Hang Him Not Leave Him


For many decades, several generations of students have been narrated the story of how a comma killed someone. The story goes like this: a judge after the trial decided not to kill the accused as he found him not guilty of the crime; though the judgement was supposed to be “hang him not, leave him”, the clerk in the court made a mistake by typing “hang him, not leave him”, thus killing an innocent man. Whether the story is based on a real-life incident or is it just a creation of some brilliant mind is still a matter of little concern. However, one thing that can be inferred from the above story — other than the traditional lesson of importance of commas — is that once someone is penalized through capital punishment, it is impossible to revert. In India, the narrative around capital punishment is once again gaining media attention due to the recent decision of the Union cabinet to support death penalty as a form of punishment in the country.

Indeed, capital punishment is one of the oldest and most brutal forms of punishment which is still practiced in modern societies. Though the world abandoned several other barbaric measures of harboring conformity, it has stuck to capital punishment. Today, 58 countries across the world have provisions for capital punishment by hanging till death, giving lethal injections, stoning and in extreme cases, beheading. A majority of Western nations have abandoned execution through hanging in favor of use of mechanisms that ease the pain and suffering of the convict, like lethal injections.

In a recent hearing, the Additional Solicitor-General Pinky Anand said on behalf of the government that there is no other viable option of executing capital punishment other than hanging. The government is of the opinion that measures like lethal injections are not a perfect substitute for hanging as they report higher levels of failure. Court has asked for a ‘better way of carrying out capital punishment’ which may minimize the ‘suffering of the convict’, commenting that individuals enjoy dignity even at the point of death, as guaranteed by the constitution.

There is, however, an interesting aspect in this observation made by the court. The court, while exploring other options which are less ‘painful’, also said that this doesn’t essentially question the validity of the Section 354 (5) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which legalizes capital punishment; The court was only considering the possibility of exploring an alternative, not contending its removal. However, it is high time to reflect upon the notion of capital punishment and whether a civilized society like ours must move forward from the feudalistic mentality of killing someone as a way of instilling conformity.

Some supporters of capital punishment argue that it is the only way through which a punishment can be awarded for a heinous crime like a murder or brutal rape. The court of the country has, on several occasions, upheld validity of capital punishment by saying that it is indeed a recommended way of punishing someone. However, the court has also put up several measures so as to prevent its misuse. A rule of thumb for judges, prescribed by the apex court of the country, is that to check whether the crime committed by the convict is rarest of rare. In this regard, the courts have taken sufficient precaution in awarding death penalties. Thus, everything looks fair and just, only for the time being though.

One quintessential problem with death penalty is its impossibility of reversion. In case some future evidences and developments in the investigation suggests that the convict is not the one who committed the crime, and if this comes after the execution of the capital punishment, who will answer for the life of the convict? Who will be held responsible for such incidents: the court, the investigation agency, or the larger polity that legitimizes capital punishment?

It is indisputable that people who commit heinous crimes must be awarded with serious punishments in order for them to pay penance and for their example to serve as a deterrent for other potential criminals. However, there must be a better mechanism or framework so as to ensure that no single innocent individual is denied the right to life when they are not liable for the crime. Apparently, lives matter more than commas and false judgements, and we shouldn’t be taking chances.

-Contributed by Jiss Palelil

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