India became a witness to a bizarre political drama that played out in Punjab last week, putting the nation at crossroads, forcing us to sit back and ponder upon the frailties of death penalty. Balwant Singh Rajaona, convicted for his role in the assassination of late Chief Minister of the state, Beant Singh, brought the whole state to a standstill. Rajaona had admitted to his guilt, refused any counsel, and accepted death penalty because the state, which could not deliver justice to the victims of communal pogroms, was incapable of meting out justice to him.
The incredibility of the situation was expressed in the shock Supreme Court over Punjab government’s ‘political drama’ over hanging of Rajaona. Not only did the state government succumb to the ‘order’ of Akal Takht to seek clemency for Rajaona, it let law and order situation in the state to be compromised as thousands hit the streets demanding Rajaona’s release from prison. The situation worsened as a protestor was killed in police firing at Gurdaspur.
Death penalty in India has always been a tool for political manoeuvres. Those protesting against Rajaona’s hanging today, were the ones who raised hue and cry when state assembly of Jammu and Kashmir took up the resolution for clemency of Afzal Guru. Be it Punjab, Kashmir or Tamil Nadu, should the legislature (or the executive) have the right to fiddle with a verdict meted out by the judiciary? The law of the land demands a criminal guilty of murder to be hanged. There can be no double standards in looking at the law through different prisms for Rajaona and Guru or Nalini.
The clamour for clemency for Rajaona has also rekindled a debate that was last heard of when Kasab’s fate was to be sealed by Bombay High Court in 2010. The legitimacy of death penalty has been under question for long. The sheer barbarism of the concept that state is empowered enough to take away a life may only chill the bones of the moralists; the issue has consequences far more serious than just humanism.
By giving state the legitimacy to take away a life, we empower fringe elements to assume that it is ‘legal’ for them to take lives, as long as they seem to ‘espouse a cause’. Purpose of justice is to reform a criminal. Keeping a criminal alive in imprisonment can be a bigger vengeance than death. In our quest for closure we seldom remember an eye for an eye makes the world blind. Retributive justice has no place in modern democracies.
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord”, The Holy Bible. Vengeance belongs only to God. The State should never seek to play Him.