By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs 399
Former governor of West Bengal, diplomat, professor of history and politics at the Ashoka University, and student of English literature, Gopalkrishna Gandhi has recently written a book-length essay, published by Aleph Book Company. The essay is titled Abolishing the Death Penalty: Why India Should Say No To Capital Punishment, and deals with the distressing subject of where a state stands when it declares the time of one’s death as a punishment. The book can be approached in two key ways. First via impression: by what it impresses upon the mind and thus evokes within the reader in sentimental terms. Secondly, it can be approached via inference: drawing an understanding from all that Gandhi has put into one essay. Either ways, the one critical statement within the text is, “Birth and death happen; murder is committed” (p.12).
The death penalty has been observed by many thinkers as “judicial murder”, and especially so by the law. But Gandhi turns to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and concludes murder as being nothing other than “a thing most foul”. His work divides itself into varieties as per its form; it can be considered an argument drawn at length, yet not seeming like an argument at all. It can be considered an encyclopedia of murder due to the prolific collection of data over the matter; he reaches with his palms to the writings of George Orwell, Thomas De Quincy and Albert Camus, the paintings on the death of Socrates, the final words of those implicated in the assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, and the ideas of Bhagat Singh which border into political theory. It can also be understood as a congenial expression, in its attempts to reach a certain and stable truth as to what murder can truly imply when decreed by the body of the law.
Abolishing the Death Penalty as a well researched and voraciously analytical essay displays a movement from insight to foresight. From the beginning through the very heart of the text, all information is gathered and then it is observed, studied and analysed by Gandhi until he is able to provide a stable understanding to the reader.
The work is finely divided into chapters where each one tries to hold down a facet over the matter of death penalties and begins with the updated information about those nations which have abolished the death penalty and those nations which still retain it: nations like the USA, India, Pakistan and China. His approach to the matter is much organised, since he tries to treat the available knowledge in terms of its cause and its effect. He explains that the main cases in which the death penalty is carried out are murder and treason/terrorism. The book demarcates that in India the “rarest of rare” crimes deal out the death penalty and that a lot of focus is laid on these cases. The entire process of how the death penalty is carried out and who all, including the President and the government, are involved is clearly explained. Gandhi has put in the meticulous effort of enumerating some of the better-known Presidents of India and how their response has been to the death penalty — President Radhakrishnan was an abolitionist, and so were Kalam and Patil who were disinclined to mete out the death penalty.
Gandhi also shows sensitivity in his essay as he tries to understand the response mechanism of those who are victims or are related to the victims. He tries to wear their shoes and speak out their own woes, like Nirbhaya’s family. He realises the necessary need for retribution, another matter which becomes a key subject for discussion. Through this extended essay, matters like retribution, are not simply understood for their objective reality but also just as well for their psychological scaffolding. The study of retribution gathers much appeal as it takes one further into understanding the conditions of power: the fact that the judicial body carries out the need of a mass which seeks justice and must be pacified. Thus, what Gandhi pays attention to in his essay is his pace; he treads carefully around the quagmire of deep and troubling matters and gives time to assessing his own awareness of various topical issues.
Abolishing the Death Penalty, as a well researched and voraciously analytical essay, displays a movement from insight to foresight. From the beginning through the very heart of the text, all information is gathered and then it is observed, studied and analysed by Gandhi until he is able to provide a stable understanding to the reader. And it is in the final two chapters that he gives us a final word of his position, his grounds for arguing and his prophetic message of India’s choice. Gandhi states that he is a 100% abolitionist and he argues for abolition on grounds of human rights to life, right to self-defense against battery, assault, homicide and murder. He also adds to this a very well argued “plain truth” which is based on the purpose of punishment, he says that one of the purposes of punishment is the experiential outcome of the punishment wherein the criminal is able to learn from the experience of the punishment. This clearly cannot happen in the case of capital punishment since once death takes place there is no space for thought let alone learning. Gandhi makes clear that India shall not turn abolitionist due to one reason only: its sovereignty.
In this work, Gopalkrishna Gandhi has attempted to lay out, for an average reader, the fierce debate over a grave matter, which has been taking place for decades and has a vast history. As we read, the realisation, that there are many who fight for the life of strangers, some of whom are severe criminals, on the grounds of humanity, settles in. A noble endeavor undertaken by Gandhi in this essay makes for a reading full of knowledge and awakening. http://www.sundayguardianlive.com/books/7978-book-review-right-life-and-moral-case-against-death-penalty