No More Death Sentence, Please: Avijit Pathak

Mainstream Weekly | November 2006

From Mohammed Afzal to Santosh Kumar Singh—death sentence is becoming yet another routine event in our society. This is not surprising. From patriarchal domination to terrorist nightmare—we find ourselves amidst a culture in which rape, murder and mass killing have become all-pervasive. No wonder, all those who have suffered—those who have experienced the trauma, and lost their dear ones—strive for justice. Capital punishment, therefore, appears like a bold assertion: society would by no means tolerate a terrorist or a murderer/rapist, and by hanging him it would give justice to the victims, and restore our faith in the judiciary. ‘The verdict,’ as Priyadarshini Mattoo’s father said, ‘would act as a deterrent to others who might try to attempt similar actions.’ Yes, herein lies the central argument put forward by the proponents of capital punishment. It is asserted that a disciplinary society is one that, far from hesitating and compromising, exercises the power to hang. Because, as it is argued, relatively milder forms of punishment may prove to be an act of utter callousness, particularly at a time when terrorists are conspiring from everywhere and rapists/murderers are all around. Death penalty is inevitable; it is like legitimate war against the neurotic or the sado-masochist!

death penalty is not justiceWhile the anguish of the victims needs to be understood with absolute empathy, it is also important to realise that at a deeper level capital punishment reveals a sense of defeat—a temper of pessimism. It is like coming to a conclusion that it is simply impossible for a criminal to alter himself, and initiate a new life project. It is like thinking that there is no hope anywhere, and as a community we are incapable of making a criminal realise his own mistakes, and showing him a new possibility. In this sense death sentence is not just a final judgment on the criminal; it is also a judgment on our own failure: how incapable we are to visualise a solution except the complete eradication of the physical body of the fallen one. Capital punishment is essentially reactive. Engaging in an act of communion with the complexity of human personality is not its goal. Instead, it remains confined to a standardised/routinised/instant response: legitimate violence is the most appropriate answer to illegitimate violence! Yes, hanging a person is not fundamentally different from an act of murder: an act legitimated by the discourse of judiciary, executed by the state, celebrated by the larger society, and propagated through newspapers and television channels. The logic of violence is by no means transcended.

It is in this context that we need to reflect on human possibilities. Even if, as Freud and Nietzsche would have argued, we are being driven by the ‘will to power’—the power to dominate over others, there is also another possibility which, if nurtured, can unfold itself: the urge to love, share, surrender and sacrifice. As a matter of fact, spiritual revelations all over the world have often spoken of the divine innate in man. Beneath a sinner lies a saint waiting to be born. This faith is an integral component of the ethos of forgiveness—forgiveness not as cowardly escape from the ugliness of the world, but as a creative engagement to overcome it. This deep-rooted human concern leads to what I would regard as punishment with its therapeutic message.

Yes, to begin with, a murderer or a terrorist needs to be isolated from the everyday rhythm of our life. This confinement—or deprivation of normal likes and dislikes, and joys and sorrows—is a price to be paid, or an occasion to undergo a process of self-introspection, and realise the damage one has done to the world and to oneself. But then, the period of confinement can also be seen as a new beginning. At this juncture, it becomes imperative on the part of the finest minds of our society to take the criminal to yet another realm of human possibility: say, how one plants and nurtures a tree, how one nurses and heals the sick and wounded, and how people evolve solidarity and brotherhood to do noble things. In other words, a prison is not merely a site of confinement kept under perpetual surveillance by wardens and police superintendents; it is also a place of learning where educationists, spiritualists and revolutionaries come, interact with the fallen ones, and make them see other possibilities in life. And only when remarkable changes take place in their life-projects, they can be brought back to everyday normal world.

Yes, there is always a danger that this experiment may fail, and he may return to the same criminal actions. But then, there is also a possibility that a flower might bloom. After all, we have to choose between these two visions of the world: one based on violence, fear, mistrust and instant solution, and another on human trust, patience and hope.