One would take the Tamil Nadu assembly's resolution calling for the death sentence against three of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins seriously if the legislators' claim that they were motivated by humanitarian impulses were more credible. Unfortunately, as is the case all too often in India, decisions regarding capital punishment are more about the politics of ethnicity and community rather than about whether the death sentence is compatible with society and nationhood. Though the Madras High Court's decision to put off a sentence by eight weeks will give the country further time to reflect, it is likely that this chance will be missed.
There are traditionally two debates regarding capital punishment. One is whether to allow it at all; the other is when to allow it. The latter debate is a hollow one in India. Among the 60 or so countries that still have death sentences, India is among those that exercises it the least. Only one person has been executed since 1995 and since 1947, only 52 people have gone to the gallows. The Supreme Court's ruling that the death sentence be applied in the "rarest of rare" cases has been maintained and, if anything, this has been reinforced. The crimes for which a person can be executed in India can be counted on one hand. Some of the more egregious punishments, such as death for drug trafficking, have been sensibly dropped. This is to be contrasted with China, which is estimated to execute as many as 5,000 people a year.
If there is any debate in India, it is really about whether the death sentence should be abolished altogether. Developed countries that abolished it did so not only on humanitarian grounds, but also because their public security environment improved and public confidence in the ability of their police and courts to arrest and convict criminals rose. There is scant evidence that the death sentence deters criminals, at least no more than life imprisonment does. But there is plenty of evidence that a poor conviction rate encourages crime. And that when a criminal is caught, a culture of extreme punishment develops. Unfortunately none of these circumstances applies to India. India is one of the worst sufferers of terrorism. Confidence in its law-enforcement systems could not be lower. And no one can claim assassination has been purged from its polity. Nonetheless, despite all these failings, India has pared capital offences to the bare minimum and hedged death sentences with numerous caveats - and deserves praise for doing so. The recent assembly resolution would have been intellectually honest if it had called for the abolition of the death sentence altogether. Instead, the resolution argues only for special consideration for three assassins and, therefore, deserves little consideration itself.