken-in eyes is when he remembers how much his daughter loved to sing. I have to confess that if the court chooses death for the man who robbed the Mattoo family of all their happiness, I would not be sorry.
In the end, I suspect this is what it boils down to: Our response to the death sentence is emotional and psychological, rather than rational. It’s because we believe that the legal system is too slow and too weak to punish the powerful that the death sentence assumes the symbolism of security. Revenge becomes imagined retribution precisely because it’s so rarely possible.
Yes, I know that statistics tell a different story. Eighty-six countries in the world, including the entire European Union, have erased capital punishment from their statute books. And it’s clear that death is no deterrent — the evidence shows that there is absolutely no connection between crime rates and capital punishment.
In India, the penalty has survived three constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court and is meant only for the “rarest of rare cases”. But I can’t imagine that public opinion here would settle for less than that.
It may have something to do with the times we live in as well. Capital punishment may not have succeeded in making us secure. But as terrorism throws our worlds into peril, we believe this is because the enemy is too dangerous for ordinary law to combat. We watch an ordinary train ride to work become a journey to death; we shudder at the thought of 10 planes exploding in mid-air; we look over our shoulder at airports and surrender ourselves silently at the X-ray machine; we read about suicide bombers who lived just down the street; and we say a silent prayer every time we travel.
As we learn to build our lives in the shadow of violence, we may believe that the death sentence is too effete, too weak, too little to take on an army of invisible killers. But you will hear the nervous laugh of a scared people if you try and tell us that capital punishment should be scrapped because it’s an inhumane and twisted expression of justice.
The most specious argument made by the abolitionists is that life was created by a higher power, and so, the State has no right to take it away. Even before terrorism settled and made itself at home in our backyard, we empowered our State to go to war and kill if needed. Not just do we sanction it, we make heroes of the men who bring home the body bags of enemy soldiers. We believe territorial integrity is worthy enough to both die and kill for. Why would we respond differently to a terrorist who declares war directly on our people?
There is one compelling reason, though, to be cautious about capital punishment: Money can create an exit route out of any maze. This means the only people who end up on death row are the poor and the socially marginalised. It is no coincidence, for example, that in America, most undertrials facing death sentence are either Black or Hispanic. Think of the recent executions in India: their crimes are horrendous, but nearly all those hanged were poor or anonymous before they were caught. When was the last time anyone of significance had to worry about facing the death penalty?
Perhaps that’s why the Mattoo case is different; prosecutors are actually pursuing the death sentence for one of their own ilk; for someone who was influential enough to get away with murder. It is a story that has pushed us out of our passivity because, perhaps for the first time, we believe that our collective strength can take on and beat the system.
I realise that I sound like a rabble-rouser, and I wish I could feel differently. But no matter how hard I try, I’m just not convinced, and I suspect, in this, I’m not alone. We feel more vulnerable today than ever before. And as the very act of living becomes such a battle, death just doesn’t seem that destructive.
The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7