The death sentence pronounced by the Delhi High Court on Santosh Kumar Singh, the murderer of Priyadarshini Mattoo, has been welcomed by those seeking justice for her. Sooner or later, it will no doubt lead, as had happened in the Dhananjoy Chatterjee case, to groups that seek a ban on capital punishment rallying support for Singh. We retain an agnostic position on the merits of the death penalty for two reasons. One, while the Supreme Court has set out that the death penalty will apply only to the ‘rarest of rare cases’, there are no clear-cut rules or parameters to judge whether a case fulfils this condition. It is thus left to the discretionary power of the judge to make this difficult decision. So, while Singh’s crime has been deemed worthy of the highest punishment set out in our law books, other arguably more brutal and premeditated crimes are seen to carry lesser sentences. Considering the vast difference between the death penalty and the next highest punishment, the life sentence, which invites a maximum of 14 years in prison, fairness in punitive justice thus becomes a matter of individual discretion.
Two, even though the judiciary and the executive are independent constitutional authorities, the latter has kept to itself the discretionary power to grant pardon, clemency, reprieve or to remit a sentence pronounced by the judiciary. Two recent cases show how blatantly this power is misused. In the first, the Supreme Court suggested political expediency as the reason behind Andhra Pradesh Governor Sushil Kumar Shinde’s remission of the life sentence awarded to a Congress party member convicted of murder. In the second, a pardon granted by the Punjab Governor to the son of a former state minister, also convicted of murder and with several other criminal cases pending against him, has been challenged in court. Remorse, reformation and rehabilitation, the usual excuses for leniency, cannot be used by the executive to exercise discretion in allowing hardened criminals to roam free.
In these circumstances, we support the sentence awarded to Singh, if only because anything less — the maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment — will not be harsh enough for his crime. If there has to be any justification for an end to capital punishment, and for the power of clemency granted to the President and Governors, punishment must fit the crime. To start with, life sentence must begin to mean imprisonment for the entirety of a criminal’s natural life.