Life or death? Verdict on 31st

India is set to bring alive the capital punishment debate.

Pankaj Sharma/ZRG

India is set to bring alive the capital punishment debate as it gets ready to carry out first execution in about eight years. Balwant Singh Rajoana is to be executed on March 31 for assassinating former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh in 1995 in the backdrop of feeble protests for clemency.

The country last witnessed hanging of a child rapist on August 14, 2004 when Dhananjoy Chatterjee was executed in West Bengal, causing then a bitter debate for and against capital punishment.

While government has officially stuck to its stand on the controversial issue, the fact that no hanging has taken place in India during the last eight years bears testimony to the fact it has adopted a wait and watch policy.

Indian courts awarded a total of 1,338 death penalties during the last one decade on a plethora of cases ranging from murder and rape to terror. The award profile essentially follows the crime graph in the country with Uttar Pradesh leading the tally at 323. Courts in Bihar and Maharashtra awarded 130 and 122 death penalties respectively during the decade.

Family members of Rajoana have pleaded for converting his death sentence to life imprisonment. There might be merit in their argument if statistics are any indication. During the last decade a total of 2806 death penalty cases were commuted to life imprisonment. Out of these, Delhi reported the maximum 2461 life imprisonment cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with 461 and 339 incidents, respectively.

As if on cue in an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog, said the execution of Rajoana would be a major step backwards. "Resuming executions after an eight year hiatus would place India in opposition to regional and global trends towards abolition of the death penalty," said Amnesty`s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi, in his March 26 plea.

The government has maintained silence on the issue but should it go through the March 31 execution, decks would be cleared for the hanging of several other high profile convicts. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), there were 18 mercy petitions pending before the President and MHA as of February 14, 2012. The list includes Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.

India is not alone that still swears by capital punishment and has US and Iran for company. Iran, incidentally, boasts of the highest number of 1663 executions in the last four years. Saudi Arabia and Iraq follow with 423 and 256 executions each during the period. The United States and Pakistan also reported 220 and 174 hangings in the same period.

On the last count 97 countries had done away with capital punishment preferring life imprisonment over it.