What is justice?

When Gandhiji was assassinated, I was a boy of seven living in Baroda. All the horse carriages—ghodagadis—disappeared from the streets as their Muslim drivers were afraid that a Muslim may have killed Gandhiji. It was only when they heard that a Hindu had done so, that they came out. But Baroda had a Maratha king with a Maharashtrian Brahmin elite. It was rumoured that among the elite, sweets were distributed because one of their own—Nathuram Godse was a Brahmin—had done the deed. The 'crime'of Pakistan had been avenged. The news got out. Soon there were demonstrations against these elite families and police had to intervene to protect them. A young man died in the police firing. There was no closure.

We have a strange notion of justice. On the one hand, philosophers like John Rawls and our own Amartya Sen, speak of justice in terms of fairness and equality and liberty. But for the ordinary people, justice means punishment for a crime. As long as a crime goes unpunished, we feel there is no justice. The Gandhi family and many leaders asked for Godse to be pardoned but the courts refused to deviate from what was the due verdict for murder. Was that sufficient closure for the nation?

The case of Ajmal Kasab is in the news. For some years now, hanging or not hanging people sentenced to death, has been a political football in India. The Hindutva brigade wants blood and many secularists want pardon, be it for Afzal Guru or for Batla House cases. There is clearly a primeval desire in many of us that a murder ought to be punished by death. An eye for an eye as the Bible enjoins. Of course, the Biblical injunction was an appeal in those more violent days for punishment to be proportional to the crime; only an eye for an eye, nothing more drastic.

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