Gayathri Sankar: On Capital Punishment

31 July 2015

In class today we discussed capital punishment, and I was beyond distressed when a large portion of students, including half of my closest friends, supported it.

My cousin Meera and I went on a walk with the dog (who appears to have no opinion on the matter), and I managed to gather my thoughts enough to write them down a while later. I also realised I had been too heated and involved in the matter to debate it properly, but am not anymore. So, here are the reasons why I do not approve of capital punishment.

First, I would like to establish some facts:

  • Capital punishment does not deter people from committing heinous crimes any more than prison does.
  • Capital punishment is more expensive than giving a criminal lifelong imprisonment.
  • Four percent of people facing capital punishment (specifically in the USA) have been wrongfully convicted.
  • Capital punishment is now being used not only on rapists and murderers, but also on people involved in cases of criminal conspiracies, which raises questions as to what precisely a ‘heinous crime’ is.

Once I explain this to a person, the usual argument presented is:

“Are you content to allow rapists and murderers who have violated somebody’s fundamental rights to live, because you don’t want to violate theirs?”

The question, framed in that manner, almost demands that I reply in the negative, but I shall go out on a limb and tell you my answer – yes, yes I am. But I do have my reasons.

  • Tit for tat is not the answer.

This argument, I have noticed, is met by immediate ridicule (and it does not help my case that I am a firm believer in most Gandhian principles, principles that are increasingly being viewed as simplistic).

‘An eye for an eye makes the world go blind’ is something children are told to prevent scraps in the playground—it is not a statement used to prevent inter-communal, political or religious fights, not if one wishes to be taken seriously. And yet, particularly when it comes to these issues, I’ve noticed that adults become increasingly like children. Because when it comes to these issues we tend to get personal and child-like. If you attempt to convince me that the Hindu-Muslim riots were carried out by mature, rationally thinking adults then this argument is as good as over. Which is why I will relentlessly spring my idea that “violence is not the answer” on you, however naïve I may be considered for it, because if you look at it from my point of view, it’s those who disagree with the concept who are truly naïve. Violence from what I’ve observed is inherently childish and it is not simplistic or idealistic to believe that it is not a solution.

Which is also why I do believe an argument essentially based on the concept of revenge is irrational, that killing a man who killed someone else—to prove that killing is wrong—is illogical.

  • Misplaced empathy

When the Nirbhaya case first came up the responses were passionate and heated, which was gratifying, but they were also occasionally very worrying: “The rapists should be castrated, they should have their fingers torn off, they should be tortured…” and so on.

At first I agreed, too overcome with despair for humanity to say otherwise. Then I reminded myself that if I wanted to stay sane in human society I’d have to accustom myself to incidents as terribly inhuman as this one. This is not to say I’d have to accept it; that making a change isn’t an option. In fact, I’d say, it’s precisely the opposite. The moment you react with something as barbaric as the sentences above, the moment you make acts like that acceptable, that’s when you take a step back from the civilised, from any kind of progress.

When I agreed with those things I felt like it was showing how truly affected I was by the case, almost a form of expressing empathy – this is such a terrible thing to happen, how could one not react in that manner? But that empathy, I realise now is the wrong kind, because it’s terribly misplaced. It’s the root of any overly radical movement, when you feel so strongly that you cross a line somewhere, between what is acceptable and what is not.

And when you cross that line then people, if anything, are more likely to take you less seriously, because your rationality is as far out the window as the person committing the crime.

It’s not easy keeping a calm head when you hear stories like that, but I promise it makes you no less sensitive if you do. It shows no less sadness or sympathy when you express yourself through measured, refined words as it does when you spew threats.

  • Thinking for one’s self

Something I noticed in the case of my friends is that each and every one of us appeared to mirror the judgment of our parents, myself included. While I like to believe that we’re all objective in our opinions, it seemed like too much of a coincidence.

And so I thought about the Yakub Memon case, the one that triggered all of this, as thoroughly as I could, from every vantage point that I could, to form what I hoped would be an unbiased opinion. I still hold the opinion I did in the beginning, for reasons not only related to the sanctity of capital punishment but many other factors included.

Our opinions are always coloured to a certain extent, by what we hear around us when we are growing up. I’d like to imagine we can shed those influences, not allow oneself to just accept them uncritically. Don’t be pulled by one argument and then another, don’t let the media tug you in different directions with contradicting stories.

Meera told me about her obsession with a man who possibly possessed more conviction in what he believed to be right than any other in the history of the world. “Hitler must have possessed absolutely unfaltering faith in what he supported,” she said, “if he was able to advocate the death of millions of people without any remorse. What does that tell you about the working of his mind?”

Hitler is just an example (possibly the greatest one) of how absolutely dangerous an inflexible opinion can be. And so I request everyone to occasionally question themselves. Research what you discuss, formulate opinions based solely on what you believe to be right, but don’t make those opinions absolutely inflexible either.

I’ll admit that my friends and I belong to one of the most privileged sections of society, attend one of the best schools in Delhi. In spite of our protected lives, completely unharmed by criminals, some of us still advocate the most violent of punishments to be inflicted on criminals. Can any of us understand the compulsions and behavioural impulses of most of these criminals? Don’t misunderstand me, it isn’t even a question of justifying their crimes, but it is a question of taking a poke at the relatively comfortable bubble most of us reside in.

Can one unlearn one’s own beliefs? Well, it’s time we at least gave it a try. The next time you start off something with “I believe…”, PAUSE. Think of what you believe in; why you believe in it. How you came to believe it. Ninety percent will end up holding on their beliefs even more strongly. Why? Because the ego is a competent warrior and it knows only to kill anything that threatens the stability of your consciousness. The ten percent who dare to poke a hole most probably will find themselves in an abysmal void. Let’s dare to create some voids within us, for we have long been a-voiding them.

Gayathri Sankar is fifteen years old and a student of Class XI of Mothers International School, New Delhi.

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