Thursday, July 30, 2015

Midnight courtroom session and death penalty

The last time I stayed up so late, till 5 am, was when Mumbai was attacked in 2008.

The story broke around 11 pm, and it was well past 1 am when we got any idea of what was going on. I finished my pages and sent them to the press, by 2.30 am. By then three top police officers of Mumbai had been killed; and when I came home, I switched on the TV to see what was going on. I went to bed around 5 am unsure of what was happening to Mumbai, and if I would get to know about any more tragic developments in any other part of the country, when I got up next day morning.

Yesterday, when I was leaving office, news alerts came in saying the Supreme Court would hear at 2 am yet another challenge by Yakub Memon against the decision to hang him today morning. After I reached home, I switched on TV to keep track of what was an unprecedented act of the Supreme Court being opened up 2 am to hear a petition.

Apparently, the court entertained the plea to ensure that Indian judicial system was fair and transparent in considering an important appeal like this one.

Though it looked unlikely that the same three judges who had rejected earlier appeals would find merit in a new line of argument put forward by Yakub Memon's lawyers, I sat glued to the television as a tense sequence of events seemed to play out. I didn't want to miss out this one.

What a night it was for the legal and media fraternity! Apparently most of the people inside the court room were media personnel. There was virtually a live coverage of court proceedings. I thought the whole thing will end by 3 am or at the most 3.30. But arguments began only by 3.

Some of my friends too were up tracking this unprecedented apex court room activity, and we discussed the whys and hows, and the possible implications of this.

Finally, around 4.30 news came that the judgment would be delivered shortly. And just before 5 am, two hours before the scheduled hanging, verdict came that the appeal had been dismissed.


When it comes to death penalty, I have mixed feelings. Actually, my thoughts tend to be with people, wherever in the world they may be, who have had to suffer and even pay with their lives for no fault of theirs.

Most of these acts of crime or terrorism are part of a chain of tit-for-tat or eye-for-eye actions. Every thing is supposed to avenge a past crime. But, eye for eye makes no sense. I always wonder, can't we just forget the past, focus on the problems of the present and get on with our lives.

There has been a raging debate world over, not just in India, on the ethicality and morality of death penalty. There are many arguments for and against it.

In one view, how can one person who has elaborately plotted a crime with the objective of killing people, himself think that he can't be executed? What is the logic behind the thought that a murderer can only kill others, but himself can't be killed? 


Having said that, the fact is that capital punishment is one on a much different plane compared to all other punishments. It always leaves a number of questions unanswered.

At a very basic level, for a layperson, it is difficult to understand what crime exactly qualifies for a death penalty. What exactly is "the rarest of the rare" case? Many times we have seen the death penatly being commuted to life sentence.

My doubts about the righteousness of death penalty stems from how conclusively are we able to prove that an individual has to die; what about others who are party to the crime; there are also so many other related issues.

Court judgments are also a lot about how lawyers argue out their case, and how they are able to convince the judges, who, based on evidences presented, come to a judgement regarding the crime and the punishment. In the whole process, it cannot be denied that there is a lot of subjective interpretations coming into play at various levels.

In a sense, the death penalty can also be seen as an eye-for-eye approach. When a mistake or crime has been committed, the punishment makes little difference to the damage that has been committed. Lives lost don't come back. Properties destroyed aren't restored. Punishments are retributions. I doubt if they even serve as a deterrent.


I don't think there will be much loss if we reimpose a moratorium on death penalty, if not altogether abolish it.

The Supreme Court in India has made execution a difficult option, with many layers of review. But that process in itself throws up umpteen questions.

My reasoning is simple: most often many questions are asked whether we have been able to conclusively prove the crime has been grave enough, whether it is the "rarest of the rare" to warrant death. Then there are also questions like: if A has been given death penalty, then what about B or C or D. Wasn't their crime also bad enough? Why haven't they got the death penalty? There are appeals and counter-appeals, and it goes on and on; which doesn't look good at all.

Instead, can't we jus opt for imprisoning the convict for the rest of his life with no option for remission, as the toughest punishment?


  1. I would support death penalty for pre-meditated murder. In Mr. Memon's case, his lawyers abused the judicial system by approaching the Supreme Court large number of times with petition after petition.

  2. The Government oould have made a deal with him. Ask your brother (Tiger Memon) to come to India and surrender and you can get out of jail as a free man.

    1. Thanks for your comments, SG. Not sure of the intricacies of the arguments and counterarguments. But from what I get to read, this case seems to have been botched up.

  3. Having read your views, I would stick with Death Penalty for such people.

    Why do we want to keep them in Jails and use Tax Payer's money? There are so many poor people on the roads, why not feed them instead. Why spend so much on security for criminals like Ajmal Kasab. I don't see any sense in it.

    Also, we will hardly get any intelligence out of them...they are just a burden!

    Regarding the issues on why not B, C...let the court decide, but they should get Life Imprisonment if the crime is grave.

  4. Fair enough, Alok. Actually, more than the death penalty, per se, I am concerned about the way it is handed down. If there is an across the board unanimity, that's fine. But if there are different shades of opinion, then I think it's best avoided and restricted to "full life term in prison without parole."