Is Death An Answer?


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Since a long time, I kept wondering as to the relevance of the recent provision of capital punishment in cases of rape of a minor. There is no denying the fact that there can be no crime as heinous and gruesome as rape, more so when a minor is involved. It leaves a deep scar in the life of the survivor. The convict thus deserves the strictest of punishments but is death an answer?

There are some notions as to its validity.

  • Having equal punishments for murder and rape may further give an incentive to the oppressor to kill the victim rather than sparing her life. This again may lead to further brutality.
  • According to NCRB data, only 4% of the cases tried end in conviction. Having death penalty may further decrease that number.
  • According to the same data, in 96% of the rape cases reported, the accused is known to the victim as a family member, neighbour or a friend. Having a death penalty may deter the family members to file a complaint. This may further decrease the reporting rate.
  • It has been observed that those awarded death sentences hail from a poor background or belong to minority communities. This points to the fact that the rich and dominant usually get away with it.

But again, these are just probabilities.

In the light of a recent petition filed in the Supreme Court regarding legalising the death penalty for minors, when the government was asked its view on it, it ended up saying that death cannot be an answer to everything. The recent shift of stand of the government could then be perceived as just a populist measure to check the rising protests and rallies.

Also, the Justice Verma Committee appointed in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape case suggested against Capital Punishment. Hence, from then on, the death penalty is awarded only when the case is in the rarest of the rare category. The death sentence was hence awarded to all the accused (except the juvenile). Alas, there is no evidence to prove that death acts as a deterrent.

The Ordinance promulgated by the government provides for stringent punishment for rape of “girls” under 12, with a minimum of 20 years’ imprisonment or imprisonment for rest of life and the maximum of death. In case of gang rape of a “girl” below 12 years, the minimum punishment will be imprisonment for the “rest of life” and the maximum, death sentence. Well, even minor boys are equally vulnerable.

Actually, in my opinion, the government has rightly taken a neutral stand in prescribing the maximum punishment as death sentence rather than a blanket punishment for all convicts. This would give some leverage to all the stakeholders and also the judges presiding over the case. A mastermove indeed.

At a time when most of the countries have already abolished capital punishment, is India taking a large step backwards by legalising it? Won’t then India join the ranks of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, USA, Pakistan and Iraq where 95% of all known executions are carried out?

Frankly, even after all these arguments, I am not able to fully convince myself that death penalty is not the need of the hour. Maybe it’ll turn out to be productive in future, maybe not. Maybe it’ll act as a deterrent to rapes, maybe not. At this stage itself, nothing can be said for sure. Only time will tell.


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