We have a strange notion of justice. On the one hand, philosophers like John Rawls and our own Amartya Sen, speak of justice in terms of fairness and equality and liberty. But for the ordinary people, justice means punishment for a crime. As long as a crime goes unpunished, we feel there is no justice. The Gandhi family and many leaders asked for Godse to be pardoned but the courts refused to deviate from what was the due verdict for murder. Was that sufficient closure for the nation?
The case of Ajmal Kasab is in the news. For some years now, hanging or not hanging people sentenced to death, has been a political football in India. The Hindutva brigade wants blood and many secularists want pardon, be it for Afzal Guru or for Batla House cases. There is clearly a primeval desire in many of us that a murder ought to be punished by death. An eye for an eye as the Bible enjoins. Of course, the Biblical injunction was an appeal in those more violent days for punishment to be proportional to the crime; only an eye for an eye, nothing more drastic.
How do you punish a person who is capable of multiple murders? You can’t hang him multiple times. A suicide bomber kills himself/herself as s/he kills many others. How do you punish someone who has killed themselves and thus taken the highest punishment possible?
Those who suffered in 9/11 said they felt a closure when Osama Bin Laden was finally killed. But how can that be since their loved ones can never be brought back. The actual perpetrators of the crimes of 9/11 had already died in the attempt. Osama was the inspiration as he himself boasted. But how many more people must the US kill before everyone feels a sense of closure? Osama’s killing was extra-judicial as well as extra-territorial. It was an illegal act. Does the fact that US citizens wished his death condone such an illegal act? Do you punish an illegal act such as 9/11 by another illegal act?
But even if the act is legal, is legality enough? The Nazis had a legal order, which was used to kill millions. Was the act legitimate as well as legal? When Ramachandra killed Shambuka for reading the Vedas despite being a shudra, he was upholding dharma as he understood it but would we today condone such an act? Have we not progressed in terms of the rights of people to have equality before the law and humane treatment?
Eventually, the idea of hanging someone who has killed, is a crude primitive one. India ought to have a debate as many other countries have had on whether capital punishment should be completely banned. As long as you leave ambiguity in the system and allow capital punishment for a reserved list of crimes, the issue will be politicised. Death of an innocent person is a tragedy and it hurts their relations and friends profoundly. But the parallel death of the alleged murderer does not erase that tragedy; it adds one more where the latter’s relatives and friends are hurt. Does Kasab’s mother have no right to feel hurt?
Death is such an asymmetric event—once you are dead, you will never come back—that there can be no proportional punishment for causing it. You may even say that being hanged is an escape compared to a miserable life spent in jail. Why not try that?