ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Of Capital and Other Punishments

K Balagopal THE debate about death penalty is one of the endless debates of modern times. That it is endless is understandable, for there is death at both ends of the argument: the one who is to be killed at the hands of justice has himself killed, usually at the irrigation of his own sense of justice, or (more commonly), injustice. And so every argument about the preciosness, the sacredness or the merely secular right to life can be answered with equal force from the other end. Small wonder then that the argument goes in circles. There are those like V R Krishna Iyer who lakes the consistent stand that all life is precious and nobody nobody at all has the right to take life, lie bases his stand as an abolitionist on this argument (among others). The anti-abolitionist may argue that notwithstanding the consistency of this position, while the state may well heed its reason and desist from hanging murderers, citizens are unlikely to give up killing, and Krishna Iyer's pleas are not going to stop them. So may not the state hang a few of them to deter a few others from killing, and thereby save some lives precious lives in the aggregate? Not that Krishna Iyer has no other arguments left, but he would have to leave the terrain of preciousness of life to continue the debate. Preciousness (spiritual or secular) of life is a meaningful moral value, but it is an inadequate ground for distinguishing the two ends of the argument about capital punishment. The efficacy of execution as a form of punishment then enters the debate. And so we have arguments about the purpose, effect or impact of capital punishment as an act of state. Here the two poles of the argument are less symmetrical and hence the debate is more fruitful. That it is still inconclusive is a reflection of the fact that we would rather not punish anybody at all in the name of justice, for the cruelty that is inherent in punishment, any punishment and not just execution, is at odds with the lofty sense conveyed by the expression Justice, and yet we do realise that we cannot as yet (perhaps for ever) do away with socially inflicted punishment, even if we feel confident enough about our civilisational strength to rule out private revenge as a legitimate response to crime, for then the weak (whether by virtue of social structure or contingent factors) would be at the mercy of the strong. Then, where exactly do we draw the line between just and unjust punishments? How do we ensure a criterion of punishment that will simultaneously be just to the one who has committed the crime (for a signal difference between private revenge and public justice as a response to crime is that the latter must do justice to both sides) and yet leave us with the confidence that by its operation it will ensure that the weak are safe from the depradations of the strong (which is the only rationale - and real one for the existence of a public justice system)? This is not a very easy question to answer.

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