Those convicted of capital crime must spend their lives behind bars.
For quite some time now, there has been raging deliberation over the fate of three men accused of murdering a former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, in the early 1990s. The three, Sriharan or Murugan, Perarivalan and Suthendraraja or Santhan, were to have faced the noose years ago, but they did not – since their appeals for presidential mercy were pending.
(The three men were part of Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which for three decades and more fought the Sri Lankan army. The Tigers were demanding a separate homeland for Tamils within the island nation, dominated as it was by the majority Sinhala community.
Prabhakaran and his men were angry with Gandhi for having sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force to try and help the Sri Lankan army fight the rebel Tamil forces. )
The Supreme Court decided the other day that since these convicts had been on the death row for a long time, their sentences should be commuted to life imprisonments.
As soon as the Supreme Court order came, the Tamil Nadu government, known to be pro-Tamil rather than pro-Sinhala, decided to free not just the three men but also four others serving life terms in a state jail. The four were part of the Gandhi assassination conspiracy.
However, the apex court immediately restrained the Tamil Nadu government from releasing the seven.
While I have always been advocating abolition of capital punishment, I think it is imperative that a life sentence should be for life – and not for 12 or 14 years as has been the usual practice. Though the law itself does not support this shorter incarceration.
The world over, more and more countries are doing away with gallows – which is of course barbaric, a practice that smacks of the dark middle ages and is nothing short of state-sponsored murder. After all, an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth is not the way a civil society ought to think. Or behave.
Also, tens and tens of surveys have found that death sentence does not deter capital crime. It cannot prevent a crime of passion.
Besides, mistakes are possible. Even in the USA with its strict judicial systems, many people have escaped the noose in the nick of time. Some innocent men have been actually executed.
In India, with its acute economic disparity, with its caste as well as communal divides and with questionable policing, it is plausible that an innocent man or woman would be led to gallows.
An American Supreme Court judge once famously remarked that capital punishment is for those without capital. And convictions among poorer blacks have been more common there than among richer whites.
Finally, there are no two ways about the noose. It must not be used. But those convicted of capital crime must spend their lives behind bars.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]