Last month, 26-year-old Indian national Yadwinder Singh, found guilty by a Singapore court for taking part in a riot, was sentenced to 5 years and 5 months in jail, with 12 strokes of the cane. Singapore, which vigorously defends its use of the cane, is one among several jurisdictions around the world where corporal punishments such as caning, whipping, and flogging continues to be legal.
Britain, which earlier ruled these countries, had adopted whipping as a form of punishment. Although Britain itself stopped the practice in 1948, many of the countries that gained independence from it did not.
Although the Indian Penal Code of 1860 did not explicitly include whipping as a form of punishment, colonial administrators construed the Code as giving sanction to the practice. The Whipping Act of 1909 laid down corporal punishment for crimes such as theft, housebreaking, dacoity, and rape, among others.
Independent India abolished the Act in 1955, and a new Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) went into force in 1973. Prison inmates can, however, still be subjected to whipping under the Prisons Act of 1894, depending on which state they are jailed in. Prisons being a subject in the State List, amendments to this law are made by state legislatures, some of which have not deleted this provision.
Pakistan, which was ruled by the same colonial master as India, followed a different course. In 1979, the military dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq supplemented the Whipping Act by introducing stoning and amputation as new forms of punishment. It was only in 1996 that the government of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did away with most of these provisions, including the colonial law.
In Sri Lanka, whipping remained part of its Penal Code until 2005. Myanmar took until 2014 to outlaw whipping. In Bangladesh, however, the Act continues to remain on the statute book. British India, apart from its own vast jurisdiction, had the power to legislate for many of Britain’s other colonies in the region, including Malaysia and Singapore (then part of the Straits Settlements). The criminal laws in both of these countries, originally Indian re-enactments, have been amended significantly over the years.
Nevertheless, caning and whipping continue to have legal sanction. These punishments also enjoy significant public support, and neither Malaysia nor Singapore have signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the multilateral United Nations agreement which sees these rights as “deriving from the inherent dignity of the human person”, and lays down that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Caning or whipping has legal sanction in some other former British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, as well.
Sharia law countries
The Islamic Sharia law prescribes corporal punishment for theft, adultery, homosexuality, etc. The harshness and frequency of corporal punishment depend heavily on the interpretation of the alleged crime in a given jurisdiction.
Saudi Arabia and Iran hand out the sentence frequently and implement it harshly. In Indonesia’s Aceh province, public whipping is employed for a wide range of crimes, including selling alcohol. Whipping is allowed under both sets of laws that apply in Nigeria — the Sharia-based system in the Muslim-majority north, and the English common law system in the Christian-dominated south — but is employed more frequently in the north. Whipping is legal in the Maldives as well.
Some Muslim countries choose a more flexible approach. In Qatar, the provisions of Sharia law apply to Muslims only. Within the UAE, emirates such as Dubai have implemented a milder version. Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban not too long ago, has a comparatively relaxed system in place today.
Degrees of brutality
There are differences in the way corporal punishments are enforced. Commonwealth nations have well-defined legislation and procedural laws. In many cases, the whip or strap has been replaced by the milder ‘rattan’ cane, with specified dimensions. Women and the elderly are exempt from caning in most countries, and the sentence is seldom carried out in public. There are limits on the number of strokes that can be inflicted — 30 in Bangladesh, 24 in Singapore and Malaysia, and 12 in Nigeria.
Sharia law countries rarely enact proper criminal laws or procedures. Due to the absence of binding instructions, courts frequently mete out extremely harsh punishments. In Qatar, a man and a woman were sentenced 100 lashes for adultery in 2016. The sentencing of the Saudi Arabian dissident Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes, to be administered over 20 weeks, in 2014, evoked international outcry. The first 50 lashes were administered in January 2015, but further lashes have been postponed, apparently due to Badawi’s poor health.