The margin of error that Indian society is willing to accept to let an innocent person be erroneously put to death as opposed to getting him or her live a useful life inside a prison compound tells us the sort of society we are.

Two weeks ago, this paper ran a chilling front page story. In Ludhiana, the Punjab Police had arrested an alleged serial killer, who has reportedly confessed to murdering eight people in one night in Goregaon in 2001.
The Punjab Police sought help from the Mumbai Police, which is evidently disinterested. Six accused picked up by the local cops have been “successfully” convicted. The local policeman is quoted as saying: “If the Punjab Police have something concrete, they should give it to us in black and white. As of now, we have no reason to initiate any investigation into this case.” The Ludhiana police is quoted as saying: “We sent a police team to the Goregaon police station but they returned empty-handed because the Goregaon police told them they do not keep detailed record of cases which were more than 10 years old.”

This example tells a larger story. Six people are convicted of murder in Mumbai. When the Punjab Police finds evidence that points to someone else having committed that very murder, the Mumbai Police fears the risk of being exposed. Either the man held in Punjab committed the crime with his own accomplices or the six men languishing in some Maharashtra jail are murderers. Some of the six could have been the accomplices and the others may indeed be innocent. Evidently, all that is irrelevant to the police, as indeed to society, which expressed no outrage over this story.

Now, in India, murder is punishable with the death penalty – the legitimised killing of an individual by society. American veteran musician Holly Near nails it with her question: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong?” Society has been lured into believing that the fear of death would deter man from doing wrong things. It is popular to believe that but for the death penalty, more people would be liberally committing serious crime. The argument is fallacious. If true, no crime that attracts the death penalty would occur. Even as you are reading this sentence, someone is killing someone because the consequence of being put to death does not cross the mind when the crime is committed.

On the contrary, the death penalty only serves to help others in society “achieve closure” when someone’s blood is shed in punishment. This societal blood-thirst is now even judicially recognised with a fancy name: “collective conscience”. This clearly entails the risk of putting an innocent to death. The victims of this approach would then necessarily largely comprise those who cannot afford a proper legal defence. Putting a few innocent rich men to death would hardly help the cause.

Even if there were no death penalty, India’s collective conscience does not really bother about whether the convict, rich or poor, is truly a convict. This is why neither the Mumbai Police nor the local citizen cares a damn about whether the man in Punjab could be the real criminal. Neither is outraged. For the victim of this injustice is actually someone society has already demonised. They would be quick to treat questioning of the death penalty as an argument for abolishing all penalties – the precise bipolar discourse that spurs them to watch “debate” on prime time television and contribute to the TRPs. If a convict spending an entire life in prison amounts to “getting away with murder”, one must necessarily ask if an entire society can get away with murder and not lose sleep over whether six innocents in their city could potentially be put to death.

All justice delivery can occur only through human beings. Right from the policeman investigating the crime to the judge delivering the last appellate judgement, every element of the system is exposed to human error. The question really is: what margin of error is society willing to accept to let an innocent be erroneously put to death, as opposed to an innocent getting to live a useful life even if erroneously sentenced to a life inside a prison compound. The answer would tell us what sort of society we are.

Tweets @SomasekharS

(This piece was published in the July 24, 2015 edition of the Ahmedabad Mirror, Bangalore Mirror, Mumbai Mirror and Pune Mirror)


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