Crime and Punishment

The recent controversy surrounding the clemency petitions and their commutation to life sentences by the President , unearths a larger issue.

On a transactional note, the decision could definitely be contested in terms of the degree of legal counsel that was involved before making such a decision, but what is also evident is the fact that even though capital punishment is not abolished in India, the actual cases executed have been few and far in between. What happens to the rest is a life oscillating between life and death. It has been argued that the mental trauma inflicted by keeping the fate of such prisoners on hold is far worse than death. But then, does the mental trauma of death row convict seem a little frivolous when compared to the crimes they have committed and the resulting trauma of the victim or their families.
So this brings us to the more important question of our stand on capital punishment.

The philosophy of punishment as very aptly put by Markandey Katju, former Supreme Court judge rests on four tenets : It can be a deterrent and work by creating fear. It can be retributive, making one pay for it. It can also be preventive, to stall a crime; or reformative,to strengthen the human character.

If the intention of the punishment is retributive or meant as a deterrent , then capital punishment can be deemed necessary. In all the other cases , rigorous life imprisonment will suffice. The cases which have been commuted are extreme cases of depravity and fall under the ‘rarest of the rare’ category. This again brings us to the subjective nature of the ‘rarest of the rare’ categorization. There are other known cases which prove that sometimes the death sentence have been awarded purely hinging on the ability of the defense counsel and the knowledge or subjectivity of the presiding judges.

The knee jerk reaction upon reading about most of the cases is extreme revulsion and the need for retribution. The horror of ever being exposed to the filthiest of human minds is enough to demand for permanent removal of such filth from the society. But unwillingly, we still need to cling on to the shred of humanity we possess and try to assess objectively the actual criminal behind the person.

The case of Sushil Murmu is a good case in point. On 11th Dec, 1996, he kidnapped and decapitated a young innocent child to Goddess Kali for his well-being. Another case of having committing the same deed against his own brother was pending against him at this time.The perversity of the crime is shocking and revolting. But the small voice of humanity begs to question whether the real criminals are ignorance and superstition for whom Sushim Murmu was just a conduit. Will the killing of one Sushil Murmu irradicate ignorance and superstition. There are of course, many other cases, where it’s not possible to offer any logical explanation other a human brain malfunction or some psychiatric illness.

The decision is not an easy one and needs a multi-dimensional examination from a societal, humanitarian and judicial standpoint. But the time is now ripe to take a more definitive stand on the whole issue and if its ‘eye for an eye’ that we as a society consciously seek, then lets not keep the lines getting any longer on the death rows.

References: : Sushil Murmu vs State Of Jharkhand on 12 December, 2003