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Fear of Death Won't Quell Crime: How Camus Saw Death Penalty & Why it Matters

Can India claim its moral development while holding a noose in its embrace?

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5 min read
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(Trigger warning: Description of methods of capital punishment.)

“There are no just people – merely hearts more or less lacking in justice,” French philosopher Albert Camus wrote this in his essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ (1957).

While capital punishment by the immense razor of the guillotine was finally abolished in 1981 in France, India still retains the power to execute people by “hanging till death."

It is ironic that several methods of execution have been developed in order to make the death quick and painless, though it rarely is. How can the knowledge of being moments away from death ever be without pain?

Besides, in hanging, the prisoner is to be weighed before his execution to determine the length of the rope needed. If there is spring or coiling or the rope is not treated, the person could be decapitated or worse — strangulated slowly. If the latter is to happen, the condemned person’s eyes will pop and face will engorge among other indignities.

While these descriptions may be nauseating, India’s ‘collective conscience’ repeatedly demands hanging of persons accused of rape and murder, often citing the punishment’s power to frighten the future criminal – “so that it does not happen again.”

However, Camus asks, if the punishment is so exemplary, why is it not carried out in public? In present-day India, even though the execution of the death sentence is not a public spectacle, it is always a matter of tremendous public knowledge and heightened public interest.

One might even defend death penalty in India, saying that it is awarded only in the 'rarest of rare' cases. But that's hardly the full truth.

The Supreme Court had propounded the 'rarest of rare' doctrine in 1980. Yet, as per Project 39A's 'Annual Statistics Report', the number of prisoners on death row at the end of 2021 was 488 — an approximately 21% increase from 2020, and the highest in 17 years.

Besides, can India claim its moral development while holding a noose in its embrace? Is human life so inconsequential that it is okay to condemn it to a punishment as final and as irreversible as death?

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FEAR OF DEATH WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH

“Heads are cut off not only to punish but to intimidate, by a frightening example, any who might be tempted to imitate the guilty…It (society) waves the head in the air so that potential murderers will see their fate and recoil from it,” Camus writes and then goes on to puncture this assumption.

Consider this example:

When pickpockets used to be publicly executed in England, other pickpockets exercised their talents in the crowd surrounding the scaffold. In fact, as per statistics compiled over a period of 50 years show that out of 250 pickpockets hanged, 170 had previously attended one or even two public executions.

If fear of death was to deter crime, what explains the increase in crime against women? One of which occurred at a gap of every 74 seconds just last year.

While an outraged majority may demand death, a state-led execution will not deter those who rape, like the same does not deter those who kill in the name of honour or religion.

“If fear of death is, indeed, a fact, another fact is that such fear, however great it may be, has never sufficed to quell human passions,” Camus argues.

He states that for the law to actually deter a criminal, the fear will have to overtake and bear presence all the time, even when the force of jealousy, love, etc is irresistible. And this is where the law fails. “The instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium,” he writes and outlines the man, who while shaving in the morning, may have no idea that he will kill that day.

Describing capital punishment, Camus writes, “Let us call it by the name which, for lack of any other nobility, will at least give the nobility of truth, and let is recognise it for what it is essentially: a revenge."

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WAITING FOR DEATH & JUSTICE

As per Project 39A’s ‘Death Penalty India Report 2016’ over 1700 prisoners were sentenced to death by trial courts in the period 2000-2015, but the appellate courts ultimately confirmed (upheld) only 4.9 percent of the sentences.

This is not to say that brutal crimes are not committed, but that the brutality of a crime might lead to even innocent people being punished.

“Court cannot make someone, a victim of injustice, to compensate for the injustice to the victim of a crime", a bench of the Supreme Court had recently observed, while acquitting a man accused of the rape and murder of a six year old girl. The acquitted person spent 8 out of 10 years in jail on the death row.

Talking about how just waiting for execution is a grave punishment in itself, Camus writes, “A man is undone by waiting for capital punishment well before he dies. Two deaths are inflicted on him, the first being worse than the second, whereas he killed but once.”

He adds, “Many laws consider a premeditated crime more serious than a crime of pure violence. But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

For years, the condemned person, whether innocent or guilty, hopes for justice, until that hope ashens into an acceptance.

“The devastating, degrading fear that is imposed on the condemned for months or years is a punishment more terrible than death, and one that was not imposed on the victim…Torture through hope alternates with the pangs of animal despair,” Camus adds.

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The Quint accessed a letter written by a prisoner currently on the death row. Their name has not been revealed to protect the person’s identity.

Originally written in Marathi, the prisoner writes:

“Even when all these things were going away before my eyes (my father, grandfather) never to return, I could not do anything. Looking back at these events today, the mind becomes restless. That, I could not do anything for them…To keep yourself and your family away from the ravages of society, you have to struggle with everything and live an ordeal every day. But that suffering is not diminishing. After enduring all this, they twist their stomachs and give us a money order of Rs 500 per month. Seeing this makes my mind numb. And the mind is gnawing at itself.”

Speaking about his family, he adds:

“Since these ten years and even until today, they spend their days with one hope that when one such day dawns with golden footmarks, we will be released and be able to come home."

"Like a valuable and loved item in the house should suddenly break and be kept in a store room as no one in the house can repair it. Day after day the dust piles on it due to it just laying there. But everyone hopes that one day someone will come and fix it. We have become like that. Like that broken object.”

This is the first part of a three-part series on death penalty.

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