Retribution, Thy Name is Human

So looks like we’ve moved on from Kasab’s hanging. Not that I had a doubt we would be hung up on it for too long, for in India there is always something else to beat to death (pardon the double-entrandre: that wasn’t intended, but seemed apt once it came out like that (being hung up on a hanging, is also a good mixed half-metaphor, isn’t it?), especially given our media, and our obsession with it.



So yes, we’ve moved on from Kasab’s hanging, to routine things, and routine world of ours. The world with routine issues: like rapes (some high-profile due to unprecedented brutality that it came along with, but others quite routine, by state and non-state actors alike, even friends, family members, including husbands, and fathers); road accidents due to apathy; deaths from malnutrition, or lack of accessible health-care, deaths due to negligence and lack of safety procedures, or callous disregard for them; deaths due to illicit liquor; deaths due to people being crammed up into trucks like animals (as if that’s somehow acceptable way to transport animals) that meet routine accidents because they’re so overloaded that it’s a miracle that the accidents do not happen every single time; deaths due to beating in custody, or false encounters; deaths in the name of religion/caste (riots are just one aspect of it, but people get killed, women raped, for entering places of worship); the endless vengeance killings like those in Bihar, honor killings (that disgusting oxymoron, that’s everyday reality for youths belonging to certain regions/castes — where one of the greatest human emotion, love, becomes a social sin, to be punished brutally, by implicit, and sometimes explicit, condoning by society — consisting of elders one is told are the well of wisdom).

Yes, the list is well know. And it’s not exhaustive. And enlisting those things doesn’t lesson the evil of terrorism. But here is the point: why do we not get riled up (the way we do about terrorism, that is) about this horrific, everyday, reality around us, that kills countless more Indians, innocent victims most of them, just like terrorism? Why does an aggression by the external enemy make even some of the most sane voices among us turn into hate-mongers? Why is Indians killing Indians so much more ‘acceptable’ (going by the lack of outrage) than is, say, a Pakistani killing Indians?

But that’s not even the point of this rant, contrary to my last “but here is the point”. Bear with me, while I get to that.

It’s a good thing, though, that post Kasab-hanging, beyond the euphoria (sweets being

The euphoria of execution

The euphoria of execution

distributed, people dancing on the streets — assuming that did happen), the conspiracies (that Kasab died of Dengue, for instance), and the ridiculous (the, now legendary, biryani), there are some dispassionate arguments being offered about capital punishment, and retribution, that make it possible to start a reasoned, dispassionate (to the extent that there can be dispassionate discussion over subject like this) discussion. Harini Calamur’s piece: Time for Retribution is one of those, that really got me started on this. Like I said, as dispassionate as you would see on this subject …

Okay, so this is a little dated write-up (I started it a week or so after Kasab was hanged), so that window of opportunity has already closed, thanks to shrill voices in favor of capital punishment taking over public discourse for the time being (contradicting my earlier claim that we don’t get riled up against some of the things on the list, I know), given the gruesome rape and assault in Delhi. But if anything, it’s more relevant now, more necessary even, to have that discussion. For the underlying issue is same.

The question is simply this: do we want to become a ‘retributive’ society, where revenge, even an organized, legal, revenge through a state machinery, is the primary collective obsession (and I’m not even talking about an exploitative media becoming a central stage for it all, for even without it, it worries me)? Or do we want to make it our priority to become as a society, what we cannot easily become as individuals: restorative, healing, believing in redemption, forgiving, even (when appropriate)?

Of course, movies, and even literature, can be overly romantic, but sometimes, there are gems in these products of popular culture. So even when the thoughts themselves are uttered by a cynical politician in a Hollywood movie, they are worth mulling over:

CHARLIE ROSE:  But you’re against the death penalty?

GOV. MORRIS: Yes.  Because of what it says about us as a society.

CHARLIE ROSE: Suppose Governor it was your wife…

GOV. MORRIS:  And she was murdered, what would I  do.

CHARLIE ROSE: It gets more complicated when it’s personal.

GOV. MORRIS: Sure…well if I could get to him I’d find a way to kill him.

CHARLIE ROSE: So you, you Governor would impose the death penalty.

GOV. MORRIS: No, I would commit a crime for which I would happily go to jail.

CHARLIE ROSE: Then why not let society do that?

GOV. MORRIS: Because society has to be better than the individual.  If I were to do that I would be wrong.

(from The Ides of March, when Gov. Morris, played by George Cloony — yes, the same charming George Cloony, if that is going to make you go back and watch the clip again on youtube or something — is being interviewed for television audiences before a Democraic primary).

Because, the society has to be better than the individual.

Because it’s easier for a person to fail, for rage can fail most of us, almost every single time.

Today, I see rage worn by society as a badge of honor. If you’re not enraged, there is something monstrous about you.

A distant memory of something I watched on the television comes to me, not the words, but the essence. In a remote African (?) village, the story goes, when someone commits a crime, the village gathers for justice. And what do they do? Every single person who has known the perpetrator of crime/misdeed stands up and talks about one (or at least one) good thing the perpetrator has done in the past. By end of the proceeding, most of the time, the perpetrator is in tears, and there are almost no repeat crimes.

Yes romantic, I know.

But contrast this with our justice system: we send pretty much normal people, pushed into crime by circumstances (many if not most of the times) to prisons and make hardened criminals out of them.

Punishment as a deterrent. We’re told. Deterrence works. Look: there is no nuclear war.

Practical, maybe. I’m even ready to put my money on it. Although, the delays in our justice system has meant deterrence has long lost its efficacy in our justice system. So what do we do? Instead of fixing the (possibly only — in the long term) pragmatic solution we contemplate the opposite of romantic.

Retribution. Institutionalized revenge. So that you don’t have to avenge personally. But your thirst for revenge is satiated by a nameless, faceless, institution. The government.

Life for murder, castration for rapehand for blasphemy (of course the last does not, thank God   for small mercies, have mass support). Only, then will it deter, the argument comes back, rationalizing the need for revenge, with a cold logical front to make it sound dispassionate.

But switch on the TV. Open a newspaper. Read blog-posts, tweets, FB status messages, comments on social web, online media, TV debates, and you’ll know. It’s not about deterrence anymore. It’s not about safety. It’s not about improving the society. It’s about that one raw human emotion.

Revenge. Retribution as a form of revenge. Revenge without guilt, without risk. Revenge with legal and societal sanction.

While discussing Kasab’s death sentence, I was faced with a curious paradox: I, the radical atheist, the scientific materialist, was arguing against a colleague, a staunch believer in God (an active ISKCON member), that redemption has to a possibility for everyone, yes, even Kasab. Even if it does not hold true, it’s a good fiction (like the Valmiki case) to entertain when we contemplate what our society should aspire to be.

Reformative or retributive.

The choice is ours to make. The consequences are ours to face.


2 thoughts on “Retribution, Thy Name is Human

  1. Dhananjay Nene says:

    >> Because, the society has to be better than the individual.

    imo, because the individual and the society have to alternate to pull each other ahead.

    I think the average man has too many frustrations, and too little avenues. Despite democracy. Simply because many of the ills he faces are deeply systemic in nature where helpleness abounds. Which pushes things to a boiling point.

    It is not entirely unexpected then for the wave of retributive emotion. What is unexpected is the seeming lack of the counter-wave (something this post is a part of). To let the steam vent and then reason take over. That worries. Because it strikes a fear that the retributive emotion is taking root and is not just something in the air that the next gust will push away.

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