Death Penalty Abolition Debate

Issue of handing down the death sentence in a cursory manner


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Article 39A

Mains level: Paper 2- Debate on death penalty


Last week, a little over 13 years after the blasts in 2008 (in July) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the designated court to conduct a speedy trial decided the fate of 78 of the accused people. Within a week, the court sentenced 38 of 49 people to death.

The debate on the death sentence

  • The death sentence grants the state the monopoly of violence.
  • This monopoly is justified by claiming that such a step prevents crime or that it is a measure of long-due justice.
  • Use in ‘rarest of rare’ case: Fundamentally, ‘rarest of rare’ is a standard that allows a court of law to use public sentiment as a judicially reliable standard in handing out the death sentence.
  • Proportionality test: India’s carceral criminal jurisprudence requires a court to calculate proportionality between crime and punishment.
  • But a death sentence is a sentence that goes beyond the confines of these calculations to deprive a person of their life — committing an act whose central value itself is immeasurable.
  • The impossibility of reform, the heinous nature of the crime, the shock to the public conscience, none of these things sufficiently justify the right of a fallible institution to take someone’s life.

Mitigating arguments

  • After the verdict is delivered in any criminal trial, lawyers make what are called ‘mitigating arguments’ — essentially to contextualise the convict as an individual and not as the accused.
  • Unlike other trial stages where a court adjudicates between competing legal identities of an accused, the complainant, etc., in mitigation, the court hears evidence of a person’s humanity. 
  • Hearing mitigating circumstances requires — however temporarily — for the trappings of distance and formality to be stripped away so that a court may see a person instead of a convict.

The issue in the above case

  • In this case, first, the court orally convicted ‘en masse’ several of the accused instead of declaring the charges proved against them separately.
  • The prosecution argued that the defendants should argue for mitigation before it would even disclose which convicts it intended to seek the death sentence.
  • The role attributed to each of the accused was different.
  • By equating them for mitigation purposes (individual circumstances were unaccounted for and context and circumstances were considered to be the same) and handing down a mass death sentence, the court has only opened the door for greater misuse of a questionable power to end a life without any oversight.


A permanent sentence requires us to assume that our institutions are infallible and user-proof. To cast this as a simple ‘penalty’ ignores what it truly does — and did in this case; it negates the individual for the final time.

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