Death penalty must be banished

The sharp spike in death sentences handed out by the lower judiciary in India is deeply distressing. According to a study, ‘Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics 2016,’ which was carried out by the Delhi-based National Law University’s Centre on the Death Penalty, 136 people were sentenced to death by sessions courts last year compared to 70 the previous year. This is a matter of grave concern for several reasons. For one, the number of death sentences awarded by local courts last year was almost double that handed out the previous year. It was also way above the average number (119) awarded in the preceding 15 years.

Additionally, sessions courts appear to be not following due procedure or Supreme Court orders in awarding the death penalty. The apex court had laid down that the death sentence be awarded only in the “rarest of rare” cases. They were to be the exception, not the norm, it had said. But the number of death penalties awarded in India indicates that it is hardly rare. Importantly, the Supreme Court had in 2015 ordered that death sentences should not be issued in haste, secrecy or before the accused has exhausted all legal options. But in 2015, sessions courts awarded five death sentences although the accused had not exhausted their legal options. Its flagrant disregard for apex court orders is troubling. The death sentence is a serious penalty but our lower courts in particular are dispensing it without giving it adequate thought.

A silver lining in an otherwise disturbing report is the fact that India’s higher courts overturned most of the death penalties and are doing so with increasing vigour. In 2016, high courts commuted the death sentences of 44 people compared to 15 in 2015 while the Supreme Court did so for seven people as against one the previous year.

While the higher judiciary deserves applause for undoing the damage done by sessions courts, this is cold comfort. It is time India did away with the death penalty as it is inhumane and based on a flawed belief that taking away the life of a convict is justice that will bring closure to victims and that it can deter others from committing serious crimes. But there is little hard evidence to support such beliefs.

Besides, it goes against the idea that human beings, even those who commit horrific crimes, are capable of reform. Several countries have done away with death penalty. Sadly, India is not among them. Instead of doing away with the death penalty in toto, Indian courts, especially at lower levels, are embracing it with increasing enthusiasm. This vengeful outlook reflects poorly on our society.

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