The Madras High Court's order last week staying the execution of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's three killers has triggered a fresh debate on the desirability of the death penalty in India.The court also asked the government to explain why it took 11 years for the president to reject the trio's mercy pleas.
President Pratibha Patil rejected them in early August. The Tamil Nadu assembly then passed a unanimous resolution requesting the president to reconsider her decision. Politicians in Punjab are making a similar demand for Devender Pal Singh Bhullar, convicted of a 1993 terror attack in Delhi that claimed several lives. Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah reflected the sentiment in his state when he tweeted that had his state assembly passed a similar resolution about Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru reactions would not have been so muted.
The BJP favours the death penalty for such criminals, but Congress leaders have been airing their personal views for or against it. The Indian intelligentsia - the media, academics and the judiciary is also divided about the issue.
A look at the debate:
Punishment is a natural response to crime
This principle is almost universally accepted and that letting off criminals can result in vigilante justice. Also, the punishment has to be proportionate to the degree of wrongdoing and mitigating circumstances have to be considered while deciding the quantum of punishment. It goes without saying that the accused will be given a fair chance to defend himself/herself.
But various societies in different parts of the world react to crime in different ways. While some, such as a few Arab countries, choose retributive punishment of "an eye for an eye", others have deterrent punishment. Of late, there has been a shift towards restorative and reformist approaches to punishment, including in India.
Death Penalty in India
Capital crimes are murder, gang robbery with murder, abetting the suicide of a child or insane person, waging war against the government and abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces. In recent years, the death penalty has also been imposed under a new anti-terrorism legislation for people convicted of terrorist activities.
Is the judiciary becoming averse to the death penalty?
Section 354(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which was added to the Code in 1973, requires a judge to give "special reasons" for awarding death sentences. In 1980, in the Bachan Singh case, the Supreme Court propounded the "rarest of rare" doctrine and since then, the life sentence is the rule and the death sentence the exception.
But recently, the Supreme Court refused to impose the capital punishment in the Graham Staines, Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo murder cases on the ground that these did not fall within the category of "rarest of rare." Is the judiciary becoming averse to capital punishment?
According to senior advocate KTS Tulsi, the vice chairman of the Law Commision of India, "India has found a perfect balance by retaining the death penalty as a deterrent, yet invoking it only in exceptional cases. While the deterrent effect is maintained, the possibility of an erroneous execution is minimised. Compared with China, Japan, Arab countries and the US, the use of capital punishment in India has been minimal."
Moratorium on the death penalty
In December 2007, India voted against a UN resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. But in effect, there has been a moratorium on the death penalty in India. Since 1995 there has been only one execution, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, in August 2004.
The judiciary appears to be hesitant in awarding the death penalty. The executive has disposed of several mercy petitions in the past few months, but around 20 such pleas, including that of Afzal Guru, are still pending before the president.
According to Amnesty International, in India, at least 100 people in 2007, 40 in 2006, 77 in 2005, 23 in 2002, and 33 in 2001 were sentenced, but not executed, to death.
Rajiv Gandhi Killers' case is a test case
The Rajiv Gandhi Killers' case is going to be a test case for death penalty in India. Whatever be the Madras HC decision, the matter is bound to go to the Supreme Court, which could lay down guidelines for timely disposal of mercy petitions. If the court rules that inordinate delay is a ground for converting a death penalty to life imprisonment, then it would have bearing on all pending mercy petitions, including that of Afzal Guru.
World moving towards abolition of death penalty
According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Ninety-six countries have abolished capital punishment for all crimes while nine have done away with it for ordinary crimes. Further, 34 countries have abolished it either in law or in practice. Only 58 countries retain this extreme form of punishment.
Should India abolish the death penalty?
"No", says former additional solicitor general of India Vikas Singh. "Generally, a punishment should be aimed at reforming the criminal. But in some cases, such as in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case or Parliament attack case, you have to give a deterrent punishment, for the simple reason that you can not reform these criminals. Can you reform Kasab (26/11 convict)?"
But Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, disagrees. "The death penalty has failed to act as a deterrent against any crime. It's nothing but retribution. Such medieval justice does not reflect the ethos of Mahatma Gandhi. India should abolish the death penalty and join the league of civilised countries."