[At The Heart Of It] No civilised society should have a place for death penalty


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Last week, a district court in Saket handed out the death penalty to the four remaining rapists in the Nirbhaya case. There can be no doubt that one wanted extremely harsh and quick punishment for these rapists. Given the pace at which most cases move in India, including rape cases, this one has moved at a reassuringly fast pace. But there is a widespread glee with which the death penalty was received by people at large, including the media, which is deeply disturbing. Speaking for a large range of woman activists and certainly for myself, I believe that any civilised society can have no place for the death penalty.

There are many issues surrounding the death penalty. There is an ethical and moral issue, there is the issue of efficacy and there is the issue of human error. In so far as the moral and ethical issue goes, if we believe that there should not be violence done to anybody’s body, how can we accrue to ourselves or to any institution of a democratic society, the right to take a life? There are women activists who have worked on the ground, who say that the first impulse is one of revenge – for many women, including those who have survived rape, physical assault or acid attacks, the first impulse is to want castration or physical harm to be done to one’s perpetrators. But after deep discussion, women’s movements have come to the view that they neither want castration nor death. They believe that what you do not want done unto your own bodies, should not be done to anybody else’s body. What we want is justice, not revenge.

There is also the idea that the death penalties create deterrence. There is absolutely no research or evidence to prove that an occasional death penalty creates deterrence. There is the possibility that in certain societies, like perhaps Saudi Arabia or other extremist Islamic societies where the death penalty, stoning or cutting of hands is common, it may create some degree of deterrence. But we must ask ourselves, do we want to become a society where this becomes commonplace?

I must make the point that this sentence has been handed out for death – for the murder of Nirabhaya, rather than the rape of Nirbhaya. Let’s look at the incidence, the issue of the rape itself. The hierarchy of attention is something that we must address. The incidence of rape is so widespread that only 20-30% of them are even reported. On top of this, there are only a few cases that catch media attention. For instance, that of Manorama in Manipur almost a decade ago where she was shot by the army. Her vagina was shot though with bullets, she was gangraped and left to die in a drain. There is the Khairlanji episode. There are innumerable incidents, cases of rape in Chhattisgarh which do not catch media attention. Are we then to assume that only those deserve death where we have dained to give our attention? There is also the issue that 70% of rapes happen within the family- by fathers, brothers, uncles, neighbours- people who are known to you in some degree of intimacy. Will we want to string up and hang all of those people? What is the number of people we will kill before we realise that killing doesn’t help?

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.


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