Capital punishment: Life is sacred in India, so why did they just hang a man?

Indians protest against the execution of Jakub Memon. EPA/Harish Tyagi

The Hindus, Buddhists and Jains of India are wedded to an idea called Jive Daya. Loosely translated this religious principle calls upon individuals to commit to the protection of all forms of life at any costs. India’s mainstream tradition borrows heavily from this philosophy; plenty of Indians are guided by this precept and their everyday conduct – in private as well as in public – is often organised according to this principle.

Given this degree of commitment to the sanctity of life, unsurprisingly, there was a palpable sense of anguish among many Indians when the state carried out the execution of Yakub Memon a long-term convict on death row. Informed and articulate Indians were quick to term this undertaking a “state-sponsored killing.”

This execution, they stressed, sat ill at ease with India’s religious and cultural heritage and vastly contributed to the erosion of the moral worth of the society.

While this constituency condemns crime, they don’t believe in the Old Testament principle of an eye for an eye, preferring to believe, as Mahatma Gandhi said, that if the society earnestly followed this principle of retributive justice it will lead to the emergence of a country of the blind.

This aversion to the death penalty as a criminal sanction is not the sole preserve of Indian culture or of its population at large. The country’s highest judicial body – the Supreme Court – has always been reluctant to impose capital punishment. It has maintained time and again that death penalty can be carried out only in the “rarest of the rare cases.”

Given such overwhelming religio-cultural and juridical commitment to the sanctity of life, recent instances of the Indian state’s demand for, and execution of, capital punishment appear out of place. India is not consistent when it comes to the enforcement of capital punishment. Its policy direction in this matter is very ambiguous – a halfway house between recognising the sanctity of life and taking it away.

Political expediency

Abandoning the sanctity of life and committing it to the realm of death does not come easy to Indian judicial system. While committed to death penalty, India – unlike the US, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia – rarely executes those in the death row. This can be established by the fact that while 436 death sentences were imposed by various lower courts in the country between 2010 and 2013 an overwhelming majority of these sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. What is more only two out of those 436 convictions were actually hanged.

One of only four death sentences carried out. EPA/Harish Tyagi

Yet the Indian state has carried out capital punishment. Why did the state commit to carry out these two death sentences and not others? The truth is that these were both matters where political expediency dictated that India put to one side its distaste for taking life – matters in which the state had clearly established the convicts’ role in perpetrating acts of terrorism in the country that led to massive loss of life and property.

When it came to matters of national security the state found it hard to follow the principle of non-killing. So it justified the executions by highlighting the sanctity of the nation state and stressed that an affront against that sacrosanct body must not be tolerated.

Sacred life of the nation

By using the narrative of the nation and the sacredness of the state the government successfully pushed forward its argument to uphold taking away life – enabling the judiciary, the political class as well as the general mass to close ranks. In these cases, the narrative runs, the failure to see through the acts of capital punishment would be tantamount to a moral failure on part of the state. Hence the attorney-general Mukul Rohtagi’s comment: “I am glad that the long process has come to an end…justice has prevailed for those who lost their families in the 1993 Mumbai blasts.”

In actual terms, taking away a life provides very little tangible benefit to the victims – or the society at large. There’s no evidence that capital punishment deters others from carrying out such heinous crimes.

So why carry out the hanging? From the perspective of the Indian state, upholding this death penalty was an act of negative utilitarianism – it served a purpose, however inimical to the principles on which Indian society operates.

Such justice may not bring back the lives taken away by the senseless acts of an individual or individuals but at least for the society at large can move on and make peace with itself once it has seen justice being delivered.