The process to elect the Vice-President of the country has started. There is a straight fight between the NDA candidate Venkaiah Naidu, and Opposition’s Gopal Krishna Gandhi. But this piece is not about the election. It is about the place of death penalty in a civilised country like ours, in the context of the protests against Gopal Gandhi on the ground that he had asked for Yakub Menon’s death penalty to be commuted to life imprisonment in the Mumbai blasts case, which had killed many innocent citizens. Headlines were flashed to say that Gopal Gandhi wanted mercy to be given to the terrorists. This was an incorrect interpretation of what he had said. It is not denied that Gopal Gandhi has been a long time opponent of death penalty. Around two years ago, the Law Commission of India had held a seminar on death penalty. I was one of the speakers there. I am for the abolition of death penalty. A near unanimous resolution was passed there for the abolition of death penalty. Consistent with his stand, Gopal Gandhi too voted for the abolition of death penalty. In fact for abolitionists like us, the judgement is not based on any individual case, but on the principle that death sentence to anyone is inconsistent with a civilised society and does not even serve as a deterrent and violates human rights.
Let us recall that some the greatest men have all opposed death penalty. Gandhiji said, “I do regard death sentence as contrary to ahimsa. Only He can take it who gives it.” Freedom fighter and socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan said, “To my mind, it is ultimately a question of respect for life and human approach to those who commit grievous hurts to others. Death sentence is no remedy for such crimes.”
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, during the Constituent Assembly debates said, “I think that having regard to this fact, the proper thing for this country to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether.”
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour called the death penalty “…a sanction that should have no place in any society that claims to value human rights and the inviolability of the person”. President Eduardo Frei of Chile said, “I cannot believe that to defend life and punish the person that kills, the State should in its turn kill. The death penalty is as inhuman as the crime which motivates it.”
The vociferous opposition to the abolition of death penalty springs from myth that it can lead to increase of murders. Facts show otherwise. Thus, in 1945-50 the State of Travancore, which had no death penalty, had 962 murders, whereas during 1950-55, when death sentence was introduced, there were 967 murders. In Canada, after the abolition of death penalty in 1976, the homicide rate has declined. In 2000, there were 542 homicides in Canada—16 less than in 1998 and 159 less than in 1975 (one year prior to the abolition of capital punishment).
In 1997, the Attorney General of Massachusetts (US) said, “there is not a shred of credible evidence that the death penalty lowers the murder rate. In fact, without the death penalty the murder rate in Massachusetts is about half the national average.”
Death penalty has been abolished since 1965 in UK. The membership of European Union is dependent on having no death penalty. This has been done obviously in the confidence that murders do not get automatically reduced by retaining death penalty.
The South African Constitutional Court unanimously ruled in 1995 that death penalty was unconstitutional as it constituted “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
At present, 105 countries have abolished death penalty in law for all crimes—a majority of world states, as of April 2017.
I may also remind critics of Gopal Gandhi that when India wanted Abu Salem, who was then living in Portugal, to proceed against him for the same Mumbai 1993 blasts, Government of India gave an undertaking to Portugal that he would not be given the death penalty. That is why, although convicted, he has been given the life sentence.
The injustice of death as a penalty has a hoary past. Although death penalty was briefly banned in China between 747 and 759 AD, modern opposition to death penalty stems from the book of the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments), published in 1764. Influenced by the book, Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, the future Emperor of Austria, abolished death penalty in the then-independent Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany). It was the first permanent abolition in modern times. On 30 November 1786, after having de facto blocked capital executions (the last was in 1769), Leopold promulgated the reform of the penal code that abolished death penalty and ordered the destruction of all the instruments for capital execution in his land. In 2000, Tuscany’s regional authorities instituted an annual holiday on 30 November to commemorate the event. The event is also commemorated on this day by 300 cities around the world celebrating the Cities for the Life Day.
In 1849, the Roman Republic became the first country to ban capital punishment in its Constitution. Venezuela abolished death penalty in 1863 and Portugal did so in 1867.
Will the critics of Gopal Gandhi on the death penalty issue please have the courtesy of apologising for their totally unsustainable comments?