Capital punishment is a contentious issue all over the world. There is no consensus on it. It is thus not surprising that the death sentence on the three persons who aided and abetted the attack on Parliament in December 2001 should not meet with universal approval. The argument in favour of capital punishment is well rehearsed. Its rationale is deterrence. Death sentence, the severest possible punishment, serves as an example and thus stops other persons from contemplating and/or committing the same crime. The argument against capital punishment is normally couched in quasi-religious or metaphysical terms. This says that no man can take away what he himself cannot give. God creates human life and only he has the right to take it. This argument is losing some of its edge with the progress of research in genetics. The breakthrough in cloning makes the creation of life a distinct possibility. This logically should clear the path for a full-throated support to capital punishment. The matter may not be that simple, and the science and art of jurisprudence has space for very few sweeping generalizations. Hard cases, jurists argue, make bad law.
A liberal society is based on the rights of individuals, some of which are inviolable. The right to life is the most important of these. Without it any society, let alone a civilized and liberal one, becomes an impossibility. Taking away the life of an individual by another individual or group of individuals is a transgression of this basic premise. The state, which has been created by a contract between individuals to stand above individual interests and to protect individual rights, acts to punish the transgressor. The latter, in fact, has performed a breach of contract to which he had been a willing party. By committing murder he forfeits his own right to life. But even this logic has to be tempered according to circumstances and the nature of the case. Capital punishment, like all other extreme measures in society, cannot be used indiscriminately.
The death sentence was meted out to the three persons plotting the attack on Parliament, who were as guilty as those who had actually carried out the assault. The aim was murder and mayhem. It was also an act of treachery since the Parliament embodies the republic. The assailants had no respect for individual lives, rights and the nation. The debate on capital punishment should continue. But very few, except passionate advocates of complete non-violence, will have any qualms of conscience for those engaged in terrorism.