While the practice of death penalty is a matter of much debate in India, with the Law Commission even recommending its abolition except in terror cases, the Supreme Court is seized of a petition challenging the death by hanging method used for execution. Citing Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution, the petition says a condemned prisoner has the right to a dignified mode of execution so that death becomes less painful.
The Centre has been asked to file a response, but its options are limited. Of about eight methods of execution practiced across the world— including shooting, lethal injection, gas chamber and even stoning—hanging is the most common. The next preferred option is shooting. But there is no conclusive opinion on which is the most painless execution.
Lethal injection, authorised by some states in the US and once considered the most humane and quickest method, has been criticised by rights activists who say it is associated with a huge risk of suffering. The UNHRC has said any suffering (caused by execution) that lasts over 10 minutes is unacceptable.
In hanging, death happens in about 20 minutes, but there is no certainty on how long the convict suffers pain, as the first consequence is the loss of consciousness. Death by firing squad is quicker than lethal injection, but any misfiring could lead to suffering. Electrocution should be ruled out for the suffering it can cause. The question of a painless death is moot, as no killing, authorised or unauthorised, can be painless.
While hearing the petition, the SC on Friday said painless methods exist in modern science, and the legislature can think of a means by which a convict “should die in peace and not in pain”. One probable alternative to hanging is shooting, already an authorised method in the Indian military court-martial system. The other is lethal injection. The law commission considers them better options than hanging. With the new petition, the question now is not whether to kill or not to kill, but how to kill.