There are various kinds of punishment which are given to the offenders accused of an offence and have been declared so by the Court of Law in the matter. Such punishments can be categorised as imprisonment for a stipulated time period, imprisonment for life, capital punishment or death penalty, etc. Now, the ‘rarest of the rare’ punishment is death penalty, as it is given only in exceptional cases. Cases involving committal of grievous crimes such as rape, murder, genocide, etc. These crimes are so brutal in nature that there is no other option left other than death for the offenders/guilty. 

Death penalty, also known as ‘capital punishment’, is the execution of an offender sentenced to death after his conviction by a court of law. As per Project 39A report on death penalty, between 2000 and 2014 trial courts sentenced 1,810 people to death, more than half of which were commuted to life imprisonment and about a quarter of those, 443, were acquitted by the Supreme Court and high courts. The Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence of 73 of these prisoners, out of which many had already spent a decade on death row. 

There have been a number of death penalties ever since independence. Approximately, 720 prisoners have been executed since 1947. The crimes, falling under various legislations, which account for capital punishment are The Prevention of Child Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) 2012, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) 1999, Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) 1985, among others as well. 

The first execution which ever happened in independent India was of Nathuram Godse and Narain D Apte, they were the ones who had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. It was on 15th November, 1949, when they were hanged to death. 

The last execution that had taken place in India was on July 30, 2015 of Yakub Memon, a convict in financing 1993 Mumbai bombings. Although, quite recently the four accused of the Nirbhaya gangrape, who had committed the brutal gangrape of a girl in December 2012, were also hanged to death after 7 years of trial and suffering. Prior to these two convictions, Muhammad Afzal Guru was also hanged to death for the 2001 Parliament attack after 9 years of trial on February 9, 2013. Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab, the 2008 Mumbai attack gunman, was executed on November 21, 2012. Both of them were executed in secrecy without informing their family members and the nation. Everyone got to know about this after they had been hanged. 

This is how executions take place in India and this is the amount of time required to deliver justice to the one who is innocent and also the punishment to the guilty. It was rightly said by Akshaye Khanna in his movie “Section 375” that “Justice is abstract, law is fact”. Here, the law is what decides whether the accused is guilty or not without keeping in mind that even justice plays a role in it. This is the ground reality which everyone knows but most of us intentionally avoid it. 

The manner of awarding death penalty or capital punishment in other countries is very different as compared to ours. They use the method of lethal injection, which is most commonly used in the US, and there have been almost 1337 executions since 1976 using the above method. Electrocution is another which is used by different countries as well, lethal gas is also used in few countries, hanging is very rarely used, stoning to death, beheading, falling from an unknown height. These are the methods used for execution in different countries but hanging and electrocution are considered as common almost everywhere. 

Now, coming on to the status of death penalty in different countries, whether it has been abolished or is it still in practice? Well, 142 countries have either abolished the death penalty in law or in practice and that in the past five years 33 countries have carried out at least one execution. In countries like China, the number of executions carried out in a year are far more than in any other country but are kept as a state secret. There are:

  • 106 countries where use of the death penalty is not allowed by law
  • 7 countries which permit the death penalty only for serious crimes in exceptional circumstances, such as those committed during times of war
  • 29 countries which have death penalty laws but haven’t executed anyone for at least 10 years, and a policy or more formal commitment not to execute
  • 56 countries which retain death penalty laws and either carry out executions or the authorities have not made an official declaration not to execute.

Death penalty has been officially abolished by countries which hass been on a rise where in 1991 there were 48 and in 2017, there are 106 which have done the same. 105 States have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, 8 have abolished it for ordinary crimes and 50 have introduced a moratorium on executions, whether by law or de facto, for a total of 163 States. 

Since so many countries across the globe have abolished death penalty for certain crimes and has been allowed for a few crimes, whether India should also follow in the steps of other countries?

When certain grievous crimes are committed in a country like India where it is required to punish the offenders only through execution, there is no other option but ‘death penalty’. But, yes, there are certain crimes of less grievous nature, for which the guilty should not punish with capital punishment and thus, as a punishment it must be abolished but should only be awarded in exceptional circumstances. Now, if we see the statistics of all the death penalties which have happened till now in India, most of them have been awarded in exceptional circumstances only and not for any crime of a petty nature. So, whether we abolish death penalty or not, it does not matter that much as at the end of the day it is going to be awarded to those who deserve it and there is no other way of punishing the offender(s). Thus, what I believe and propose is that death penalty should not be abolished in India as if it is abolished then the rate at which crimes are committed in India will rise even more than what already is existent. The crime rate cannot be brought down by abolishing death penalty but by introducing even stricter legislations and punishments than are already there so that no one even dares to commit a crime in the first place. Lastly, I would like to end by quoting Barack Obama who said that “We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer – our homeland more secure, our world more peaceful and sustainable for the next generation.”

About the author

Prabhav Pandey is pursuing B. A. LLB from the Army Institute of Law, Mohali. His key area of interest is in Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, and Intellectual Property Law. He has participated in many moot court competitions and has published research papers in the past. He wishes and strives to become a judge in the future.

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