The issue of the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted for his role in the Mumbai serial blasts in 1993, has again brought to the fore the question of the death penalty. The debate on whether the death penalty serves, or runs contrary to, the purpose the law has been instituted for is now old. Many countries in the world have abolished capital punishment to demonstrate the evolution of law. In the Indian context, where the incompetence of the police, investigative and judicial authorities is part of the criminal justice system, there is always a question mark on whether guilt has been proved beyond reasonable doubt or whether a scapegoat has been made to just close a case. And, therefore even more a case for doing away with capital punishment.
There is also the fact that rank political calculations often determine who is to be hanged and when – the case of Afzal Guru being a stark reminder. Even with Memon, given the fact that others on death row – like Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar or Balwant Singh Rajoana (convicted for attacks on a Congress leader and a former CM of Punjab, respectively) – are allegedly not being hanged due to opposition from Punjab-based parties, the question has already been raised whether communalist considerations are at play in deciding which lives are to be snuffed out.
Given that, would it not make sense for a sustained debate on the death penalty in India, leading to its eventual abolishment? Were one to take the logic of the Indian state itself, for a moment, would it not make sense to avoid inflaming passions such hangings can arouse in various parts and among various communities?
Apart from that, globally, the arguments against capital punishment have ranged from even the economic – studies have been conducted, in the US for example, on whether it is more economical to execute death row prisoners than keep them in prison for life – to the more sensible questions of the ethics of law. The law is not immutable, something ahistorical. It evolves, its interpretations are subjected to examination in every age and era. And, in this age, leaving aside (if one can) the general mayhem and murder that suffuses our lives, there is still room for arguing that by killing an individual by law, a state, and the law it represents, is guilty of the same crime for which it hands out the punishment.