Garbled sentence

Published on Jan 21, 2006 12:50 AM IST

Death sentence debates find no fence-sitters. Either one agrees that the State has the right to take away the life of persons who commit heinous crimes, or one doesn?t.

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Death sentence debates find no fence-sitters. Either one agrees that the State has the right to take away the life of persons who commit heinous crimes, or one doesn’t. And yet, the real point of engagement in any debate about capital punishment revolves around something   more important and perhaps less philosophical: the implementation of the law. In India, the statute books allow a person to be sentenced to death. But as the Supreme Court reiterated this week, a death sentence must be awarded in extreme cases like “bride burning” and “dowry death” and “in cases of crime of enormous proportion”. Most importantly, the apex court has set a few guidelines for all courts to follow in the future to determine whether the death penalty is applicable to the guilty or not. A crime is punishable by death if a murder is especially ‘brutal’, if the murder has been committed with a ‘depraved’ motive, if a violent act of betrayal has been committed against the nation, if a murder arouses ‘social wrath’ (e.g. caste murders), if the crime is ‘enormous in proportion’, and if the murder victim is a child, elderly citizen or a public figure.

These are rough guidelines for the courts to refer to. But the truth is that it isn’t so much about what constitutes a crime deserving a death sentence, but the implementation of a sentence — death or otherwise — that is, for the lack of another word, idiosyncratic in this country. Where else would there be a court that turns a possible death sentence into a one-day jail sentence, as was a recent case involving rape? This is a country where life imprisonment peters out to hardly a sentence at all. And if one considers the woeful conviction rate in the country, the death sentence debate seems frightfully esoteric and besides the point.

It isn’t the Supreme Court alone that has repeatedly pointed out the yawning gap between the law as it is on paper and the law that is in practice. There remains a great disparity in the application of the law — whether it be the difference in which the law is read out for the rich and for the not-so-rich, for the powerful and for the not-so-powerful. And therein lies a problem that forever gets sidelined in other debates about justice in this country.

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