With only three days left for his execution, Balwant Singh Rajoana has got a temporary reprieve — ironically against his own steely determination to go to the gallows. Rajoana admitted his part in the suicide bombing of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, rejected counsel, refused to cross-examine witnesses, and accepted the death penalty, arguing that he would not ask for mercy from a government that called him a terrorist but was unconscionably insensitive towards the victims of state-sponsored communal pogroms. Rajoana's stand cannot take away from the enormity of his crime, for which he has been duly and correctly convicted by a court of law. Yet, he must live if only for the state to demolish his belief that it is a “monster” ready to turn on its own people. Abolitionists around the world argue against the death penalty mainly for two reasons: it has not been proved to be a deterrent and a flawed judicial process can wrongly, and irrevocably, send a person to his death. But over and above these reasoned considerations is the sheer barbarity of taking a human life even under the due process of law. Besides, there is no humane way of executing the death sentence. Death by hanging — the preferred method in India — is unspeakably cruel.
The pain and anxiety of the death-row prisoner going to the gallows — “cutting a life short when it is in full tide” — was brilliantly captured by George Orwell in his searing 1931 essay, ‘A Hanging'. Eighty years on, India is still to abolish capital punishment even as 96 countries around the world have done away with the practice with another 34 countries observing unofficial moratoria on executions. In India, a curious pattern has emerged lately. Courts are increasingly imposing the death penalty on convicts even as pending executions are put off to avert untoward political and social consequences. Just months ago, the Tamil Nadu Assembly made a plea for presidential clemency for the three death-row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra showed extraordinary strength of character when they pleaded for the commutation of the death sentence awarded to Nalini. Punjab under Parkash Singh Badal observed a violent bandh in response to the news that Rajoana was to be hanged — the pressure forced the Centre to stay the execution. Unfortunately, these collective pressures and the uneven response they generate have added yet another element of arbitrariness to the entire process. It has been The Hindu's consistent stand that we must do away with capital punishment. Mahatma Gandhi's India cannot afford to lag behind other countries in embracing this progressive step.