Parliamentarians, lawyers, judges and civil society activists supported the abolition of the death penalty at a consultation called by the Law Commission of India on the issue.
Speakers who said the death penalty should be abolished include former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, BJP leader Varun Gandhi, former Congress Union minister Shashi Tharoor and DMK leader Kanimozhi.
Supreme Court Bar Association President Dushyant Dave opposed abolition of the death penalty, arguing that capital punishment was necessary given the terror threat faced by India.
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Delivering the inaugural address at the day-long consultation, Gopalkrishna invoked Mahatma Gandhi and the principle of non-violence, saying that capital punishment was a “folly on a grand scale” and that the state should investigate crime and not use “shortcuts” like execution for “gratification”.
While Tharoor’s speech referred to international conventions on human rights and the international law on capital punishment, Varun said capital punishment was “politically counterproductive” since it “created martyrs”. Varun also argued that the death penalty was an “anomaly”, given the current human rights and Constitutional rights framework.
Professor N R Madhava Menon said “retribution” as the reason for imposition of capital punishment could not be completely eliminated, but “had no place in Gandhi’s India”.
Speakers also pointed out that the doctrine of “rarest of rare” case where the death penalty should be handed had been “diluted” as trial courts imposed capital punishment in a large number of cases, even though the high courts and the Supreme Court subsequently quash the punishment.
A report of a study on death penalty by students of the National Law University, Delhi, which was shared during the consultation, also showed that there were caste and religious biases in the imposition of death penalty in India. According to the data, 385 prisoners across India were given death penalty between June 2013 and January 2015, out of which over 75 per cent belonged to economically weaker sections, backward castes and religious minorities.
The study also indicated that 94 per cent of the persons given death sentence for terror-related cases belonged to Dalit caste or religious minorities. Among all states, Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of prisoners on death row at 79, followed by Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Delhi.
NLU researcher Anup Surendranath also said out of the 385 persons given death penalty in the last two years by the trial courts, the appeals of 270 were pending in the High Courts and 52 in the Supreme Court, while 31 mercy petitions were pending with the government. Further, since 2000, over 1,600 people had been given death penalty in the country, but the actual number of executions carried out was only of three, he said.
He added that the Supreme Court confirmed death penalty in only about 4.9 per cent of the cases in which the trial courts imposed the punishment. The full research report is expected to be released by the Centre on Death Penalty soon.
Law Commission member Professor Mool Chand Sharma noted that the day-long discussion seemed to suggest that there was a need to consider a moratorium on executions till the problems in the legal system are removed. Law Commission Chairman Justice A P Shah also said that there was a “serious need” to re-examine the issue of death penalty, since there were several “inconsistencies in the system” which led to arbitrariness and discrimination in the imposition of death penalty.