Published: March 3, 2014

Humein kya bura tha marna, agar ek baar hotaa?

India’s farcical death penalty debate just got funnier. The Indian Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of 15 people into a life sentence. It reasoned that since the Ministry of Home Affairs and the president of India took years to decide to not decide on these cases, these 15 people suffered huge mental agony. To live every day wondering if you’ll live or die, hanged or spared, sent to suffer in hell or the next world, or continue to suffer in jail, is punishment enough.

I find this very bizarre. The honourable judges actually think that to live between life and death is worse than hanging a human being alive?

More people die in ‘custodial killings’ and ‘fake encounters’ — euphemism for murder by the police — than are granted death penalty. But in this great Republic of India, the continuing bureaucratic-judicial ritual of the death penalty is like a sitcom. I follow it keenly, with disgust and dark humour. It’s bad enough that the Indian government and the Supreme Court and the Constitution of India think the state has the right to take away my life. Worse, they think they should take away my life if I take away other people’s lives, because, you know, murder for murder helps explain people that murder is wrong. Why not abolish the death penaltycompletely? Why let it be a political tool in the hands of cynical politicians? The so-called ‘rarest of rare cases’ are no longer that rare anyway. Repeated rape, multiple murders, terrorism — all banal in our times.

It gets better. The honourable Supreme Court came down heavily on the government about why it was sitting on the mercy petitions of these convicts, and that the Supreme Court must defend the right to life of people it had sentenced to death! The right to life is enshrined in the Indian Constitution, and the Supreme Court, its judges said, was the enforcer of such fundamental rights and the final interpreter of the Constitution. The same Supreme Court had recently decided that it did not have the responsibility to defend the fundamental rights of sexual minorities that should be left to the majoritarian government.

The honourable Court also said that mental ill-health is another ground on which the government can’t hang a death row convict. You know, the merciful Indian state works in a long drawn-out fashion. First, you put a man on death row. This drives him insane. Then the Ministry of Home Affairs forgets to tell the president that the man is insane or schizophrenic. The then Supreme Court rules he can’t be hanged because of mental ill-health. How can we hang a madman for something he did when he was sane?

In the case of a woman named Sonia, it ruled that she had even attempted suicide and this became a mitigating factor. You know, you irresponsible murderers and terrorists of India, it is okay for the state to hang you but you dare not kill yourself before the state decides to complete its ritual on your mercy petition. Attempting suicide is illegal in this country; judicial murder by hanging rope is Constitutional. Wah!

The Court also laid down several guidelines, one of which says that a death row inmate should be told 14 days in advance that s/he will be hanged so that s/he can “prepare himself mentally for the execution”, apart from preparing his will and settling “other earthly affairs” (what could those be? Like saying sorry to partners you dumped?) What if the 14-day mental preparation to die drives the convict insane? The Court has also directed regular mental health evaluation to take care of that.

Lastly, post-mortem is a must, because it needs to be revealed “whether the prisoner died as a result of the dislocation of the cervical vertebrate or by strangulation”. Post-mortem, said the judges, would ensure a just, fair and reasonable procedure of judicial murder. The idea is that dislocation of the cervical vertebrate is instant death, whereas strangulation is slow and torturous. Am I the only one who finds it hilarious that the courts worry so much about the procedure of killing?

Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2014.


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