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Why call it “death penalty”; let’s admit that we “kill people” for revenge

Today, a rope was tied around the neck of a human being. The rope was intentionally released to the effect of gravity, so that it could tighten further around that neck. That human being, irrespective of his crimes, felt the noose choke him gradually. He was helpless. He didn’t survive it. A modern 21st century democratic nation had plotted to kill him by taking away his right to live. The revenge was taken, and justice was done. A man was simply removed for his actions.

Why can’t we abolish the practice of legal killing of people, instead of making it more acceptable by calling it “death penalty” and “retribution”?

capital punishmentArgument 1: Nature versus Man

Nature did not tell us what is wrong and what is right. Nature just created us. We created morality as we saw fit. Most moral values and laws in the world – about killing, stealing, raping, and so on – have evolved based on peaceful mutual co-existence. Yet, we take a lot of liberty in what should be legal and what should not be. Killing an animal to please our taste buds is allowed because apparently all we need is to have peace among humans, and murdering only humans should be illegal. Public nudity is illegal, apparently because we have created a society where wearing artificial clothes even when everyone knows what’s beneath, is important – and not doing that, embarrasses others. We cannot make deforestation illegal because we need industrialization; we cannot make industrialization illegal because we believe we need development. Murder is allowed in self-defence, even though it unfairly takes away a human being, and pains his loved ones as much as it would if it were intentional.

I am not debating on any of these topics – I trust the evolution of the society and our values and laws, and I believe they will evolve further – but through these examples, I want to bring notice to the arbitrariness of laws and social values. This arbitrariness is not a bad thing; it only shows that laws and moral values are created by human beings and not by Nature. Human beings can be imperfect, or unsure, or confused, or self-interested. Laws can have their context in history, politics, society, culture, era – all human factors.

Then, why, for such laws and values based on human factors and human motivations, should we have a punishment such as death – which is against the pace of nature? Are our human laws – meant to maintain peace and harmony in society, created based on our needs – as fundamental to life as the laws of nature? Do we, as a race, not have any humility in front of Nature, and rather God, who we so vehemently believe in?

Argument 2: Prison for uniformity in punishment

Five children get killed in a bus accident. The father of one, a very angry man, wants to kill the bus driver right there. The second dad, angrier than the first, wants the bus driver to be hanged publicly. The third one, a more patient and spiritual person, is devastated but holds his composure and files a case and lets the law take its own course. The fourth one, who has a much milder temperament, forgives the man after a couple of weeks, despite all his grief. The fifth one, too violent for humanity, wants to take revenge by doing something similar to the bus driver’s child.

The punishments we want to give criminals who we fall victim to, can be of many kinds for the same crime, based on our personal temperament and impulses. As a society, we have created prisons and fines as tools to provide uniform systematic treatment, without any variety of emotional impulses coming into play. This ensures that a thief who steals the car of a very short-tempered, violent tycoon gets the same punishment as a thief who steals the car of a very mild, peaceful, uncaring sadhu.

Prisons take away a person’s right to freedom – and it’s fair because the person knows beforehand that if he gets caught, his freedom shall be taken away. Death takes away a person’s right to life – and it’s unfair, because one, killing in return is an emotional reaction unfortunately endorsed by the system, and two, the person does not know beforehand whether he will be killed in return or jailed for life if he gets caught.

It is important here to understand the method of imprisoning people as a tool that our society has agreed on to provide uniform justice, ignoring varying emotions within the society. I do not see death as a fair escalation of that tool to address emotions, specially because it’s the ultimate punishment for that man.

Argument 3: Revenge

I shall not use the beautiful term “retribution” to make it justifiable. Revenge is an emotional reaction to a situation, and this is one thing that bothers me most. Revenge is a naturally human emotion which many people feel in several situations. Should this human emotion have consequences that impact what nature wants?

If revenge is the intention of the legal system, we should steal money to punish thieves, and we should injure people to punish them for negligent driving. We might also consider finding what gives the convict the same amount of pain, trouble and harm as the victim had, and then hand him that punishment. What if the convict is suicidal and himself wants to die? What if the convict is a person who does not get affected by six months of prison but might be affected by six years? Do we give punishments based on the temperament of the victim and the accused? No, we don’t: we look at the crime, the impact, the context, and hand over a punishment we think is recommended by the law in the scenario. Revenge does not come in the picture.

Then why do we take revenge in certain cases, by killing the convict?

This goes back to the second argument about prisons being a fair, uniform method to punish crimes.

Argument 4: Does the government even have the moral right to kill, if it didn’t provide everything in the first place?

If a child is brought up in a hostile neighbourhood, didn’t get education because his parents could not afford it, was raised in a family with a lot of violence, did not have a teacher to give me the values for life… if the State was unable to ensure that this child was brought up to be a good citizen, does that State have the right to simply kill this child if he kills a person out of rage on the streets when he is 20 years of age?

The State has zero right to kill if it can’t provide 100% education in the lowermost strata of the society. If you look at those strata closely, many inhuman crimes happen because no one told them what’s human and what’s inhuman. The public wanting to kill a rapist is logical, but the State wanting to hang a rapist, is unfair. Give them all good education, and then let’s talk about it.

Argument 5: Judging human beings? Fair. Giving up on them? Unfair.

Prisons often have the provision of rehabilitating criminals into becoming better citizens when they complete their term. And that is obvious, because if the prisoner comes out with the same mindset, he should rather stay in jail. Rehabilitation is a major goal of punishment.

Killing people for crimes makes an assumption that these people can’t improve and become better citizens. It may often be obvious that a person will never change due to the way he thinks and behaves. But we never know if we can actually find a tool in psychiatry or a highly skilled counsellor who has belief and can indeed help in changing this person over a long period of time. It may not be possible, but as long as it’s plausible, killing as the last resort, is not justified, and too cruel.

Two thousand years ago, we might not have understood dyslexia, and we would hit a child for not being able to learn. Today when we understand it, we do not hit that child. What if, two thousand years later, we come up with a better understanding of anti-social behaviour and we devise methods to change such people?

I will go back to the first argument here: solutions to human problems lie within humans, not in the termination of natural life. Those solutions might not be here yet, but they might come up in decades, centuries… even if those solutions take thousands of years to come, each and every person hanged till then was a blunder. Think of the blunders done by us in the form of killing people for crimes before DNA testing entered forensics. How just is it to assume that we have reached the pinnacle of science and technology, psychology, and social values and righteousness?


This post is not about Yakub Memon. It’s not about a person from a minority group being hanged. It’s not about how heinous the crime is. It’s not about politicizing cases. It’s not about comparisons between mass murderers being given state funerals versus a Muslim being given a death sentence. It’s not about the generous number of mercy pleas heard. It’s not about 22 years. It’s not about hanging a person who actually helped India get access to more information. It’s not about the wrong man being hanged for his brother.

I don’t care about defending Yakub Memon. I have no interest in doing that. The “rarest of the rare” crimes are supposed to be punished with the death sentence, and so if my country’s courts believe a case lies in that category, the punishment recommended must be handed out, even if it’s death.

The problem is, why does the country still have this punishment? Statistics aficionados will criticize death penalty by saying that handing death for murderers hasn’t reduced the number of murders and handing death for rapists hasn’t affected the number of rapes. But are we going to hang them even if it deters crimes?

The fight against capital punishment in this country continues to suffer because they are rarely arguments against capital punishment; more often, they are arguments in favour of the latest person being hanged — specific arguments, instead of humanistic arguments.

1 Response
  • Akhil
    Aug 6, 2015

    Hi Tanay! In the last few weeks, since the time this controversy started I have been keenly thinking about it myself, following the developments & reading every possible viewpoint on this issue. To admit frankly, I saw this post much later. After having read so many opinions, I could categorize them into three types-diplomatic, in favour and against. The problem I found with most of the articles is that did express the idea vociferously, but somehow it didn’t convince me. When I chanced upon your article, I jumped to read it because I know that whatever you write not only has conviction but a deep rooted analysis of the issue. And after reading your viewpoint carefully, it has given me a new way to approach this subject. You are the first person to NOT have used Yakub or anyone else’ example to justify abolition of death penalty. On the contrary, you have laid down a rational explanation on the need to do away with death penalty. What makes the article so powerful is the fact that you haven’t shown any particular bias while penning down your thoughts! Only one slight thing I would like to add is that in point 4 of your analysis, rather than only education, it should also include lack of ‘equal opportunities’ for all-round development & education. This is because education hasn’t exactly to do anything to stopping crime, but the environment around us does have an impact. Once again, must thank you for putting forward an excellent perspective. Have a nice day 🙂

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