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The question is doubly impenetrable. It involves death, the most tantalizingly imponderable topic that human mortals must but can never figure out. Thinking about death is one task which clearly makes a mockery of the Kantian dictum: “Ought implies can.” From Nachiketa, through Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to Ramchandra Gandhi, every thinker-without-borders found it obligatory as well as impossible to think clearly about death. Wittgenstein’s remark that death is not an event in life, though meant to be a strictly analytically true statement, nevertheless strikes me as plainly false. It is analogous to the over-smart counter-comment that my birth is not an event in my life because my life starts after it. How can Socrates’s or Gandhi’s life story be complete if we do not describe their deaths?

But the other concept that this question introduces, the concept of deserving, is no less impenetrable. The idea of deserving has close ties with the idea of justice: If X deserves P (a certain prize or punishment), then it would be unjust if X does not get P. But the two notions: justice and desert, instead of making each other clearer, seem to make each other obscurer by a vicious mutual dependence. I wonder how Ramchandra Gandhi would have sorted out this question “Who deserves to die?” or “For whom will it be unjust to stay alive?”

Right now, the parents and the community of the brutally raped and murdered 12- and 14-year-old Dalit girls in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh are demanding that the rapists and the policemen who connived at that grisly rape and murder should be executed. The outraged community thinks with a certitude only extreme grief can bring, that these rapist-murderers deserve to die. It may appear that to disagree with them at this grim hour is to condone the current countrywide epidemic of such crimes, especially against Dalit and tribal women. A Madhya Pradesh minister, The Times of India reported, set an all time record of imbecility by making three comments on this general asurik trend of the Indian male: first, that not all rapes are wrong (logically, which means that some are right, giving us a new political meaning of “right”), second, that women should learn judo and karate to protect themselves (this minister would have been sorely missed in Dhritarashtra’s court, when Draupadi who never learned karate, was being disrobed), and third, crowning all, that unless a woman wants to be molested no one can molest her. One has to resist the violent rhetorical response that if anyone ever richly deserved an unceremonious death it is this moral moron who could think such thoughts and then could be shameless enough to publicize them. No, no one deserves to die for stupidity though one can die of stupidity.

Surely, our asking the question “Does anyone, even those confessed rapist-murderers, deserve to die?” cannot be taken to have anything to do with such ministerial cretinousness.

Perhaps, we should start by granting that if anyone deserves to die, those rapacious molester-murderers of Badaun do. But the question — and it is not to be reduced to the important but hackneyed question of justification of capital punishment — remains: what is it to deserve death?

In a paper published in Philosophy East and West in 1981, Ramchandra Gandhi delves into this question. The paper is called “On meriting death” (and it is accessible online via JStor).

“Meriting”, like “earning”, has a prima facie positive association. Thus, when my mother died with only 15 minutes’ extreme suffering, at the age of 71, with no serious ailment, some neighbours commented that she earned such a death by her merit (punya). I did not understand that notion of earning then, and I do not understand it now when it is used in the negative way — when harsh retributive punishment is referred to as “pain earned by wrong-doing”.

Of course, even if we take “meriting” to be synonymous with “deserving”, this question was not discussed exactly in this bald form in that paper. Ramchandra Gandhi’s concern was, “When can Y be said to merit or not merit death at the hands of X?” And we can imagine other ways of filling out the question of meriting or not meriting death. “Did Vivekananda deserve to die of diabetes at the age of 39?” — which takes us to a very different zone of moral-metaphysical imagination, than the question, “Did MKG deserve to die by the gunshot of N.R. Godse?” Well, Ramchandra Gandhi’s paper turns out to be on the right to kill, though he starts by stating, intriguingly, that X may have the right to kill Y and still Y may not merit death at the hands of X.

When I heard of Ramchandra Gandhi’s death, I could not help asking, “Did he deserve the death that befell him?” Of course, we did not deserve to lose him so soon. But that is beside the point here. It is not about us who are deservingly or undeservingly still living. It is about whether or not Ramchandra Gandhi merited the death he underwent. No one killed Ramchandra Gandhi, not even in the metaphorical sense in which cancer killed Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. But every death, including Ramchandra Gandhi’s death, happens in a certain manner. And when I am urging us to inquire whether anyone deserves to die, I am not asking the cosmic or Christian question whether human beings have done anything to be susceptible to death at all. I am asking: “Does a particular person ever deserve to die in the manner in which he or she dies?” A simple naturalistic response could be that deaths —especially natural deaths — are events like a flood or an outbreak of allergy, about which to ask the question of deserving or justice makes no sense. If we raise the question of deserving to die, we have to be ready to raise the question of deserving to be born or deserving to live. And such a question can have disturbing and diabolical ramifications for the familiar applied ethics debates.

The typical Gandhian/Hindu/karma theoretic attitude would be that, if someone dies in a certain manner, then he or she must have deserved to die in that manner, because the law of karma or ishvara, the overseer of the law of karma, never permits an unmerited death to happen. But if that was to be taken flatly universally to be true, then all killings would be justified because the deaths they would cause would be well-deserved.

Perhaps it has been a bit inauspicious to raise the question if Ramchandra Gandhi (or Vivekananda or M.K. Gandhi) deserved the death that befell him in the context of asking whether the rapists have earned their death (to which one could say, “No, because they need to suffer much longer which they cannot if they are swiftly, if punitively, eliminated”). But I wanted to take two clear examples where common ethical intuition would say that someone deserves to die, and that someone does not deserve to die, with the same dearth of grounding reason.

I could never understand how the question of “deserving to die or suffer” can even be raised by atheists and disbelievers in the law of karma. But the feeling that a passionate, kind, brilliant, creative philosopher-human being like Ramchandra Gandhi, who could help so many people live a better life of the mind, did not deserve to die at the time and in the manner in which he died is at least as natural as the feeling that a bunch of perverts who raped and murdered two innocent 12- and 14-year-old girls and a powerful minister who condoned that crime deserve to die. But most probably both the feelings are, when examined, irrational. One needs Ramchandra Gandhi himself to tell us if in spite of its irrationality these feelings of who does or does not merit death in which manner have any moral or metaphysical value. Instead of invoking the glibly over-quoted Gita chapter II passage to the effect that death did not befall Ramchandra Gandhi’s soul, which went for a costume change, what, I imagine, he would have done if I asked him, “Did you, Ramuda, merit death when you died?” is to quip: “Only if you, Arindam, merited death at the same time, because I am thou.” And I would have died of epistemological embarrassment.