Death Penalty: Rise of the Bloodthirsty Indian

It's not the quantum of punishment that matters - it's the CERTAINTY of punishment

It’s not the quantum of punishment that matters – it’s the CERTAINTY of punishment
creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by e_monk:

It’s about time the government initiated the process for removing the death penalty. As it is, India hardly executes anyone. The courts rarely hand down death sentences and when they do, higher courts tend to invalidate them. And even if those go through, there’s a tortuous process of appeals and the President sits on the paperwork for years upon years leaving the whole thing in limbo. It’s a pretty ridiculous situation – not to mention that the death penalty is one of the stupidest deterrents for crime. At least in India. When criminals are sure that the victim will not register an FIR in the first place, or when the police themselves refuse to register them even when required to do so by law, you think any potential law breaker is worried about the death penalty?

And yet, just take a look at the comments on the TOI article in the first link. Don’t get me wrong – comments on a news website (and TOI comments in particular) are usually a cesspool of vitriol. But I enjoy reading them if for nothing else, than to get an idea of how certain types of people think. Without exception, the comments on that article favor the death penalty. And many of them want to go beyond that for more innovative and barbaric punishments.

Don’t they realize that our justice system is flawed at the very beginning instead of the end? We need police reforms, a better handling of cases at the ground level, more accurate registration of crimes and a proper follow up. We need a separation of the investigative arm and the police wing. We require a complete separation of politics and the police force. We need more policemen, more courts, better pay for the men in uniform, and better training. India has one of the worst proportions of police officers and judges to the population in the world. What are we doing about that?

But these are all difficult changes. Far easier to bay for the death penalty which is so ineffective as a deterrent so as to be almost non existent. I don’t know – maybe it fulfills some primal need for vengeance to have the death sentence on the books. There clearly seems to be a huge disconnect between rational people in India – those who recognize that the death penalty is an anachronism – and those who want us to revert to the barbarity and brutality of the middle ages.

The world as a whole is growing more and more intolerant to crime in general. People often forget that compared to the ancient world, we’re living in a period where crime is at an all time low. And we have achieved this despite doing away with barbaric punishments like chopping off people’s hands, hanging them in front of cheering crowds, and with all other kinds of delightfully innovative tortures. Where then is the correlation between brutality by the law and lower crime rates? There is none!

I’ve talked about it several times before – what works is certainty of punishment, and not how barbaric it is. We already have a scalable penalty system involving jail time and money, both of which can be extended indefinitely. It works well enough. The problem India faces is that criminals are not afraid of getting caught in the first place. Rioters burn and damage public property with impunity, secure in the knowledge that their political bosses will protect them. You think any of them give a damn about jail time?

We need deep and systemic reforms in our justice delivery mechanism. Right from the first contact with the police, to appearances in court, as well as the sheer time and effort necessary to pursue even the most trivial of cases. There’s no shortcut, and no getting away from the hard work we need to do. Forget about the death penalty. It’s just an added burden. A distraction. And one which also serves to clog up our justice system.

What do you think of this post?
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  1. While i agree with most of the points you have made in the post, do you really think increasing the power
    and the numbers of the police force is a good idea… In India of all places??? hundreds of people are arrested for victim-less crimes such as smoking marijuana or gambling in the privacy of one’s(full disclosure- this includes my friends and I) whereas people who riot and damage public property and people who issue legitimate death threats to writers are usually not even arrested(as you mentioned in your post). rather than increasing the power of the police don’t you think the laws should be radically changed to reflect individual freedom and the police should be regulated better… i shudder to think of what would happen if the police are given complete autonomy(i’m not very sure exactly what police reforms you’re suggesting, but i do think that indian police officials are completely unregulated and often use the kind of excessive force that would get them a prison sentence in western countries).
    The problem is that while most people in India demand economic development and hand-outs and harsher sentences for rapists and terrorists, most people won’t stand up for individual freedoms


    • In reply to csn

      On paper, India has almost as much freedom as any western country. The problem is that the police force is politicized and the justice system takes too long. The police interfere with writers and all at the behest of their political masters. I can’t believe that an overburdened police force actually cares to waste their time with trivial matters.

      If the system works well, the justice system is a good enough mechanism for regulating the police force. In my opinion, if we fix the systemic problems plaguing the courts being understaffed, we would have gone a long way towards curbing police abuse.


      • In reply to bhagwad

        I definitely think that some sweeping changes have to be made to the judiciary… Some effort should be made to reduce the backlog and make the courts a more viable option for the general public…
        IMHO From a legal standpoint we’re still decades behind the west in terms of individual freedom, as is reflected in the laws on homosexuality and the restriction placed on individual sex lives, the drug laws, the free speech laws, invasion of privacy, etc. Combine this with the rampant increase in moral policing, no guarantee of safety(for both men and women), and cops acting on political mandates, from a practical standpoint, we fall somewhere between the west and the middle east on the freedom spectrum…
        I know you have a rule against personal comments on your blog, so I apologize in advance if this sounds confrontational, but I’ve read your opinions in your blogs and comments(admittedly not all) but my impression has been that you’re big on freedom of expression, which surprises me about you’re comment that we’re at the same level as the west on individual freedom… Can you imagine political commentator like Jon Stewart or bill Maher or john oliver in india … Or television shows like south park…


      • In reply to csn

        There’s no doubt that the US has the highest amount of freedom of expression in the world. Most European countries don’t even come close. I never said that India is at the same level as a Western country – I said almost. We have a long way to go as far as individual freedoms are concerned.

        Nonetheless, I feel that the basics of our Constitution are strong. And that is why we need a good judicial system to defend it. Otherwise, politicians make laws that go against the Constitution and there’s very little we can do about it.


  2. “what works is certainty of punishment, and not how barbaric it is.”

    This is what our system needs to understand and implement.


    • In reply to Rekha

      The first step is for politicians to give up total control of the police force. Only then can we start to ensure that the law treats everyone equally.


  3. I am against capital punishment.

    I think a lot of people who support the death penalty don’t just see it as a deterrent but also as vengeance.

    Also, life in prison should mean life in prison not 12 or 14 years.


  4. Bhagwad,
    I agree with your reasons, I just don’t fully agree with your conclusion.
    I would agree that there are good reasons for retaining Death Penalty as an option, though to be rarely used.

    We are afraid that Death Penalty being a tool for mob-justice. That is a reason for restrain, not for abolition. Courts are disinclined to use Death penalty and for a good reason. But, should they have the option. Yes.

    1. Not all criminals are alike. Some people do suffer from serious psychological ailments. It is a huge burden on society to (a.) to treat them sufficiently well and (b.) safeguard the innocent from these people.

    2. There are repeat offenders. Some criminals do not have a sense of proportion, and do indulge in heinous crimes. Not that they are not worried about the certainty of punishment, they just simply do not care or they cannot control themselves. They are dangerous for other inmates too.

    3. Prison term, though looks easy on paper, is a huge administrative challenge. It doesn’t come free. There is a huge cost of this on society. We would be feeding a roughened criminal, who if let loose will kill others, and if is in jail will consume scarce resources, which could be invested in reforming more petty criminals. When I say “resources”, many would jump to say we should not kill due to lack of resources. But, whether you like it not every Rupee spent on a criminal, is a Rupee taken away from some other use. Imagine you had just enough money to (a.) Save an innocent 10 year old suffering from heart-disease or (b.) Save a criminal who heartlessly killed 5 people. What would you choose ? Just because Government is making this choice, doesn’t mean we can hope for miracles of both (a.) and (b.) happening.

    The question is “Is there a very high probability of person committing a serious offence, if let free”?

    4. Further, there are anti national activities., like the recent 26/11 attacks. The truly practical action to take is to issue a swift Death Penalty for such cases. Any leniency in such cases is dangerous to the safety of millions of individuals, and should not be looked at sympathetically. We all may be well-intentioned and have hearts soft as cheese… but there is ample evidence that in an act of war it is difficult to give reason at gun-point.

    We all can go down the rabbit-hole discussing what social causes result in crime, what education and moral values society should instill, or what police reforms should be etc.., finally, at the end, we have to make ONE decision., on what to do with a criminal.

    If the cost of ensuring that this criminal lives, is a life of another person (even if the other person is another inmate in jail), I would recommend Death Penalty.


  5. I do not agree that death penalty does not work as a deterrent. I know at least one person, on whom it is working as a deterrent, and that person is me. I cannot comment on others. If I know I am going to live, I am not going to stop myself from killing the person I want to kill.
    From very early childhood, we are taught that murder is wrong. The fact that there is a punishment for murder is an indicator enough to remind a person that it is wrong. When a person is getting that reminder for 18/20/30/40/N years, and yet chooses to commit murder, I do not know how that person deserves to live; unless it is a case like film actress Charlize Theron’s mother who killed her hubby in self defense, or the mob of women who killed Akku Yadav who were getting absolutely no justice from anywhere.
    A man in my mother’s village’s neighbouring village had killed his daughter for marrying outside the caste. The hearing of the case dragged for 9 years and after the court’s decision, the man was kept in jail for another 10 years. Freed after 19 years, he is treated as a celebrity in his home & community members. I must say, that man is not a reformed man after the 19 years of jail, given that he is boasting about saving his family & community’s “honour”(note the quotes).
    Death penalty is not revenge, it is justice. Though I agree that capital punishment should be only for murders with rock solid proofs against the accused.