Death penalty: Does it serve the purpose?

Minnu Bhonsle challenges the popular notion that death penalty deters rapists; she offers a long-term, overarching and effective alternative to prevent sexual crimes


The Capital Punishment recently awarded to the four accused found guilty in the Delhi gang rape case, followed by reports of many more rapes and gang rapes, gives rise to the question about the relevance of the death penalty—is it really the answer to our problems? Judging by the reactions of the average Jane and Joe, most people believe a death sentence will act as a deterrent for others contemplating heinous crimes such as rape and murder. The public’s response to the court’s judgement would seem as if a collective closure had been achieved.

The truth is that the sentencing has not closed anything, but in fact opened up the urgent need for deep reflection in society as to where the problem really lies, and therefore what the solution really is.

Realistically speaking, can fear really be a deterrent for a potential rapist or murderer?

Instant Gratification

Fear has never been a sustainable motivation for transformation. This is demonstrated by the fact that in spite of the statutory warning on cigarette packs, and the gory visuals of death from smoking shown in movie theatres and on television, people still continue to smoke, chew tobacco. Drug addicts have remained addicts even after watching their fellow addicts die because of the same.

This proves that when there is temptation and the urge to instantly gratify your impulses, fear is impotent. The epidemic of discomfort intolerance and need for instant gratification makes people allow their rationale to be superseded by their impulses, and therein lies a major problem.


Moreover, the need to assert one’s autonomy is an existential need. Therefore any form of enforcement [by law or otherwise] creates an existential rebellion, whether overt or covert, which will manifest immediately or later on, in some form or the other.

We see youth across every economic and social strata challenging authority at home and outside in different forms. This need to assert one’s autonomy can also take an extreme form by challenging the law, by doing ‘daring’ acts and seeking validation for the same, by engaging in extreme adventure sports. Therefore, if the fear of death does not stop their thrill seeking, why would it stop them from instantly gratifying their sexual exploits? Moreover, if this is taking place under the influence of alcohol, or if the individual has a psychopathic/sociopathic personality, no fear of a death penalty can deter him. In fact, such pathological thrill seekers are more attracted to the ‘forbidden fruit’ and find a thrill in playing with the law.

Unthinking acts

Then there are the ‘acts of passion’ or of ‘temporary insanity’, where heinous crimes are committed in a totally ‘unthinking’ state e.g. honour killings. Here again, the law will be impotent. You have to ‘think’ about the future consequences for the fear to be generated, and therefore, one who acts first and thinks later cannot be deterred by fear.

Which is why whether it is the ‘unthinking’ ragging on campuses or even sexual harassment at the workplace, nothing has really ever stopped in spite of stringent laws in developed countries.


Rape is often seen as a crime of hate and violence. If a child is raised by a violent mother or subjected to being exploited by a woman, if he witnesses cruelty by the mother towards a submissive father, if he experiences injustice towards him because he is a boy and views girls as being unduly accommodated because of their gender and getting away with mean and unfair acts, if as a young man he views the family court laws as skewed in favour of the woman, if he witnesses women threatening to use the law against men as a means of exercising power and control, he might develop deep hatred for women and seek to tilt the power balance and subdue women. Moreover, if he is raised to view women in general and also certain sections of society as inferior, or amidst community hatred or a racist upbringing, or with the disapproval of liberal women, he is more likely to dispassionately engage in violence against women, including rape. Such a person would justify his act of hate, viewing the recipient of his violence as deserving of the same, much like Hitler justified the killing of Jews. When one justifies one’s act, there is obviously no fear of punishment and once again we prove that fear cannot be a deterrent.

Emotional Buffer

Just as an addict, when gratifying his urges deludes himself that ‘nothing’ will happen to him and that he will somehow ‘escape’ the consequences, so too, the rapist or murderer believes in the moment of doing the act, that he will somehow escape the law. In his world view, it is always ‘the other’ that is caught and he remains safe. This emotional buffer therefore, allows him to blatantly go on with his deeds.

According to US statistics, there are at least 50 serial killers on the loose at any given point of time, and probably hundreds of rapists and one-time murderers. Do they not know the law of the land? Why does the thought of being on death row not deter them from killing and raping?

When lawmakers and politicians, priests and god-men, teachers and doctors, and other moral keepers of society, who know the law of the land and who have made and taught the law of humanity, break the same laws, does it not prove that the fear of law is impotent, and therefore cannot really be a sustainable deterrent?

‘Silent’ Crimes

There are millions of unreported cases of rape, molestation, inappropriate touching, eve teasing and sexual harassment in the world, which will never be reported because it is either being done by a relative or known and trusted acquaintance like a neighbour, friend, teacher etc. or even one’s own parent/sibling or spouse as in the cases of incest or marital rape. The victims feel a gamut of emotions like confusion, shame and guilt, and they often blame themselves for not resisting it and so believe that they have silently participated in the act. Moreover, it may make victims feel that they are telling on a loved one and also fear getting the abuser into trouble, or damaging or severing the relationship with an abusive loved one. Therefore they remain silent. This ‘silent’ yet ongoing crime within our homes and social circle forms 80 per cent of sex crimes, which cannot and will not, be deterred by fear of the law or the death penalty, as the perpetrators are sure that the victims will remain silent.


Many sexual offenders also truly believe, and therefore tell themselves, that ‘she wants it’ and that ‘she is asking for it’. This belief that the act is ‘consensual’ is not only seen in cases of ‘date rape’ and ‘marital rape’, but also if the girl is dressed in a way that he perceives as ‘inviting’, or if she does not take ‘visible’ offence to repeated eve-teasing or stalking, or if she is seen out on roads at night or even in secluded places. So if a sexual offender deludes himself into believing that the victim is accepting of the act, he will experience no fear of the law and will commit rape in a liberated way.

So, if the fear of capital punishment is not a guaranteed deterrent for those contemplating rape and murder, what do we do as a society to prevent such crimes?

Self-control vs. Self-motivation

When I say, ‘I have to’, it is self-control, but when I say, ‘I want to/I choose to’ it is self-motivation.

Living appropriately and sensitively because one ‘has to’ versus living appropriately and sensitively because one ‘wants/chooses to’ is qualitatively very different.

Control denotes an absence of free will and results in an equal and opposite action, much like the tension stemming from pressing a spring for too long and then releasing it. It is not sustainable. There is a tension and unease in control.

On the other hand, self-motivation denotes free will and is therefore easily sustainable as an autonomous and conscious choice of health and harmony. There is relaxation and ease in it.

So why is it that we as a society have a legalistic mindset and keep finding ways to control and instil fear as a deterrent, as opposed to finding ways to create a culture in which sensitivity becomes a conscious choice?

Fear has never resulted in sustainable change of life choices. For example, there are those who live for years in Singapore and follow the cleanliness rules for fear of a hefty fine, but once they are in India they do not think twice about littering. However, I know of a friend born, raised and living in India since birth, who carries a plastic bag with her, and not only does she not litter, but she picks up litter along the way and arranges cleanliness drives in her neighbourhood. She is self-motivated, as opposed to being fearful of the law.

death-penalty-does-it-serve-the-purpose-2-320Violation and Vulnerability

As a psychotherapist I have worked closely with victims of sexual offences including rape, as well as self-confessed perpetrators of sexual offences.

I have seen that even in cases where the sexual offender has been exposed and made accountable and punished in some way, the victim has not had emotional closure till she is able to heal her own wounded spirit in therapy. The feeling of violation and the fear of vulnerability does not become any less even if the perpetrator is brought to book. Helping rape victims to embrace life wholeheartedly again requires them to go through a long therapeutic journey that culminates in physical, emotional, spiritual and sociological empowerment. Legal empowerment and the knowledge that the perpetrator will be punished has not been seen to help heal a wounded body, mind and spirit. Once the crime is committed, the victim feels the need to heal herself and free herself from various thoughts and feelings related to herself and the act. Capital punishment for the perpetrator of the crime cannot facilitate this personal healing in her. This therefore once again brings us to the need for finding a more ‘holistic’ way to prevent such acts.

Transformation Testimonials

Fear of punishment has never resulted in the ‘awakening of the conscience’ or a ‘change of heart’. Evolved child psychologists are in agreement that ‘the carrot and the stick’ approach does not work in facilitating sustainable change in the child’s errant behaviour. The ‘thinking chair’ is a better way, where the child is lovingly yet firmly asked to sit alone on a special chair in isolation without any stimuli, and is asked to reflect on the error of his ways. This silent space of reflection is meant to sensitise him to the effect of his actions on others and himself, and to provoke him to make better choices going forward.

Any discipline that is enforced as an ‘external discipline’ does not last. It is only the ‘inner discipline’, emerging from your conscience, that brings about lasting behaviour change; and therefore a loving and accepting yet silent space of isolation, reflection and meditation is what is required. Is it any wonder then that so many people who come back from prayer/meditation retreats talk of a sea change in their thoughts, feelings and ways of relating with the world?

We have heard transformation stories like that of Angulimala, the serial killer who was transformed in the compassionate company of Lord Buddha, or the one of Valya Koli [later known as Valmiki Rishi, the author of the epic Ramayana] the sociopath who turned over a new leaf due to the facilitative interaction with Narada, or then we have seen movies like Dead Man Walking—the story of the transformation of a  man on death row due to the persistence of a nun from church who lovingly engaged him to pray and reflect, or then the movie Do Aankhen Baarah Haath, which is a depiction of a group of prisoners changing their ways because of an unconventional approach adopted to facilitate transformation.

Today there are prison ministries run by the Church and other spiritual programmes organised in prisons by various spiritual groups, which facilitate reflection and contemplation, and these have been a transforming force for many.

Prisoners who have transformed can become catalysts for change and role models for many. They can be asked to speak about their reflections, their transformation process, their inner and outer journey from darkness to light, and their before and after stories. These authentic testimonials and self-disclosures can be recorded and telecast on news channels, which can greatly inspire those who may be contemplating similar crimes and possibly avert and prevent some of these crimes.

Capital Investment vs. Capital Punishment

However, there is a dire need for a more systemic shift in our society towards a more balanced approach that also looks at the root cause of sexual crimes like rape.

If our focus and emphasis as a society, shifted from capital punishment to a capital investment, we might reap rich dividends in the form of creating a generation of young adults who have a healthy attitude towards sexuality, who display high standards of conduct, who are sensitive and respectful to both genders, and who are socially responsible citizens of society.

The appropriate way forward is to introduce value-based sexuality and gender sensitisation programmes for adolescents. These programmes would focus on fostering a respectful and healthy relationship between the genders, and help them develop sensitive and wholesome personalities. Informal education and discussions at home and formal sessions in school and colleges that pursue these goals is the ‘holistic’ approach we must adopt urgently.

The ‘holistic’ upbringing and education of our present and future generations must include certain key human values and concepts that will translate into healthy man-woman relationships.

‘Complementary’ and not ‘Opposite’ sexes —This change of terminology could eliminate hostile, oppositional and hierarchical tendencies, which translates into the need to attack, oppose and subdue the other. Sensitivity between genders and mutual respect and regard will also be fostered if both genders are seen as equally valuable and imperative for the continuity of life. This in turn will ensure that sexual relationships are mutually sensitive and do not lead to physical or psychological harm.

‘Accepting’ and not ‘Prohibitive’—This change in approach towards sex could reverse the sexual repression, which results in distorted and warped personalities obsessed with sex and engaging in reactionary and perverse behaviours. De-stigmatising sex will also allow curious children to freely seek information from reliable sources instead of sneakily accessing incorrect information from irresponsible sources such as ill-informed and exploitative peers and pornography.

‘Parental Modelling’ and not ‘Parental Preaching’—This observational learning of a man-woman relationship begins at home with the child observing how his parents relate with each other. When the male child observes the father verbally and non-verbally communicating disrespect towards the mother, using sexually explicit language while referring to a woman, vulgarity in humour and while describing the female anatomy, proud descriptions of personal sexual exploits, such a child learns to view women as objects of sexual gratification, exploitation and subservience. Just as witnessing such inappropriate adult conduct can adversely impact their sexual attitudes and behaviours, so too, if a child observes his parents expressing warm and caring feelings, with mutual respect, love and humility in both, he learns to emulate emotional intimacy between the genders.

‘Intimacy’ and not ‘Intercourse’—This change in terminology could facilitate sensitive, non-coercive, non-exploitative relating, which ensures mutual and equal pleasure [Sambhog in Sanskrit stands for Sama=equal and Bhog=pleasure] in a consensual sharing of intimacy in a significant relationship with the other. The concept of loving intimacy, instead of lustful intercourse, could also help in understanding the need to delay gratification at times to ensure that both are truly ready to engage in a consensual act.

‘Talking today’ and not ‘Repenting tomorrow’—This entails talking to children very early on about protecting themselves from child sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation of children is a ‘social time bomb’ with the potential for destroying many futures. It is statistically proven that most sexual offenders are victims of sexual abuse themselves. It is not only power that corrupts, but ‘powerlessness also corrupts’. When children are repeatedly sexually exploited and they feel helpless and powerless, it can result in warped personalities with severe psychopathologies and they may grow into morally challenged adults. Victims create more victims and the victim chain continues till it is broken through educating children to protect themselves from sexual exploitation. Therefore, it is imperative to give age-appropriate information to ensure the child’s safety and wellbeing.

‘Assertiveness’ and not ‘Peer Pressure’—This training in assertiveness helps the young adult not get taken in by the age-old peer pressure tactic that ‘Everybody is doing it’ when it comes to experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sex. Assertiveness training will prevent the young adult from getting carried away with group dynamics that provoke criminal acts without consequential thinking. Teaching them that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand is the key. Explain that peer pressure provokes freedom while the same peers are nowhere around to assume responsibility of the consequences of the actions they have provoked, which only you are wholly and solely responsible for.

‘Loving Humaneness’ and not ‘Hateful Violence’—This involves raising children in a way that human kindness is fostered. Rape is not only a sexual crime but is often an act of hate, vengeance and violence. Women from certain disempowered sections of society are often targeted much like Hitler targeting Jews. When children are raised to  respect all communities, races, religions, caste and creed, and every section of society, viewing everyone as having equal worth and dignity, they grow up to be non-violent adults. But above all, when children grow up in a loving, nurturing and respectful environment, where stretching for fellow humans through acts of human kindness is the norm, they learn to value humanity and human dignity. Such individuals do not need the fear of capital punishment to be humane, as the capital investment into their holistic upbringing naturally yields rich dividends in the form of sensitive and socially responsible citizens of society.

This was first published in the November 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


  1. Cannot agree more!!! This article is spot on… i always say as we educate our daughters to be alert and aware of herself and surroundings; we need to educate our sons too to respect the complementary sex by way of our own very deeds…


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