Capital Punishment and the Poor

Divisha Gupta, contributing editor, New Delhi, India, September 9, 2004

An Indian protester

An Indian protester in Calcutta on June 26, 2004. (Photo: Deshakalayan Chowdhury/AFP-Getty Images)

“I would like to be reborn as a rich man as justice favours only the rich.”
- Dhananjoy Chatterjee, accused murderer, sentenced to death

Famous last words or a reflection on the state of affairs of the Indian judicial system?

Here is an eye-opener.

According to the Internet edition of Pakistani daily Dawn (centrist), studies show that most of those executed in India are illiterate, poor and vulnerable. The Asian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International said that the death penalty in general and the Indian judicial system in particular are biased against ‘the poor, illiterate and the marginalized.’ The AHRC explicitly states, “The Indian justice system is regressing into feudal practices of retributive punishment delivered by the rich and powerful against the poor and defenseless.”

Dhananjoy Chatterjee's death sentence was, perhaps, the first televised execution in the history of Indian media.

Chatterjee, who was sentenced to death in 1991, for raping and murdering a schoolgirl, Hetal Parekh, was finally hanged on August 14, 2004 after the Supreme Court denied his mercy petition. Through these past 14 years, he served a term in Alipur Jail in Kolkata. The case would have otherwise gone down in history as another Supreme Court ruling, but for the hue and cry raised by the various segments of the media and the civil society.

As a result, what should have been an understated, unpublicized execution became the most talked about verdict in the judicial history of the world’s largest democracy.

The arguments pitted against and in favor of the sentence were equally appalling. There were the human rights activists who strongly condemned the sentence on the grounds of mercy, claiming that since the accused had already served a life imprisonment term, executing him amounted to injustice.

Supporting such groups was a section of the media, which, quite literally ‘participated’ in the killing of the accused.

Twenty-four hour television news channels brought alive the anguish of the accused by streaming live visuals of the accused, his movements and actions, until he was led to the gallows. Those private last moments, which an accused is entitled to, were thrown open to public scrutiny.

It was horrendous to watch people deriving a sadistic pleasure and making a spectacle out of a death sentence. All this, combined with the depiction of the family’s trauma, generated a wave of sympathy among the masses, hence creating a pseudo-celebrity out of Chatterjee.

Senior journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Aug. 29 issue of the Hindustan Times Daily (centrist) – “Many people I know who were supporters of the death penalty suddenly began to have second thoughts as the drama unfolded on the TV channels. They felt as though they themselves were participating in killing a poor man. It was a guilt that many felt they could do without.”

The Aug. 15 issue of the Internet edition of Dawn quoted Chatterjee as saying, “I am reconciled to my hanging. Let me be led respectably to the gallows and not be forced along. I will not resist.” Leading Indian national dailies like The Times of India (conservative), The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express (liberal) devoted columns and columns of print space to Chatterjee’s immediate family, photographs of grieving relatives, among others.

Some of them even went to the extent of interviewing the hangman Nata Mallick and faithfully recorded his feelings before the execution. As Soutik Biswas wrote about the English media in his article in The Hindustan Times, Sept. 1 (centrist) “For insight, they reported that the executioner had passed out after the hanging (he was emotionally wrenched) and also that he had been drinking the night before.” Similarly, the web site (centrist) quoted Mallick as saying “The gallows are ready. I am mentally prepared to hang Dhananjoy.”

This was the state of reportage in some of the prominent media organizations. At the center of the controversy was the debate about capital punishment in India, the specifications for which are still quite gray.

Capital punishment in India is awarded for various crimes including murder, instigating a child's suicide, waging war against the government, acts of terrorism, or a second conviction for drug trafficking.

The report published by Dawn claims that by June 2004, 118 countries decided to do away with capital punishment in law or practice. Of these, 80 abolished it for all crimes, 15 for all but exceptional crimes like war crimes and 23 have it in law but have not practiced it for at least a decade.

According to Amnesty International, the terms of capital punishment in India are not specified beyond the parameters of ‘rarest of rare’ cases. It says, “Since this is not further defined and no clear guidelines exist, it is largely up to individual judges to interpret this phrase in deciding whether to impose a death sentence.”

The argument that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent against heinous crimes is a hollow and baseless one. Studies have revealed that in countries like the U.S. (where the death penalty still holds in certain states), the crime rates have not shown any variation at all.  The argument seems illogical in  light of Sanghvi’s article, which says, “Take the case of Western Europe where most countries have now abolished the death penalty. If the deterrence argument holds, then the murder rate should have gone up once they stopped hanging criminals. In fact, the opposite has happened. In nearly every case, the murder rate has actually come down once the death penalty has been abolished.”

Then, there were some moral arguments that were pitted by the human rights groups. They questioned the authority of the society to take someone’s life.

But again, the premise of this argument can be countered.

If society has no right to take life, then what explains the huge numbers of mercy killings and religious sacrifices, which are still practiced in various parts of the nation? Is that not a violation of a basic human right – the right to live? If innocents are sacrificed at the altar of religion, where lies the logic in defending the perpetrators of atrocious crimes like rape?

Having said that, it is to be confessed that the slow moving judicial system in India is in dire need of some serious lubrication in order to avoid further victimization of those already accused.

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