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Death Penalty, a term interchangeably used with capital punishment, derives its meaning from Latin roots referring to executing a person who has committed a specific crime. The punishment for these specific crimes varied in ancient times from beheading to flogging included crimes like murder, or even for the commission of acts like sorcery and those acts directed against the ruling authority tend to meet with the same fate. These punishments were driven by means of giving out slow and painful deaths to the criminals. In a way, they developed a sense of fear and refrain people from committing similar wrongdoings in future. However strong this deterrence belief was, it was even carried down to medieval times and found further space in the legal systems of the modern state, but, the forms in which death penalty was given out witnessed far greater changes.

Public executions marked a scene of great spectacle in earlier times, something that was banned later in view of bringing in a more mechanized, organized way of giving out punishment. Electric chair, gas chambers and injecting lethal chemicals into the bloodstream were some alternatives to hanging. The power of giving out sentences rested with the state authority. This practice of the death penalty has been evident in many countries of Modern state as well. Subsequently, many states abolishing this practice of death penalty in the 19th century, other countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt still carry it out in their territorial space. In India, one such infamous case was of Ajmal Kasab, held responsible for carrying out 26/11 attack in Mumbai and was later hanged to death in 2012. Afzal guru who was the mastermind behind the attack on parliament in 13th December 2001, was hanged for his crime in 2013. Another case is of Yakub Memon who was held responsible for sponsoring 13 blasts that rocked Mumbai in 1993. Later, he was executed on 30 July 2015.

The core issue of the death penalty primarily distinguishes itself from universally condemned acts like slavery and genocide, as pointed out by Darren J O’Byrne. It is a practice that is followed by liberal as well as non-liberal states with different cultural and religious traditions. A fact that is acknowledged even by international treaties like International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that have kept abolition of death penalty as not mandatory but as an optional protocol taking into account diverse opinions, state policy over the issue of death penalty. What makes this issue of the death penalty more intriguing is how this question of whether it is good or bad is intercepted in the framework of diverse opinions and perceptions.

The prominent reason that is put forth against the practice of the death penalty is the element of racism and domination of powerful over powerless. This unfavourable bias postulates a design of branding criminals under legal sanction provided by the state itself. As per Amnesty International Report, between 1930 and 1967, two-thirds of criminals executed were blacks. Many times countries like the US get accused of evident inequalities in their punitive systems. Another point that is often raised on the same side is that there is a danger of executing the innocent. In principle, however, a moralist counterpart would argue that the death penalty is in violation of a universal right to life and dignity. Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948) encapsulates a list of rights that are universal for everyone. It sets out in the first article itself which supports the idea that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights, implying no state or individual can infringe upon those rights.

These rights can be well understood by examining two significant pointers whether the death penalty actually serves as a deterrent or is completely based on retributive principle. Those supportive of the deterrent principle reside their belief in the theory that capital punishment would serve as an example to others to not commit any crime in future. Though it is well asserted by certain proponents like Marcel Normand who listed a number of killers who escaped the execution and committed the offence again. Emphasizing that for saving the life of innocents and in return sacrificing a criminal’s life is justified, an argument counter argued based on jurisprudence. Same can be asserted from another perspective that some criminals commit acts like murder in the spurt of a moment with no actual intention of causing death and then those with psychological problems that require medical help. Furthermore, not even statistical evidence has been able to prove that the death penalty actually deters individuals from committing such crimes.

Another principle of retribution delves into how it is commonly perceived as a route in maintaining social justice in contemporary times. The ultimate solution for dealing with perpetrators of crime is also viewed along the lines of giving out harsher punishments that are considered rightfully deserved. Even, if it means that the state as an authority can take away a person’s life. Over time, ways of legalizing capital punishment have actually shifted the means of taking life from private hands to the state. No matter how justified a retributive act by an individual appears, it would be illegitimate in the eyes of the system. Wherein a state gives out such sentences, it gains legitimacy automatically.

With both sides presenting convincing arguments, it is necessary to examine how criminal justice of a particular country works, keeping in view the diversity in terms of culture and the policy adopted by respective states. If it goes in support of the death penalty then it is important to look into the administration of justice, making sure it is not along the lines of class, caste or race. To apply and keep checks on the conditions of a steady increase in the growth of specific grave crimes, rarest of the rare cases where it becomes incumbent upon the state to take strict action against the offender. In India, under IPC section 302 and 303, capital punishment is served to criminals who have committed rarest of the rare crimes, encompassing issues like murder, terrorism, rape particularly rape of minors. On the contrary, another view that takes to a more liberal outlook that tends to see every human as a rational being and might support the abolition of the death penalty. In this case, it becomes affirmative upon a state to resort to proper rehabilitative measures with routinely reporting on the offender and inculcate values in order to develop the importance and compassion towards human life.

Recently, the case has been of awarding death penalty based on populist measures that are often reflected by the stand taken by the states. For instance, the step was taken by the government to award capital punishment to child rapists. Such misguided, short term solutions have the potential of rendering the justice system hollow. Because the public might not always be at its best to analyse the conditions or have access to relevant information. In view of long term and stable outcomes, it is necessary to consider a full assessment of the system functioning on providing justice and not largely motivated by political agendas. The ways of giving out punishment might vary from one place to another,however, what is pertinent here is when the issue of death penalty is raised the ultimate objective must be to reform the society byways of consolidating the criminal justice system and not to make it microscopic in nature of dealing with situation for just that present moment or situation. Such reformation can only come with more public participation in debates with people from diverse economic,  cultural and professional backgrounds joining the discussion. With opinions not simply restricting to present scenario but how to develop a more self-aware society to curb the crimes that have grown steadily over the past few decades. Most significantly, to not circulate opinions and perspectives around the issue of death penalty tapping on public emotions but on rationality and that is meaningful in sustaining the judicial system.


O'Byrne, D.J.. (September 2003).Human Rights:An Introduction. Darling Kindersley Private Limited. Delhi.

Amnesty International. The Death Penalty- your questions answered. Retrieved from, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/death-penalty/death-penalty-your-questions-answered/

BBC. Capital Punishment. Retrieved  from, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/

BBC news. (14 October 2018). Death Penalty:How many countries still have it. Retrieved from, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45835584

India Today. (30 July 2018). India’s history of capital punishment in the last decade. Retrieved from, https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/indias-history-of-capital-punishment-in-the-last-decade-285526-2015-07-30

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