To kill or not to kill…

Should we as a society, support the death penalty? More importantly, is it right?


This seemingly innocent question can at first instance, be answered in a direct yes, or a no. People can have quite polarized views when it comes to the death penalty. Some crimes, like the Nirbhaya gang rape case that shook India a few years ago, evoke strong and passionate responses across the board – yes, the accused all deserve to die. Other cases can be a mixed bag – the hanging of Yakub Memon for instance. The past few days have seen a lot of opinions from a lot of people, again, with some baying for this blood while others begging for mercy on his behalf.

Which brings me back to the question at hand…should we as a society support the death penalty?

While the arguments on its merits and demerits can be long, lets dig a bit deeper. Mankind (pardon the pun), isn’t very kind when it comes to it. Society functions, and sanely, largely because of a semblance of order. We appoint our own lawmakers, to keep the criminal in us in check and ensure that each one of us is treated fairly and with respect. With crime, comes punishment, in varied degrees of incarceration. And in some societies, such as ours, the ‘rarest of the rare’ crimes deem the criminal unfit to be a part of us, a mind so sickened that it doesn’t deserve to exist anymore. Our nominated judiciary sends the criminal to his/her death, thereby delivering ‘justice’. This has been the norm from ancient times, and it still exists, and will continue to exist for a long time to come.

But is justice really delivered? What do we derive out of the death of a criminal? Vindication? Closure? Deterrence? Revenge? 

On the surface, we as a society have come far from our days in the caves. We are more polished, respectful, cultured as peoples. But there are instances such as these, that bring out our inner thoughts to the surface, simmering at first, and then, up to a boil. All of a sudden, we find ourselves baying for blood, craving for satisfaction, even though we may not have been directly affected. It is quite a dichotomy, this calmness that we portray and the eagerness to pull the trigger on the accused. We can be quite vocal in demanding that the convicted ‘hang until his last breath’, even as we forward quotes by the Mahatma, Mother Teresa and Buddha on Facebook. We cannot bear the thought of an animal being harmed, yet are more than happy to lead a human to the gallows. We pray to our Gods, and sometimes, would like to play God as well..

One might throw the question back at me. What if I was one of the affected? Would I still argue this way? 

But then, I am not arguing now am I? I’m just trying to understand. What do we really get from the death penalty? Collective retribution? Or just plain old revenge, served up well dressed and civilized. And the best part is, in most cases, it isn’t OUR revenge to begin with. We are just happy to be part of it, aren’t we? Would we, if given the opportunity, be the hangman in person?

Hmm..tough questions. And no right answers. Just introspection.

Which brings me back to what I asked myself – What if I was the wronged? What if it was someone of my family who had been harmed? There is no doubt in my mind what I would demand. I am one of us humans after all…

An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind

– Mahatma Gandhi

वेदाविनाशिनं नित्यं य एनमजमव्ययम् ।
कथं स पुरुषः पार्थ कं घातयति हन्ति कम् ॥ २१ ॥

vedāvināśinaḿ nityaḿ
ya enam ajam avyayam
kathaḿ sa puruṣaḥ pārtha
kaḿ ghātayati hanti kam

O Pārtha, how can a person who knows that the soul is indestructible, eternal, unborn and immutable kill anyone or cause anyone to kill?

-Bhagawad Gita Chapter 2 Shlok 21