A legal system which does not give an individual the right to take his or her life surely cannot bestow upon itself that very same right

What are the cornerstones of our society and its morality? Is ahimsa any longer one of them? If it isn't, then should it not be? In a compelling article (Death of a humane society? The Hindu Magazine, May 16, 2010), T.M. Krishna poses questions that a society which prides itself on morality ought to ask itself. The issue in focus here is the death sentence given to Pakistani terrorist Amir Ajmal Kasab, and the reactions it has evoked from various sections of our society. There are two aspects related to this incident that we would do well to examine and introspect.

The first concerns capital punishment. The laws of our land are, purportedly, founded on certain moral guiding principles. But I fail to see any moral justification for capital punishment. Not very long ago, when we fought and earned the right to govern ourselves as a nation, we did so by wielding a very powerful weapon — ahimsa or non-violence — one that defeated the enemy not militarily but morally. Isn't it anachronistic then that today we seek to punish criminals in the most violent way possible: by taking their lives? The judge who condemned Kasab to the gallows proclaimed that he was inhuman and undeserving of any mercy. But is it just being merciful to spare someone the death sentence? Isn't it also the morally right thing to do? Agreed that any punishment must be proportional to the gravity of the crime but if we are serious about preserving our identity as a nation founded on the principle of non-violence, shouldn't we at least debate the morality of capital punishment?

The second issue that this incident has brought disturbingly into focus is our reaction, collectively as a society, to Kasab's death sentence. It was shocking to see images of boisterous crowds celebrating the news. It portrays a near-medieval bloodlust that is unbecoming of a civilised society such as ours. How are we any different from those societies in which the guilty are made to stand in the middle of a stadium and stoned to death by barbaric crowds? Societies that are, allegedly, breeding grounds for the very same terrorists we seek to punish.

And it cannot also be dismissed that this was the reaction of only a minority. In a televised debate, the majority of the participants and audience were of the opinion that the death sentence was befitting and further that the sentence be carried out at the earliest. Those who opposed capital punishment did so on the basis that it is a human rights violation. A legal system which does not give an individual the right to take his or her life surely cannot bestow upon itself that very same right. However, it is insufficient to view capital punishment through the prism of human rights alone and the morality of it needs to be considered. The question is not so much what the rights of the guilty are as what forms of punishment we find acceptable to mete out.

There are some who argue that keeping such a terrorist alive is impractical since it makes the nation vulnerable to threats such as the Kandahar plane hijacking. But since when has it become convenient to sacrifice morality on the altar of pragmatism? Those who argue that a death sentence acts as an effective deterrent against terrorists are also gravely mistaken. To see the error of such an argument one only needs to picture an evil ideologue using a terrorist's execution as a pretext for poisoning the minds of the innocent and the uninitiated and fill them with vengeful hatred. To quote the famous words of the Mahatma, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” If the war on terror is to be won comprehensively, then it must be won not just militarily but ideologically as well. And the latter can be achieved only by treading the moral high ground. It requires great strength to pursue such a course of action but it was not very long ago that we as a nation proved capable of it. Let us not think any less of ourselves now.

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