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Nirbhaya case: And thereby hangs a tale...

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on March 20, 2020 Published on March 20, 2020

Humans remain divided whether capital punishment deters crime, and whether the ‘revenge’ justifies killing the convict

Between 1932 and 1956, Albert Pierrepoint, an Englishman, killed around 600 people. Legally!

He, in fact, made a living out of killing. He was the Executioner in Her Majesty’ Prison Service, or, simply, the official hangman.

Pierrepoint — described by his friend Gordon Herod as “a very, very nice man”, would have gone on killing but for a tiff he had with the Sheriff over a payment, which made him resign in a huff and open a pub. He still took hanging assignments once in a while. After all, it was a sort of a family vocation — before him, his father Henry was one of the official hangmen.

In 1974, Pierrepoint wrote his autobiography. What he said in it would warm the hearts of those who are against capital punishment. A telling sentence from the autobiography is: “I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.” A good example of a ‘brave’ murderer was Ruth Ellis, a colourful nightclub hostess convicted of murder, who was the last woman to be hanged in the UK. “She was a brave woman,” said Pierrepoint, who had pulled the lever to end her life.

Rope for rape

Now, when four rapist-murderers are hanged for their misdemeanour, amid nearly universal rope-for-rape calls, the question of capital punishment once again takes centre-stage. The fundamental question is — what do you achieve by the hanging?

Rajesh Ramakrishnan, a Chennai-based psychotherapist, says that while punishment is necessary, hanging is “helpless disposal of a human being because you don’t know how to deal with him”. But he also notes that hanging, howsoever a “bad idea”, doesn’t have “a better alternative”.

Ramakrishnan, therefore, takes the middle path in the debate, even if slightly on the side of ‘hanging’, but most people take extreme positions. To many people the thought of social imprimatur to taking a human life is abhorrent, especially when they see no evidence establishing capital punishment as a deterrent against crime.

On the opposite side, the arguments are equally strong. “How do you know it is not a deterrent” is their general refrain. That many countries have abolished capital punishment is of little consequence to them. Each society is different. Putting away a deviant in prison may work as a deterrent in some countries, but may not in India, where a jailed criminal could just as well be leading a glorious life behind the bars.

In any case, why is hanging a person barbaric and taking away his freedom for good, not?

The middle path

The Indian society has, by and large, made peace with itself by choosing a middle path of sorts. Capital punishment is meted out only in the “rarest or rare” cases. The society has come a long way since the times when, say, Maharajah Nandakumar, an employee of the British East India Company, was hanged by India’s first Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, on suspicion of forgery. History teems with instances of innocents being hanged.

One such innocent, Timothy Evans, died at the hands of Pierrepoint.

But lately, this source of ‘peace of mind’ is also a bit disturbed by the perception that the assessment of what is “rarest of rare” is often influenced by public clamour.

So, why are the Nirbhaya killers more criminal than Sandeep Nathwani, who, having taken his ailing mother to the terrace on the pretext of getting her some fresh air, pushed her down to death? Nathwani tried to pass it off as suicide, but the law caught up with him in three months, in January 2018.

And what about the several well-heeled who have been convicted of rape and murder, but have avoided the gallows? This asymmetry in justice disturbs many, often pushing them to scream for abolition of capital punishment.

Revenge?

Although the human race has come a long way since the days of Hammurabi’s code of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, ‘revenge’ is a natural human emotion. It is wise to rise above it, but not folly to be in its clutches.

From the point of view of Asha Devi, Nirbhaya’s mother, the hanging of her daughter’s killers looks perfectly logical. Revenge completes the square, brings closure to an issue.

Asha Devi won’t stop missing her daughter ever, but the hanging “will complete her grieving process”, says Ramakrishnan, the psychotherapist. The moralists may say ‘revenge’ is silly, but it is a reality.

In the end, one has to be philosophical about it. There is law, and a due process of law, which flows its course and ends where it has to end.

That brings us back to Pierrepoint. One of his customers, James Corbitt, would sing in his pub as Pierrepoint played the piano. The two became good friends — they nicknamed each other Tish (James) and Tosh (Albert).

One day, Corbitt strangled his mistress, and it fell upon Pierrepoint to hang him.

Such is life. Or, death.

Published on March 20, 2020
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