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Is life imprisonment a more humane way of killing?
Is death penalty, the only justice that could satisfy the family of a victim and society at large? Currently, these issues are being debated. Listening to both sides of the story will convince you that there is more to it than meets the eyes.
THERE IS a saying which goes like this: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”


Nobody is perfect; each one of us makes errors in life. But what matters is the degree of error. To forgive is not easy no doubt; but it is a heavenly quality that descends on us from heaven. Our society must realise this and give an opportunity to criminals to repent for their mistakes and work on reforming themselves.


The celebrated film director Mrinal Sen told the Frontline magazine, “I have always been against capital punishment. The death penalty is a cruel and brutal practice. Let the criminal be punished for the rest of his life for what he has done. But brutality is not the answer to brutality.”


Dhananjoy Chattarjee was hanged for the rape and murder of a defenceless school girl. The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence pronounced by the lower court and majority of people agreed. At the same time, we should take into account the enormity and the gravity of criminality. Everyone has a different point of view. There is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, when majority says ‘yes’ to a particular thing, then it becomes the right thing.


Is death penalty, the only justice that could satisfy the family of a victim and society at large? Currently, these issues are being debated. Listening to both sides of the story will convince you that there is more to the story than meets the eyes.


Talking about capital punishment, writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi says, “You cannot bring down crime rate by awarding capital punishment.” She feels that Dhananjoy should have been given an opportunity to reform himself. Life imprisonment would have provided the chance that Dhananjoy wanted. It is a requisite that we should consider justice for the victim and victim’s loved ones.


Even though several human rights organisations and non governmental organisations protested against death sentence and petitioned the governor and president for commutation of the sentence, there were an equal number of outraged citizens who feel that the rapist killer deserves to be hanged.


Is it not ‘revenge’ disguised itself as ‘justice’? Apart from the victim’s relatives, it’s the society which wants the criminal to be punished. Society thinks that it is de rigueur not to let him go unpunished. If the society thinks that revenge will be the solution to criminality, then why are courts trying to find a more “humane method” with which to kill?


Revenge is a kind of wild justice. The execution must be as quick as possible. A delayed judgment is not only a denied justice to the victim but also a raison d’être for many problems both mentally and physically for the criminal as well.


When one becomes frightened, many physical changes occur within the body – when the danger is more psychological rather than physical, fear can force to take self protective measures. Prior knowing that one is going to meet his maker will change his appearance and body language. This feeling itself will veer him to death.


Another point of worry regarding such execution is the impact it creates in the society. It was evident in the case of Dhananjoy. Thanks to the visual media hype given to the hanging, he was portrayed as a national hero who ultimately led to the loss of two young children’s lives. While enacting the hanging incident without knowing its ramification, two students who have not even entered their teens, lost their lives in full view of their siblings. No doubt the utter disregard for social concern of the media is the cause for the pathetic incident. But still the law which permits capital punishment for the individuals who commit heinous crimes, has no such provision to punish the media for their slipshod attitude towards the society.


Several countries have abolished death sentence. India is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that required a progression towards abolition of death penalty. Nearly 120 countries have signed the statute creating the International Criminal Court (ICC) which has repudiated the death sentence as a punishment for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In all systems of justice, mistakes are inevitable. Mistakes can be rectified but death cannot. It is a glum way to end criminality. In fact, such a kind of judgment cannot bid adieu to criminality.


Many countries have taken steps to abolish capital punishment. It helps the victim to realise and reform himself. In 1989, only three states namely, Costa Rica, San Marino and Venezuela abolished the death penalty for all crimes. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, at that time the number was only eight. Later in 1978 the number rose to nineteen. The Russian minister of justice stated that the Russian federation would abolish the death penalty by April 1999.


By the decline of 1998, around 67 countries had abolished the capital punishment for all crimes. Then about 14 countries abolished the capital punishment for all offences except war crimes. Jamaica, Guyana, Yemen, Trinidad and Tobago have withdrawn from optional protocol to the ICCPR. Some countries have taken necessary steps to speed up the execution.


Taking one’s own life ie suicide is an offence and then who has the right to take other man’s life? Are the human rights not violated then? In a way poverty does also matter to some extent. In order to defend oneself in court, one should be affluent to have the benefit of a competent lawyer.


We have been forgiven many more times than we remember – both by God and by people. Isn’t it logical that we in turn need to be at least generous in punishing if not to forgive a few hurts?


When Lincoln learned of the death sentence to a 14-year-old boy, he wrote to Starton, secretary of war, “My dear sir, hadn’t we better spank this drummer boy and send him back home?” From this anecdote, it is coherent that even the great people are against death penalty.


Let us not confuse forgiving with forgetting. Forgiveness does not imply letting others exploit us or walk over us. It does not amount to tolerating injustice or being passive in front of evil. We must be a paradox against injustice in every form and do our part to fight it. Once Gandhiji said, “As long as I was a coward, I never understand non violence.” He saw more clearly than most of us that ahimsa – an active, forgiving love – is the law of human beings, just as violence and revenge are the norm for beast.


It is very easy to urge people to hatred and violence. The real challenge is to help people to love and to forgive. This is what sustains and heals us. An alternative always exists to the death penalty. If we keep that path, we discover little by little the sacrosanct that lies buried beneath ashes of our frailty. Gandhiji rightly said, “An eye for an eye would leave the whole world blind.”
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