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One hundred and forty of 195 countries have abolished the death penalty but it still looms large over the world as the nations that have retained it -- including India -- account for the bulk of the global population, former diplomat and Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi says, urging that the punishment be removed from the statute.
"The world is moving towards the abolition of death penalty... but the countries that have retained this penalty are those which have the largest populations. So, the majority of the world is still under the death penalty," Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, a former Bengal Governor, told IANS in an interview ahead of the formal release of his book, "Abolishing the Death Penalty: Why India Should Say No to Capital Punishment" (Aleph).
"It is curious that the countries that have retained death penalty are those which have a certain punishment mentality like USA, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. So we are in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. What are our compulsions? Why are we retaining it?"
"Some argue that terrorism is the reason. Death penalty does not deter murder. Does death penalty deter terror? We cannot say. But terror has continued. The bizarre thing about terrorism is that the terrorists are prepared to die in the act of terror itself. They are in a fitoor (craze), in which maut (death) is regarded as a shahadat (martyrdom). So will it deter them?" asked Gandhi, who has served as Secretary to President K.R. Narayanan and as High Commissioner to South Africa and Sri Lanka.
Gandhi's book asks fundamental questions about the ultimate legal punishment awarded to those accused of major crimes and is set to release on December 7.
"My emphasis is not just on the death penalty but on the entire mentality of punishment, which includes the criminal investigation system where violence is a known fact. Many of those under trial may or may not be innocent, but most of them are subjected to violence. So my book is about the Indian attitude to punishment.
"Human evolution is towards the abolition of death penalty. But the states which have given up on death penalty are also the states which are somewhat reforming their criminal investigation system. In India there has been a lot of reforms -- our jails today are not what they were 50 years ago, certainly not what they were in medieval times, when anybody who was taken in prison was bound to be beaten to pulp if not to death -- we are not in medieval times, we live in a modern and civilised world," he added.
In December 2007, India voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. It reitereated its stance in 2012 and 2014, and again as recently as November 21, 2016.
"Our jails are now called correctional homes and there have been a lot of improvement in our criminal investigation system. But we are still keeping the death penalty because the state does not want to lose its power over life. The state thinks of itself as a kind of demigod, which it is not," he said.
"Now death penalty in India is awarded in the rarest of rare case and it is almost exclusively for terror activities. The last Law Commission, headed by Justice A.P. Shah, said that death penalty should be awarded only for acts against the state. The death penalty is the ultimate form of torture.
"Even if the society is in favour of severe punishment and is shutting its eyes to torture, does it mean that the state should also do that? Or, should the state be one step ahead of the society? Should the state only reflect what the society wants or should it lead? I think the state should lead. Our constitution is not a mirror; it is a benchmark that inspires all kinds of development, particularly moral development," Gandhi contended.
Through in-depth analysis, persuasive argument and the marshalling of the considered opinion of jurists, human rights activists, scholars and criminologists, among others, his book argues that the death penalty should be abolished with immediate effect in India.
"Today a majority of Indians, in my opinion, are not against death penalty. It does not mean that we are a blood-thirsty society, no we are not. We are a very peace-loving society.
"There has not been much of a discourse on death penalty at the public level, which is why I think people should talk about and deliberate on the issue. This is not going to happen very fast but we are moving towards abolition," Gandhi hoped.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>)
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