Every time there is a crime in the state that gets the public mood to up their ante, the shout ends at “Capital punishment for ” so and so. The mood and the call was the same in the streets of New Delhi in the immediate aftermath of the Delhi rape case wherein a young paramedical student died after being brutally raped in a moving bus. Historically, capital punishment existed in India right from the era of Kings and rulers and was practiced during the British Rule as well. Manipur as a sovereign kingdom also handed out capital punishment with King Paikhomba who ruled from 1666-1697 handing out the sentence to his subjects who dared to commit even thefts like stealing royal cloths. The spate of violent crimes in the state as we wee today have now revived the public calls on the streets for capital punishment and death by hanging but a 1983 ruling of the Supreme Court of India said that the death penalty should be imposed only in “the rarest of rare cases.” In India, crimes punishable by the death sentence include murder, abetting the suicide of a minor or insane person, gang robbery with murder, waging war against the nation, and abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces. The public rage following the Deli rape case in fact led to an ordinance which calls for the death penalty in cases of rape that leads to death or leaves the victim in a ‘persistent vegetative’ condition. But many have questioned this move since judges would be more prone to give such an extreme sentence, thereby making the legal process even lengthier since a sentence of the penalty is not always followed by execution due to the possibility of commutation to life imprisonment.
Not many are aware that when the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act was passed in 1989, it applied a mandatory death penalty for a second offence of “large scale narcotics trafficking”. Later on 16 June 2011, the Bombay High Court ruled that Section 31A of the NDPS Act, which imposed the mandatory sentence violated Article 21 that enshrines the Fundamental Right to Life of the Constitution and that a second conviction need not be a death penalty, thereby giving judges the discretion to decide and take a call on awarding capital punishment. The advent of terrorism in the country has also seen the imposition of new anti terrorism legislation under which the death penalty has been given to people convicted of terrorist activities. The practice of ‘honour killings’ where couples marrying outside their own castes and class are killed by their own families and community members have also come under the ambit of the “rarest of the rare” category for which the death penalty can be given. With the country still not doing away with capital punishment, it is worth noting that the Supreme Court also recommends for death sentences to be awarded to police officials who commit police brutality in the form of extra judicial encounter killings.
Globally, there have been moves by many countries to ban capital punishment with the United Nations General Assembly stepping in, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in December 2007. India, however voted against it and in November 2012 again voted against the UN General Assembly draft resolution seeking to ban death penalty. The many countries that have done away with capital punishment have done so by arguing that it is an inhumane sentence and violates the very fundamental and basic right human right: that of the right to life. Those who oppose doing away with capital punishment take the stand that those who commit violent crimes must get the most severe punishment so that it serves as a reminder to others. Many others argue that keeping criminals alive and feeding on public money after they have committed crimes is not fair and that they should be handed the death sentence. Yet, there is no strong evidence the world over that details the threat of death as punishment working as a deterrent to crimes. So far, only 140 countries of the world have abolished capital punishment in law and practice. Even as the debate rages on over Capital punishment and whether it should be removed and why, there is one basic and simple truth: prevention is better than cure. Capital punishment in any case has never proved to be cure for social crimes so perhaps, it is time there is a serious look at what can be the ways and means of preventing crimes. Easier said than done but a beginning will have to be made.