CAPITAL PUNISHMENT - INDIA’S MUDDLED THINKING ON PUNISHMENT
Not only is the death penalty barbaric and immoral and its deterrent effect unproven, it also contradicts the core objectives of the criminal justice system
Advocating for the abolition of the death penalty in the immediate aftermath of the sentencing in the Delhi rape case may appear morally dubious. What rights do people guilty of so heinous a crime lay claim to, and what do they deserve but death, you might be inclined to ask. But when you apply an immoral law to monstrous criminals, it becomes easier to make comparably iniquitous laws for the rest of us. Capital punishment, perfectly legal as it may be under India’s laws, even if only in a prescriptive sense, runs counter to the core objectives of the criminal justice system. Equally, its application in the “rarest of rare cases”— as mandated by the Supreme Court — speaks to a larger, underlying incoherence in India’s penology.
Today’s debate over capital punishment has its broad genesis in 1764 when the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria, published his treatise, “An Essay on Crimes and Punishments.” In it, Beccaria argued that abolishing the death penalty was crucial to a society’s progress from barbarity to civilised refinement. “Is it not absurd,” he asked, “that the laws, which detect and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?”
Beccaria’s thesis was founded on two central arguments. One, that the objectives of punishment were dual: to deter the future commission of crimes, which the death penalty decidedly did not achieve, and to reform the offenders, which the death penalty decidedly cannot achieve. And two, that the state’s right to take the life of a citizen was illusory, and opposed to the social contract from which it derived its sovereignty.
Beccaria’s assertion at the first level, therefore, comes down to whether capital punishment, by a measure above common...