The Narendra Modi government’s decision to put on hold its earlier move to seek the death penalty for former minister Mayaben Kodnani and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi may have been prompted by pressure from the sangh parivar but that does not mean it isn’t the right thing to do. The two were sentenced last year to long jail terms for organising the Naroda-Patiya massacre during the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat. Although courts in India have tended to impose death sentences on those accused of terrorist crimes — and communal violence is simply terrorism in another form — the trial court judge sagely declared that “the use of death undermines human dignity.” If the view she took was universalist, Mr. Modi’s U-turn smacks of the particularist because he is otherwise a strong and even activist advocate of the death penalty. That Kodnani had led murderous mobs was no secret. Yet the Gujarat Chief Minister made her a minister in 2007. Her indictment and eventual conviction were the result of a Supreme Court-monitored investigation. The admirable administrative skills of Mr. Modi played no role. Last month, however, in a stand that was at least consistent with his strident advocacy of the death penalty for other terrorists, Mr. Modi gave the nod for an appeal to the High Court seeking death for Kodnani and Bajrangi. It is this nod towards the noose that is now being reconsidered.

Notwithstanding the role of politics in influencing this decision, any criticism of the Modi government’s latest stand must be tempered with the view that the death penalty is no answer to heinous crimes. The moral and social imperative in criminal justice must always be on establishing guilt and awarding condign punishment, the worst of which should be a life-long prison term. Death sentences achieve little more than arithmetic equivalence. In the case of the Gujarat riots, there has been a campaign to characterise the violence as a “spontaneous reaction” to the Godhra train burning incident. The strongest rebuttal of this theory lies in the Naroda-Patiya verdict of August 2012, which laid bare the existence of a conspiracy involving BJP and sangh leaders. The Gujarat government, the Special Investigation Team and the prosecution should focus on sustaining such convictions in the higher courts instead of seeking the death penalty out of a misconception that only capital punishment is complete justice. And investigators and prosecutors throughout the country would do well to address the need to identify the culprits and establish their guilt in all cases involving organised mob terrorism rather than labouring for death sentences.

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