For many years now, The Hindu has opposed the death penalty on principle — often in the face of intense public disapproval. We oppose it for ordinary killers and mass murderers, communal pogromists as well as terrorists like Muhammad Ajmal Amir Kasab. Ever since that traumatic night we now denote by the veiled abbreviation 26/11, Kasab has justifiably been the face of evil for millions of Indians. He took part in a monstrous plot against the people of India and Mumbai, killed innocent people with abandon, and showed no remorse for his actions. It is no surprise, therefore, that his execution Wednesday morning has been greeted with approval across the country. No loss of human life, however despicable the individual might have been, ought to be a reason for celebration. Instead, this should be a time of national reflection: reflection about crime, about punishment and about that cherished bedrock of our republic, justice. For several reasons, the hanging of Kasab is at most a crude approximation of this quality, more closely resembling an act of vengeance. Kasab was neither the architect of 26/11 nor its strategic mastermind; the men who indoctrinated and controlled him remain safe in Pakistan, where most will likely never see the inside of a courtroom. The haste to hang Kasab makes even less sense when others guilty of hideous terrorist crimes have secured deferment of their sentences because political lobbies acted on their behalf — among them, the assassins of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Chief Minister Beant Singh of Punjab. It is also a sobering fact that criminals responsible for claiming more Indian lives than Kasab did — among them, the perpetrators of countless communal riots — live as free men. Not one of these things excuse or mitigate Kasab’s crime. But they do make it imperative to ask: is the hangman’s justice the only kind we can conceive of?
The arguments against the death penalty are well known. There are pragmatic ones — in this case, that Kasab could have provided valuable testimony in future trials of yet-to-be-arrested 26/11 perpetrators. There are moral and technical ones; even in the United States, with its highly-functional criminal justice system, new forensic techniques have shown dozens of innocent men were executed, though this argument does not apply to Kasab whose guilt is proven well beyond even unreasonable doubt. The most compelling argument, however, is this: the application of the death penalty is, as the Supreme Court itself acknowledged earlier this week, increasingly arbitrary. Capital punishment has become, as the medieval philosopher Maimonides many centuries ago warned it would, a matter of “the judge’s caprice”. It is also simply not true that capital punishment is integral to fighting terrorists. The absence of the death penalty in, say, France and the United Kingdom has not made these two nations softer in their ability to combat terror than the U.S. The grief of 26/11 was personal for many in this newspaper; like others, members of staff grieve for lost friends. Yet, the horror of 26/11 ought not stop us from dispassionately debating the need for the death penalty.