Death sentence stirs debate

  • Letters
  • Monday, 12 Jul 2004

By Coomi Kapoor

TO HANG or not to hang is the question. The crime by all accounts was most heinous. And the punishment after a short trial was death by hanging. 

But the antagonists and protagonists of the death penalty have got into the act, some wanting to save the life of 42-year-old Dhananjoy Chatterjee, convicted of raping and murdering a Calcutta schoolgirl 14 years ago, while others seek his execution by hanging as provided in the law. 

On June 24, hours before the noose was to be tightened around Chatterjee's neck, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam temporarily stayed his execution. 

But, he did not commute the death sentence to life imprisonment as sought by several petitions filed by the convict and others opposed to capital punishment on ethical grounds. 

Admittedly, there was no dispute over Chatterjee's crime. 

PUBLIC FORUM: Mallick and Meera sharing a stage during a meeting to discuss the relevancy of capital punishment in Calcutta on June 26. — AFPpic

In 1990, as a caretaker of a block of apartments, Chatterjee had forced his way into the home of Hetal Parekh, a 14-year-old student of an upmarket school, and raped and killed her. 

Meera Bhattacharjee, wife of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, publicly joined the issue and described how he had perpetrated his crime.  

Choking with emotion, she told a rally in Calcutta a day after the President had stayed the execution that the rapist “should get what he deserves.” 

“I still remember with hurt and anger the newspaper reports of the time that described the ruthless act ? how he forced his way into Hetal’s home and how the girl had sprinted into her room in terror. She ran and fell on the swing, breaking her nose,” she said. 

“Dhananjoy, like a wild beast, pounced on her and wrapped the swing’s rope around her neck. So tight was the neck that her voice box had broken. She stopped screaming and was probably already dead. The beast then raped the limp girl ? can you still have thoughts of forgiving him? I cannot speak anymore ? sorry.”  

The Chief Minister’s wife, who broke into tears while recalling the gruesome crime, spoke for a lot of people who had openly come out against the commuting of Chatterjee’s death sentence. Her husband, too, had rejected petitions for commuting the death sentence.  

Though the President has it in his power to commute the death sentence of any convict, over the years this power has been used in the rarest of rare cases. 

Given the nature of the crime, it is unlikely that Kalam would revoke the death sentence. The last-minute reprieve was only temporary, allowing the convict and his family and friends to exhaust all avenues of relief before the actual execution. 

Why has Chatterjee’s case again sprung up in national consciousness 14 years after he had actually committed the crime? 

Because following his conviction by the sessions judge in March 1994, the appeal process in various courts from the state High Court leading up to the Supreme Court, took this long. 

Besides, after the confirmation of the death sentence by the apex court, he was allowed time to appeal to various authorities, from the state governor to the President. Predictably, they turned down his mercy pleas. 

That was till June 24 when the President stayed the execution. Since then the matter has been reopened for fresh consideration by the state Home Department. There is, however, little chance that the state will change its view on the hanging. 

In normal circumstances, clemency is granted in public interest and on political intervention. 

No public interest will be served by commuting Chatterjee's sentence, argue those who want to see him hanged. 

As for political intervention, the Chief Minister is already on record rejecting the pardon pleas of the convict. Usually, the President goes by the recommendation of the concerned state Home Department. 

Meanwhile, a major contributory factor for the delay in executing the death by hanging order against Chatterjee was the dire shortage of hangmen. 

The state government located the only qualified hangman in the state, the 83-year-old Nata Mallick to do the job, who came up with his own demands. 

A third generation hangman, he wanted the government to pay monthly stipends to three men, including his son, who, he asserted, were required to assist him in hanging Chatterjee. His own fee was Rs10,000 (RM830). 

Mallick, featured prominently in the local press and TV, was quoted as saying that “conducting a hanging requires a robust physical and mental make-up. It is experience that counts.” 

“You do not get a professional hangman easily. I was working from the time I was 16. And there has not been a second person in the state since,” he said. 

He had assisted his father in 35 executions, and his own tally was 24. 

Incidentally, he not only shared the dais with the Chief Minister’s wife at the public rally, but added his own voice to her plea that Chatterjee be hanged for his crime. 

As for the pros and cons of capital punishment, the naysayers argued that it lacked moral, philosophical and pragmatic basis, the right to life and death being God-given. 

Those in favour of death sentence put the interests of the community above that of the individuals, arguing that an individual can have no right outside the community. 

Violation of the community’s moral law ought to be treated seriously, and, if required, punished with the ultimate penalty of death, they reasoned. 

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