Why Life Imprisonment Must Be Abolished
“The Supreme Court has said that life imprisonment meant behind bars for life. It is worse than death to keep a person confined for his entire life in jail rather than taking his life,” Justice VR Krishna Iyer said in The Economic Times (11-02-2013). Why no one barring a few exceptions like Justice Krishna Iyer ever demands the permanent abolition of life imprisonment from our legal system while we keep hearing every now and then repeated demands for abolition of death penalty? Why should life imprisonment not be abolished permanently now itself? Why should the life term punishment exist at all in our penal laws if it is worse than death penalty? The Centre and our lawmakers must seriously deliberate on this to arrive at a right conclusion.
India is no longer a slave of Britain that the laws made by them in 1860 cannot be adequately amended in 2015 to meet the present circumstances. Laws should be amended precisely as they are made – routinely and continuously! What one finds most disturbing is that now the life imprisonment has been made most worst and we have left even the punishment given during British rule behind. During the British rule, life imprisonment meant 14 years and after Independence even though in some cases they approved it but of late it has been meant to mean whole life without any remission. This is most concerning to note.
Why can’t criminals be reformed? Why can’t they be rehabilitated? Why can’t they be taught in jail the values of humanity, tolerance and pardon? Why can’t they contribute to the betterment of society? Why can’t we shed off our age-old mental block and false prejudice that “once a criminal is always a criminal”? Why do we forget that one of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi, our former Prime Minister, scored more than 95 per cent in an exam which he gave while in jail, which most of us never have been able to score despite getting best facilities? Why can’t he be rehabilitated? Why do we forget that even many terrorists who are brainwashed on how best to destroy India in foreign hostile nations like Pakistan have been reformed and rehabilitated after they realised their utter foolishness and after they were admonished by their own parents and relatives?
Life imprisonment is the worst crime that can ever be committed by anyone and even State cannot be given the licence to commit the most heinous crime on earth. But what we see on ground is completely astounding and life imprisonment keeps getting conferred at the drop of a hat which is most unfortunate, to say the least. Our lawmakers must pay some attention to this punishment of life imprisonment being vested in so many Sections and being conferred so liberally and so must human right activists and others raise this issue forcefully in each and every forum.
Yet, we never hear even a whimper of protest from any human right or social activist or any eminent legal luminary barring certain notable exceptions and that too not very vociferously which is most regrettable. I am yet to read a single article in my life on life imprisonment even though I have read many on death penalty. I have myself written many times on death penalty but this is the first time that I am attempting to write on life imprisonment! This itself proves that this burning topic, which is the worst form of human rights violation, has never received any attention of any kind from anywhere in the world and even our Law Commission has never given it a food of thought even though it keeps on reviewing death penalty from time to time.
Sections in IPC or any other penal law, which mandate death penalty, can be counted on finger tips in one hand alone but life imprisonment is inundated in so many Sections and in so many penal laws that a lot of unremitting hard work has to be done to count the exact number of Sections that prescribe life imprisonment. Yet all the time we hear all the brouhaha over death penalty by not only human rights activists and eminent legal luminaries but also by our Central government, Law Commission, academicians, etc. Isn’t it a supreme irony over which no one, not even our Law Commission, bothers to even brood over? As a great civilization, which has always followed the non-violent, love and tolerant ideas of Buddha, Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi, India must put the punishment of life imprisonment to where it truly belongs—in the museum. Two wrongs cannot make a right. The earlier we realise this, the better it shall be in the interest of humanity and justice.
There are many including me who also feel that terrorist too can be brainwashed not in the manner Pakistan or our other hostile nation does but in a real positive sense and they too once reformed should be allowed to come back to the mainstream and live a normal life like others. My best friend Sageer Khan once said to me way back in 1994, “Defend a rapist or a dacoit or a robber or a murderer or any other criminal but never ever in life defend a terrorist. I say so because a rapist or a dacoit or a robber or a murderer never goes to Pakistan or any other foreign nation to get training on how best to destroy India. Moreover, a rapist or a dacoit or any other criminal adversely affects one or a few individuals but terrorists are a potent threat to the very existence of our whole nation.” I immediately asked him: “Does a country that has rapists or dacoits or corrupt or murderers or any other criminals really need Pakistan’s ISI or Army-trained terrorist to destroy India? Who trains our politicians to hold talks and dialogues with terrorists and swindle away unlimited money for their own pocket and allow millions of poor to die hungry?” He endorsed my stand and then said: “Yes, you are right that criminals are criminals.” We have seen for ourselves how so many terrorists after being reformed have got absorbed in the mainstream. However, terrorists should be allowed to join the mainstream after it is thoroughly confirmed that he/she has reformed and shown genuine interest in leading a normal life again and still it should be made ensured that he/she again does not go back to the same old dirty path of terrorism, which is the biggest threat to the very existence of our nation.
Life term under no circumstances can ever be justified. No matter how heinous any crime any criminal may have committed, there is always a possibility of reforming but life term forever closes that option which. We need to change our mental level of thinking and learn to be more tolerant even towards those who have gone on the wrong track. Of course, I don’t say that they should not be punished but simultaneously we must make sure that they too are given an opportunity of returning to the mainstream so that their whole family benefits especially those who are totally dependent on them like aged parents, wife, children, etc.
What sense does it make to lock a person inside jail for whole life? Why should instead such person not be made to do service which can benefit the society at large without paying him/her anything in return and yes, if someone is dependent on him/her for survival then directly giving to the dependent concerned some money? Will this not benefit the whole society as also his/her family who were not partner in the crime while punishing him/her at the same time? Our lawmakers and the Centre must seriously ponder over this.
Why should life imprisonment exist at all even for the most heinous crimes? Why can’t the criminals be punished and then allowed to contribute their bit to society by releasing them after few years? Why can’t we come out of our medieval slavish mindset which firmly believes in “Once a criminal always a criminal”? Why can’t such criminals who are guilty of committing the most heinous crimes be reformed and compulsorily made to contribute their service to the disabled, orphans, street dogs, other uncared animals and poorest of poor instead of just latching them behind bars for their whole life? Why don’t we realise that society gains nothing by just botching them inside Tihar jail or any other jail for the rest of their lives? It is high time we at least now changed our primitive mindset for the betterment of the whole society at large.
What a supreme irony that according to the government itself, only 54 persons have been executed since Independence as reported in The Times Of India newspaper (25-08-2014) but yet so much of brouhaha is made over death penalty. On the contrary, endless number of persons have been sentenced to life imprisonment since Independence and yet we hardly hear any voice to repeal it forever in the supreme interest of protection of humanity, life and personal liberty of not just common citizens but also criminals. Criminals too are like us, it is only that due to some circumstances and wrong company they get involved in some wrongdoing for which they certainly must be punished but condemning them to prison for life can in no way be the ideal solution.
Hence, it is high time the Centre and Law Commission did a thorough introspection and deep research on it to get to the bottom of the matter. I am sure that they too will ultimately come to the logical conclusion that in a modern, civilised society, life imprisonment simply serves no relevant purpose other than satisfying few sadistic egos and must therefore be stamped off from all our statutes and penal laws. Only then can we call ourselves tolerant, civilised and modern in the true sense.
At least to the best of my knowledge, I have never heard even once of the Law Commission reviewing the abolition of life imprisonment even though it has reviewed death penalty in the past and now too has decided to embark on the same exercise with a fresh look and it needs no rocket science to conclude that it is only due to unremitting pressure of human rights activists, lawyers and other intellectuals. The Supreme Court earlier while rejecting the challenge to the death penalty had quoted the 1967 report of the Law Commission (which was 35th Report) which had said, “Having regard, however, to the conditions in India, to the variety of social upbringing of its inhabitants to the disparity in the level of morality and education in the country, to the vastness of its area, to the diversity of its population and to the paramount need for maintaining law and order in the country at the present juncture, India cannot risk the experiment of abolition of capital punishment.” But what about life imprisonment? Not a single word is heard as the Law Commission has never reviewed its practical utility. Therefore, the Law Commission must review it and submit its enlightening recommendations in this regard so that this most inhuman form of punishment is very rightly thrown to the dustbin for the ultimate purpose of being consigned to the flames.
The easiest way to die is by hanging. Don’t we know this simple basic fact which is a matter of common knowledge that how many people commit suicide every year by hanging alone? What to say about committing suicide by other means. Why did one of the accused in the Delhi Nirbhaya gang rape commit suicide? Even eminent lawyers, judges, senior army officers, police officers, doctors etc keep on committing suicide time and again because it is most difficult to stay alive and lead a frustrated life. Just recently the ex-DGP of Assam Shankar Baru committed suicide after his name figured in a scam. Such people cannot serve life term by staying alive even in open and opt for committing suicide. For God’s sake, at least now, think about those who have to spend their entire life in prison. It is the worst form of torture. It is the worst form of crime perpetrated by State.
Why do most of us fail to appreciate the basic fact that rigorous life imprisonment is much more painful than capital punishment where a criminal is killed in just one fell stroke only? It should not be lost on us that even Mohammad Afzal Guru, who has been hanged in Parliament attack case, had rued when alive thus,“I don’t think the UPA government can ever reach a decision. Congress has two mouths and is playing a double game. Cumbersome legal procedures and prolonged periods of solitary confinement are inhuman and cruel. Life has become hell in jail. I don’t wish to be a part of the living dead.” This itself is an adequate testimony to prove the basic point that life term is worse than capital punishment, which under no circumstances can ever be justified.
Even a criminal can be reformed and absorbed in the mainstream. Moreover, let us not forget that it is our society which prepares the crime itself and the criminals only commit it falling prey for which they alone cannot be blamed. Definitely their crime cannot be condoned at all but just awarding life imprisonment is no solution rather is worse than the disease or problem itself. We must think from a more broader angle of devising more ways and means to curb the increasing crime by striking at the very root of the problem due to which more and more persons are becoming criminals and this again is possible if their basic mindset is changed and they are made to believe that their best interest lies in reforming themselves.
I am not a spokesperson of criminals nor do I justify in any manner the heinous crimes committed by them. All I am trying to say is : They too must be given a chance to reform, rehabilitate and resurrect as good citizens after cooling their heels for some years in prison. Let us not forget : Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees protection of right to life and personal liberty of all citizens which includes criminals. When such an eminent jurist like Justice VR Krishna Iyer, who is a former Judge of the Supreme Court, can believe in “Operation Valmiki” then why can’t we and our society as a whole believe in the same? Justice Iyer had had said a long time back,“I believe in Operation Valmiki because every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” Most unfortunately, this is what our lawmakers and successive governments at the Centre have always ignored. Rules made by our former colonial rulers–Britishers who treated Indians like servants–are still continuing more or less intact and hardly few changes have been made, which is the real tragedy. Just mourning won’t do. Such archaic laws needs to be thrown out or at least amended to meet the present circumstances. When we can be so large hearted to a Pakistani army invader General Pervez Musharraf then why can’t we demonstrate an iota of kindness to our very own people who are Indians and give them an opportunity to reform, rehabilitate and return to the national mainstream by which not only they but their entire family especially those who are wholly dependent will benefit immensely?
These days all newspapers are flooded with reports that the Law Commission is seriously reviewing the growing demand of abolition of death penalty in India permanently. If death penalty can be abolished then why can’t life imprisonment be also abolished? The Centre must learn something from Punjab government, who worked out the premature release of Gurmeet Singh Pinky, a Babbar Khalsa militant-turned-inspector, convicted of murder, where life term was done in seven years and seven and a half months and will spend the rest of his life as a free citizen as was reported in The Indian Express newspaper (21-08-2014). There are many such unreported cases but what is most unfortunate is that only a few offenders having some push and pull have been able to avail of such exclusive benefit and majority still are compelled to languish in jail for the rest of their life.
(The views expressed are personal.)
By Sanjeev Sirohi