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It is revenge. So?

Killing a ‘bad’ man for the ‘right’ reason can never be a tasteful affair. But it can be conducted and savoured without perverse pleasure, writes Indrajit Hazra.

columns Updated: Nov 25, 2012 12:33 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Celebrating a death is certainly bad manners. But it's not always, as some folks point out, macabre — if 'macabre' means 'having the quality of having a grim or ghastly atmosphere'. Clearly, if someone's death is a matter of celebration, by definition it's not grim for the celebrators.

In any case, celebrating the extermination of a 'bad guy' is ingrained in some of our biggest religious-cultural festivals. Even as an admirer of Ravana, I'm not going to deny the celebrations of Dussehra. But if the sanctioned murder of Ravana and others are metaphors of 'good' vanquishing 'evil', the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the surviving perpetrator of 26/11 who, along with his companions, killed 166 people in Mumbai four years ago, is a flesh and blood matter.

And it is in this flesh and blood terrain that the 'death sentence' debate is usually conducted as an argument between uncivilised 'blood-letting' and civilised notions of justice.

Two arguments are always trotted out against the death sentence. One, that there is something immoral and illegitimate, not to mention unholy, about a human life being taken by other humans. Conducting a death sentence is, without doubt, sanctioned and approved murder. But the argument that a socially approved murder — as the law applied to Kasab's extermination was — is as heinous as any other murder fails to take into account that justice can be sometimes, if not always, about extracting revenge. And the definition of 'heinous' depends not on the ever-tragic act of killing itself but on the conditions they are carried out in.

The murders of Ponty Chadha and his brother were not deemed 'heinous' because there was a certain element of criminal predictability of the you-reap-what-you-sow kind attached to it. The murders of children in the Nithari case is rightly deemed 'heinous' because both society and the law (which in turn is manufactured and maintained by members of society) found the sexual assault and murder of children something horrific. Both the Ponty Chadha and Nithari cases dealt with murders. But they were of very different magnitudes. And in dishing out punishment, magnitudes within the same category of crime matter.

The belief that no man has the right to take away another man's life is based on good metaphysical tenets that should not be scoffed at. But men do find it sometimes 'physically' beneficial to kill others, as all those murders not committed in the heat of passion testify. It is the job of justice to remind them that this 'individual benefit' or 'group gratification' is at the cost of the momentary breakdown of order. But in the case of a judicial death sentence, the cost-benefit report is shown to uphold society at the cost of one murder.

So how does the extermination of a rapist-murderer of a teenage girl (as in the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was hanged in August 2004) make society safer? How does the elimination of a mass-killing terrorist (such as Kasab) firm up justice? Well, it doesn't, as a death sentence has little to do with making society safe. A genuine life sentence would have also kept them off the streets forever. But what the death sentence actually serves, I'll come to it a bit later.

The second, and more serious, reason to oppose the death sentence has to do with being sure that justice is being done. It is worse to punish a wrong man — especially when it comes to disposing of him forever — than to not punish anyone at all. Far too many people languish in jails for far too long before they are even proved guilty or otherwise. Which is why the death sentence is given only in the 'rarest of rare cases'. Stealing a refrigerator may be a very rare crime, but by 'rarest of rare', what the law means is the most grievous kind of crimes.

Kasab qualified on both counts: there was no doubt about the crime he committed and the magnitude of the crime. The fact that it took four years for the government to show the country that it was serious about killing Kasab as ordered by the court can be partially explained by the nature of justice being made to pretend that it has nothing to do with vengeance.

But justice in such a case has everything to do with vengeance. It certainly wasn't about 'correcting' a terrorist or showcasing him as a deterrence for future criminals — as is the case with forms of ameliorative justice if applied to, say, Bal Thackeray or Ponty Chadha, which wasn't. With Kasab, as in all death sentences, vengeance is what it was about and what it can only be about.

As for celebrating Kasab's death — or wishing that his hanging was televised for the viewing pleasure of survivors or relatives of the victims of 26/11 as one man suggested in a television panel — that's just being unnecessarily impolite and obscene. Even killing a 'bad' man for the 'right' reason can never be a tasteful affair. But it can be conducted and savoured without perverse pleasure even as it can give many of us quiet satisfaction. Which is really what justice is all about.