Death Penalty, Dostoyevsky and The Idiot
The customary debate on death penalty is at its peak as India sits uneasy after executing Yakub Memon, accused in the Mumbai blasts in 1993 which killed 257 persons and injured over 700. The shouting match between the votaries of justice for the victims on one side and humanists/NGOs on the other at times descend to unseemly levels as nationalism, religion and vote bank politics infiltrate various perspectives and finally dies down as the combatants themselves lose interest in the issue.
Those who stand for repeal of capital punishment are accused of being soft on terror while the others are dubbed insensitive. But, as long as death penalty is in the Indian Penal Code, judges are free to sentence the accused in the raresr of rare cases to the gallows.
In this context, it would be interesting to know what great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a person who escaped death by the firing squad after securing Tsar's pardon in the last minute, wrote in his classic 'The Idiot'. (Incidentally, the novel's protagonist Prince Myshkin, a holy man in an unholy world, is vaguely modeled on Jesus Christ. It also has arguably one of the most complex woman characters in world literature in Nastasya Filippovna.)
In the novel, Dostoyevsky discusses in detail all aspects of death penalty and proves why it is more heinous than the most heinous of crimes. While finishing the novel, the brilliant author wrote: 'Compassion is the most important and possibly the only law for the whole of human life.' It was to convey this message that he created Prince Myshkin, the 'title' character in 'The Idiot'.
In the novel, he says, 'To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible.' (In March this year, Pope Francis quoted Dostoyevsky to urge countries of the world to abolish the death penalty and condemned states still using capital punishment in a letter to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty.)
In the first part of the novel, Myshkin speaks of an experience he had while on a trip to Lyons in France, where he witnessed a public execution. It goes like this:
'In France, they always cut their heads off...It's done in an instant. They lie the man down, and this broad knife falls through a machine they call the guillotine _ very powerfully and heavily _ the head flies off before you can blink an eye. The preparations are horrible. When they read the death sentence, dress him and prepare him, tie him up and drag him onto the scaffold _ all that is dreadful. People crowd in, even women _ they don't like women to look on though.'
Here he shows why a death sentence is more brutal than any other punishment:
'...Think! When there is torture there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony many not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant _ your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain.'
There is a section in the novel on what goes within the brain of a convict being taken to the city centre to be executed publicly. Only a person who had gone through the nightmarish trauma can provide such subtle details! Just read this:
'Then three or four hours were spent on usual things: the priest, the breakfast, at which he was given wine, coffee and beef. (Isn't that mockery? You think how cruel it is, and yet, by heaven, those innocent people do this out of the kindness of their hearts and are convinced they are being humane.)...Finally he is taken through the town to the scaffold. I think as he is being driven there he feels he has still an eternity to live...All around is crowd, noise, ten thousand faces, ten thousand eyes...'
And, he dares to conjecture what goes on in the mind of a convict in that split second, when the blade of the machine severs his head. He wonders what would the severed head would be thinking if, for a second, if it is conscious of what has happened!
Well, isn't it time for us to think of better ways, other than capital punishment, to deal with people who commit great crimes against humanity? For, there may come a time when the Grand Inquisitor fever dream in 'The Brothers Karamazov' materialize, where 'Jesus Christ' is tried for heresy and lead away for 'punishment'!