Every now and then, there comes a time when my Catholic upbringing clashes with popular national sentiments. The hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist, is one such case.
What Kasab did was terribly, terribly wrong. I do not for a moment discount that.
My heart goes out to those that suffered and are suffering through their irretrievable loss when he as part of a death squad killed at least 166 people four years ago in Mumbai, maimed countless others, wrecked families, destroyed property and damaged our collective psyche.
But I personally also happen to subscribe to the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment, terrorism, invasions and wars.
Judging from the scorn, hate and abuse levelled against Kasab and the sheer happiness and gloating over his death, as seen on social media sites and television channels, the likes of me are in a minority.
It makes me wonder if being against capital punishment makes me unpatriotic or anti-national, a spoilsport especially during this sense of euphoria and celebration that has gripped the nation.
As a person, I want to make something of my life by following Catholic traditions not because I was born into it but out of a sense of choice. At the same time, as an Indian, I don’t want to be a diluted citizen or one with questionable loyalties.
At a time like this, understanding my faith tradition better fortifies what I believe in – that human life is precious, a fundamental right and should not be willingly snuffed out.
It can be argued that the Catholic Church officially and clearly admits that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of a serious crime.
But as a society and people we have come a long way from the burning, strangling, beheading and what not of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament.
This right of the state to condemn people to death also continues into the New Testament although Jesus is against violence. Even the fathers of the Church and those in medieval and modern eras have taken capital punishment for granted.
The point today is not whether the state is right or wrong in using capital punishment but one of mercy and leniency. I think we as humans have evolved, progressed beyond retribution, for the death penalty violates the right to life as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) pointed out that the cases in which the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity are very rare if not practically non-existent.
He noted that given today’s evolution of jurisprudence, the state can use other methods to effectively prevent crime and render the offender incapable of doing harm, without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself.
I personally agree on two counts.
Firstly, by using the death penalty are we not implying (if not saying) that the state is inherently weak and is unable to use other laws it has in its arsenal to defend its people?
It is no wonder that countries with terrible human rights records also have the highest number of executions. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq… thankfully India uses it sparingly -- the last execution before Kasab being in 2004 and before that in 1995.
Secondly, I don’t think India is a safer place just because a Kasab has been hanged. To think so is naive. Problems and the nature of terrorism today run far deeper than eliminating people we might think of as a threat. Nor will it act as a deterrent, given the concept of suicide bombers.
I know this sounds pedantic. I know relatives of the Mumbai victims will tell me it is easy for me to talk, that I have not lost a love one in a terrorist attack; that I have not been affected. I also know that nothing I say will bring back those they have lost.
But I recall Gladys Staines writing in Life Positive magazine that there is great quality in living a life of forgiveness. A right-wing mob burned alive her Baptist missionary husband and their two young sons in January 1999, in India’s Orissa state.
She wrote: Forgiveness brings healing. It allows the other person a chance to start life afresh. If I have something against you and I forgive you, the bitterness leaves me. It also allows you to accept the forgiveness and move on. Forgiveness liberates both the forgiver and the forgiven.
I have forgiven those who killed my family, but I still have to heal fully. I still have to go through the grieving process for the people whom I loved who are not here. I feel their absence deeply. And it has affected my sense of physical well-being. There is no anger but there is a deep sadness.
Perhaps we can all learn something from her.
I do not deny that Kasab was afforded a fair trial. I do not deny that he did wrong. I do not deny that people lost loved ones. But I do object to the use of the death penalty for him or anyone even worse than him.
As Mahatma Gandhi put it, "An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye ends in making everybody blind."
Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Kolkata