Monday, November 06, 2006

To Hang Or Not To Hang

These are the days when the debate on capital punishments is intensifying again. For me, it is a strong remembrance of my blogging history, with my first post being on the execution of Dhananjoy Chatterjee. Since then, I have come a long way, both in terms of time elapsed as well as the lengths of my posts. Coming back to the point, in my first post, I didn't actually deal with the deeper questions regarding capital punishment, which I plan to briefly deal with in this post. Whether or not a person should be hanged till death is a question that necessitates division into two parts. The first part is concluding whether or not the crime has been committed by the accused, and the second whether the crime is heinous enough to warrant capital punishment. The scope of this post is solely the second question: When it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused has committed a felonious crime. I say "beyond a reasonable doubt" as one of the first tenets of rationality is never to be very sure; and I mention felonious crime as I feel that anything lesser would hardly ever qualify as one of the "rarest of the rare" cases when such punishment is prescribed.

The arguments against capital punishment are varied, detailed, and when seen in separation from the arguments in favor of capital punishment, very convincing. Avoiding the fallacy committed by the opposers, it would be preferable to briefly state their arguments. The arguments include the barbaric nature of the act, the questioning of government's responsibility towards the society, the right of a government over a person's life, that violence begets violence, and the very basic principle of criminal code: To try reforming rather than punishing.

Firstly, let us discuss whether or not the government has a right over a person's life. While this should be exercised with utmost caution, the fact remains that in order to protect the sovereignty of the country, this right is exercised at the borders of nearly every country. While those acts are against citizens of other countries, it is considered a country's right to kill those who perpetrate crime internally (like the terrorists). Just like the duty to protect sovereignty, it is the duty of every country to protect its society from criminals. Often. this is done by detaining/jailing them for a term that will either be sufficient for their reforming, or will allow specific social processes to continue without hindrance. An example of the first would be a pick-pocket, and that of the second would be a goon in preventive detention during elections. In rare cases, the court of law finds the offense committed to be so grave that it awards [sic] the maximum allowable punishment - Death penalty.

Many people find this act of court (on behalf of the nation) barbaric, though this is hardly the case. The capital punishments pronounced by the courts cannot be considered barbaric as the whole process is carried out in a free manner, with the accused getting his chance to plead and prove innocence. Also, the system assumes the person to be innocent until proven guilty, and even when the verdict is pronounced, the accused can appeal to successive higher courts to get justice. So while the argument that this is an extreme step remains valid, it is definitely not barbaric. Also, while it is highly debated whether such harsh punishments act as deterrent against further crimes, violence causes more violence if it selectively targets a group of people. That the government is punishing an arbitrary group of criminals will most certainly not lead to any increase in violence.

The next argument stems from the fact that the government's responsibility is to reform, rather than punish. Again, while for most of the crimes the sentence pronounced is to reform the criminal (whether such sentences are effective is beyond the scope of the post), only is extreme cases, when this is unlikely to get the result in a reasonable time frame, are such heavy punishments given. A question can always be asked how can the courts be sure that the person would reform or not, and here the problem begins as it not transforms to a subjective evaluation. While it is wrong to kill a person who can reform, it is also wrong to allow a criminal to roam freely in the society. Those favoring the middle-path would say that the criminal be kept in detention(jailed) until s/he reforms. But again, the government has to justify keeping a criminal alive on taxpayer's money. The previous sentence may have come as a blow to a lot of people for its super-objective evaluation of a person' life. But the government does not run on subjective emotions of the populace, and when incidents like IC-814 are a reality, it becomes even more difficult to justify the act. So when it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused has committed a felonious crime, the jury finds it unlikely that the criminal would reform, being indeed the rarest of the rare cases, there is nothing wrong in awarding capital punishment.

Note: While I agree to death penalty in principle, I also hold the view that if possible, it should be the right of the criminal to decide how s/he should be hanged.

Recommended watching: The life of David Gale

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Majboori Ka Naam Mahatma Gandhi

"Godlike movie! Must see."

"Watch it yaar. Its five times better than the previous one."

These were some of the half-a-dozen approving comments that I heard about the "Lage Raho Munna Bhai" movie that compelled the movie-wary person like me to finally watch it. After watching it, to say the least, I was not impressed. Mostly this happens when the expectations are built at a level that the movie can't deliver to. But in this case, there was an additional reason. The very theme of the movie is something I am not impressed with. It is quite likely that this may be one of the best way the theme of Gandhism may be presented (in the form of Gandhigiri)in a movie that can appeal to the masses. But a wrong start can only get you so far.

My first impressions about Gandhism were formed in some of my early school days when this concept was presented in a glorified way by the textbooks. Yes, it did sound rosy till I started my own experiments with truth. The first result I got from it was a startling fact that shook my belief in Gandhism right down to its foundations. It was a simple yet powerful truth: Truth is relative.

The very basic principle of Satyagraha in Gandhism was rejected by this result. Gandhism propounds that in a fight for truth, Satyagraha will fetch you your ends. But it never delves into the possibility that what is truth for you may not be for the other party and vice-versa. Without going into the correctness of our struggle for independence, if the Britishers also felt that they are rightfully occupying India and resorted to Satyagraha, it would have led to a dangerous, yet seemingly harmless deadlock. For those who can't comprehend any neutral situation where there can be two truths, a very common example is with regards to custody rights of children in case of mutual divorce. In most such cases, it is nearly impossible to rightfully point out whose truth is stronger, let alone absolute. Imagine how things would turn out if both husband and wife resorted to Satyagraha as a means of salvation to their ultimate truth.

The second result I got was that Satyagraha has very limited application: Satyagraha is applicable only when there is no other truth. This result is different from the first in a sense that the first dealt with truths of conflicting nature, while this one has to do with all the truths in the life of the person asking for the truth (the Satyagrahi). Satyagraha will only work if there is just one truth in the life of the Satyagrahi. We have all heard the phrase "Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi" but I wonder if anyone today has tried to appreciate the wisdom enshrined in these five words. The second result I got is, in fact, an appreciation of this wisdom. India's struggle for freedom was successful by the application of Satyagraha. This was possible because Indians were deprived of any meaningful existence by the Britishers and they had nothing to lose. Satyagraha would not have been applicable if the masses had careers to pursue and lives to make.

Imagine the situation in the life of a lover who pursues Satyagraha to get his beloved. He sits in front of her house till her father agrees to the match. The first day, he gets a lot of raised eyebrows and a couple of warnings. In comes the next day and the case of harassment and stalking is lodged with the police. In a few hours, they come over, warn the lover, and when he refuses to budge, force him out of the colony. The lover, strongly pursuing Satyagraha, returns as soon as possible to his ground zero to continue his struggle. The police, this time, take him into a preventive detention for a day and after a strong warning of stricter actions, leave him back to his house. As expected by the hardcore Satyagrahi, he returns to his post; and as expected by the police, he is arrested again and presented before a district magistrate. The magistrate notes the details of the case and leaves the lover with a last warning, violating which he would be required to keep out of the city's municipal limits. The story can be constructed further, but it is clear that the guy will end up losing his job, his (good) name in the locality and what not. It may so happen that the bride's father gives in to the to the lover's undying love for his daughter after five years, but the lover would have definitely lost everything in the meanwhile. This is the essence of the popular Hindi phrase that has not got its rightful glory.

It is a common and accepted practice that nations glorify their history, but if ours is really about truth, shouldn't we publish it with disclaimers?