Wednesday, July 25, 2007

And the debate goes on..

"Three people have been sentenced to death in the trial of those accused of involvement in the 1993 serial bombings in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay). The court ordered that Pervez Sheikh, Abdul Turq and Mohammed Mushtaq Tarani be hanged for planting bombs in India's financial capital." This is the latest piece of news (taken from the BBC site) involving capital punishment in India.

It reminded me of a discussion I had recently with one of my friends about the logic of having death sentence as a punishment. The basis for that discussion was a book called The Chamber by John Grisham which I had just finished reading. After reading the book, I was pretty averse to the idea of capital punishment as I did not feel it really served any purpose. The people involved in the execution never feel good about it, in fact many of them have been known to get affected from the entire process. One of the questions I had was whether we (society, government, judiciary, etc) had the right to take a life based on our judgment of a person's crime. What gives us the right to kill any person? Isn't a life imprisonment a better and more humane way of punishing a criminal?

Of course, there are enough and more counter-arguments. One of the primary ones is the fact that once a person has committed a heinous crime such as rape and murder or serial killing etc, that person no longer has any right to live. His/her fundamental/human rights shall be forfeit in the larger interest of the society. After all, the victims also had a right to live which was taken forcibly from them by the criminal. The issue of terror is also involved. If we keep terrorists imprisoned rather than executing them, their release can be bargained by fellow terrorists as was seen in the case of Kandahar. Thinking from the position of the victim's family, the one thing they would want is the criminal who has caused them grief to be removed. The society would be a much better place without the criminal. And it is simply not worth it to spend so much of the tax-payer's money to keep that person alive. This site for pro-death penalty provides quite an in-depth analysis of why capital punishment is justified.

Having said all this, I managed to dig up a very interesting section on the subject of death penalty specific to India. The Indian law advocates the use of capital punishment in the "rarest of rare" cases. The argument brought forth in the article is that "Paradoxically, it has arguably been the development of the "rarest of rare" doctrine that has helped the death penalty survive as a form of punishment over the years".

The article also points out that most of the people who are executed are from poor and uneducated backgrounds with inadequate procedural safeguards. It is very difficult for such people to get good legal representation. It goes on to state that "The Constitution of India protects the right to life (Article 21), the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one's life (Article 21), and the right to equal protection by law (Article 14). Capital punishment violates all of these."

The time I spent reading on this topic led me to discover two more interesting articles. Both deal with a specific example - the case of Mohammed Afzal. One which presents simplistic arguments about why he should not be hanged. And the other which is an in-depth analysis of the entire case. The first one is a blog post about why Mohammed Afzal should not be hanged. The main points brought forward are that executing a terrorist would make him a martyr in the eyes of other terrorists and hence not solve the purpose of detracting them. Capital punishment in a way ends up legitimizing the use of violence as a means to the end. Moreover, speedy justice is a more effective tool than capital punishment. (I only question the "justice" part because capital punishment is considered a form of justice).

Specific to the case itself, I found it interesting that Arundhati Roy has actually published a book on this topic. I managed to dig the intro of that book here. It requires free registration with the outlook website. For those who can't be bothered to register there, I have just copied a small piece from that article for reference.

"Even the Supreme Court judgement, with all its flaws of logic and leaps of faith, does not accuse Mohammed Afzal of being the mastermind of the attack. So who was the mastermind? If Mohammed Afzal is hanged, we may never know. But L.K. Advani, Leader of the Opposition, wants him hanged at once. Even a day's delay, he says, is against the national interest. Why? What's the hurry? The man is locked up in a high-security cell on death row.

He's not allowed out of his cell for even five minutes a day. What harm can he do? Talk? Write, perhaps? Surely, (even in L.K. Advani's own narrow interpretation of the term) it's in the national interest not to hang Afzal? At least not until there is an inquiry that reveals what the real story is, and who actually attacked Parliament?"

As you can see, she actually questions the appropriateness of the entire trial to the extent of suggesting a conspiracy theory. However, that is a debate which diverts the attention from the main subject of the post.
So having read all that I did, do I believe capital punishment should be abolished? Yes, for the most part. This was the position with which I had started my argument with my friend. And we had signed off on a note where we decided that we need to do more reading on the topic before arriving at any concrete answers.

However I still feel that capital punishment is not necessarily a deterring factor when the actual crime(s) is/are being committed. If perhaps it can be proved that it is a deterrent, it may be considered as an effective tool. Reasons such as economic ones do not seem as relevant to me because we are talking about someone's life here which really cannot be trivialized by talk of economic issues.
A lot of money is anyway spent on trials and legal procedures as a part of the capital punishment process. Moreover, even the accused has a family. No matter how heinous the crime, I don't think the criminal's family should be made to go through a period of torture and anxiety awaiting the execution. Speaking of the victim's family, there are two fairly recent cases where the family members have requested for the criminal's clemency. One involving the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the other was the brutal murder of Graham Staines and his sons. In both cases, the wife of the victim has requested for clemency. Finally, are we really making the world a better place to live in by executing a few criminals? Does the execution of a Dhananjoy Chatterjee really affect anyone outside the families of the victim and the accused himself? I admit I still do not have any concrete answers yet to these questions as well as the many more running in my mind.

It is worth noting that worldwide 120 countries have abolished the death sentence in law or practice. In a briefing pointing out the recent cases of execution from India, Amnesty International further presses the case for the removal of death penalty. While some of the arguments brought forward seem to me to be tilting in favour of the accused, there is good merit in the arguments overall. They are further substantiated in this article bringing out the legal as well as practical aspects from the Indian angle, and presses for the removal of death penalty as a form of punishment.

With all these thoughts put together in a random and arbitrary way, I would just like to sign off this post with my view that
as a part of civilized society, I believe we should progressively work towards the abolishment of death penalty.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The First Citizen(s)

After an eternity, returning to the blogging world with a slightly changed look for my blog. I suppose I should give my brother due credit for reviving the interest, not that I had lost it but had sort of turned from that direction!

This post is mainly about the biggest news of the day - India has finally elected its first woman president. Ms. Pratibha Patil takes over from Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam as the 13th President of India.

It is sad that a historic moment like this has been mired by petty politics which is quite unbecoming for the post of the first citizen of our country. Even though there have been some proclamations in the media about the first woman president, this has largely been overshadowed by the real "motives" behind Ms. Patil's nomination for the post. However, I do not wish to debate on her qualifications and election. What provoked me to write this piece was my brother's post on Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the outgoing president of India.

Even though I am nowhere near as critical of Dr. APJ as my brother, I would say that some of what he has written has substance. No doubt that Dr. Kalam was a favourite with the general people of India but even his election in 2002 was hardly free from issues. Dr. Kalam's simplicity and his "non-political" background have been cited as refreshing changes in the "corrupt political system". The media has as usual gone overboard with their representation of Dr. Kalam as a middle-class superhero. The numerous forwards asking people to sign petitions for Dr. Kalam's re-election are further reflection to the uninformed nature of public opinion.

Personally, I admit I have always had a soft spot for Dr. APJ, mainly because he was a professor in Anna University for a brief period when I was studying there. But that does not really mean that he is the best president that our country can have or has had. In many ways, it is similar to the brief speculation about Mr. NRN of Infosys for the post of president. Mr. NRN may have his own achievements and credentials, especially in building the software giant Infosys, but the proposition of his candidature for the post of president seemed a little naive to me. Similar to Dr. Kalam, the fact that NRN (as he's called in Infosys) does not have a political history appeals to people who are increasingly disillusioned by the current nature of politics in India. However, I feel that the larger picture of having a suitable person with the right credentials and experience for the post was being ignored in these debates and speculations.

One of the things which I found a little unpleasant as I was reading on this topic was the way the late Mr. KR Narayanan had been depicted by some constituents of what was the NDA when he stepped down from his office. I managed to dig up a piece written by P. Sainath on the late former president. One of the finest presidents of our country, reading about some of his achievements was quite a revelation to me. A simple search on wikipedia helped me find this info about him. I was simply amazed at the length and details of his achievements and contributions to society whether as a parliamentarian, academician, diplomat or president. Even though internet was not as prevalent back then in India as it is now, I could not help wondering whether we would have sent such forwards and requests for his re-election. It also makes me think whether people would ever rise above politics and appreciate such people's achievements rather than have a narrow-minded view of them because of their political background.

Having said all this, I would like to wind up this post by appreciating the significance of the election of India's first woman president and hope that her tenure is remembered for all the right reasons.