Our humanity, and theirs

The debate over the death penalty implicates our deepest moral and metaphysical assumptions. But Indian public discourse is colonised by two tendencies that make it impossible to have a dialogue on such serious issues on their own terms. Everything does have a politics. But a culture so obsessively hunting for subtexts to every issue often misses the text itself. Deep moral issues get obscured as a result. The second tendency is the claim that once something has been declared to have the imprimatur of collective sentiment, all reflection must stop. The Indian legal system, for once, dealt with the Kasab case matter of factly, with due process, under existing law. The final outcome was consistent with the law as it exists. This particular matter should rest there. But the attempt to construct the exercise of the death penalty as the expression of some collective retribution is deeply problematic in two ways. It privileges retribution as the only legitimate moral discourse. But even more dangerous for democracy, it constructs a false idea of collectivity.

The social logic of punishment is often governed by more than just considerations of morality, justice, or the functional need to maintain social order. Punishment becomes the occasion to forge a collective identity: you identify with the community by participating in an act of collective vengeance. Under this construction, your refusal to participate in the sentiment of vengeance places you outside the bounds of that community identity. It is not an accident that politicians like Narendra Modi make support for hanging this or that character a test of your national solidarity. But this thought runs widely on prime time channels, where the usual suspects declaim that your commitment to community must be questioned if you do not lend your weight to this expression of collective sentiment. From a democratic point of view there are two things problematic in this. It condescendingly rubbishes all genuine moral disagreement under the need for a falsely constructed idea of community solidarity. And it privileges the idea that there is a collective pronoun "we" before which all arguments from principle or conscience must be immobilised.

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