Six Takeaways From The 'Oscar Wilde Judgment'; None Of Them Pleasant

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Apr 22, 2022 06:55 PM +05:30 IST
Six Takeaways From The 'Oscar Wilde Judgment'; None Of Them Pleasant Supreme Court of India in Delhi. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The decision to first commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, and then to reduce that to a duration of twenty years, smacks of whimsicality because the judgment offers inadequate proof of thought to lay readers.

Judgments of India’s Supreme Court have routinely attracted legal criticism, over the past two centuries of its existence. On occasion, they’ve attracted derision, and more frequently these days, a sense of frustration – like when vital mining and infrastructure projects are stymied. And sporadically, they spark outrage; to be fair though, most of such episodes, like over the Ayodhya verdict, are actually nothing more than the usual, flagrantly orchestrated politicking, by the usual suspects.

But it is only in the rarest of rare cases, to use the honourable court’s own terminology, that a judgment attracts criticism, derision, frustration, and widespread public outrage, all at the same time.

This infrequent concatenation came to pass most recently, when the Supreme Court passed a verdict earlier this week, on the infamous 2013 Ghansaur rape-murder case. In that case, a Jabalpur trial court had found one Mohd. Firoz guilty of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl, and sentenced him to death. This was upheld by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2014, and finally came up for appeal in the Supreme Court in 2021.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court made two changes to the death sentence: first it commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and then it reduced that to 20 years.

What got everyone’s goat was a closing quote in the Supreme Court judgment, from Oscar Wilde: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future

Within hours, the internet was on fire. While most didn’t care, or didn’t know, about the death sentence being commuted, or the truncation of the life sentence to 20 years, the element of redemption they sensed in the Wilde quote appeared to be a case of woefully misplaced sympathy.

The general theme, voiced in incensed tones, was of being let down by the Supreme Court. What redemption did the rapist and murderer of a four-year-old girl deserve?

Some took severe exception to another line in the judgment: “A tiny bud like girl was smothered by the appellant before she could blossom in this world”. This sort of flowery prose, many felt, seemed gratuitously condescending, even if it was penned with the best of intentions.

Others took greater offence to the line which followed: “The monstrous acts of the appellant suffocated the victim to such an extent that she had no option but to leave this world” No! No! They cried; leaving this world was not an option exercised by the young girl, because the fact is that she had no options. Everything she suffered was against her will. Options didn’t even enter the picture here.

Combined with the Oscar Wilde quote, popular sentiment was that the language used in the judgment’s closing paragraphs were grossly inappropriate. Milords could have chosen their words more carefully.

The net result is that this judgment has raised a few odd questions in the lay reader’s mind – like this writer. So, how does it read, and what is the merit of the Oscar Wilde quote?

First, and most importantly, the Supreme Court concurs with both the trial court which passed the death sentence, and the High Court, which upheld the death sentence. It means that Mohd. Firoz received a fair trial before being found guilty.

Second, the bulk of the uproar is, instinctively, about some sort of moral equivalence being created between sinners and saints – even if that is surely not what the court intended to convey. As Swarajya’s R Jagannathan wrote with palpable anguish, either way, “This woke Supreme Court has no future”.

That’s a fair comment, and well meant, because relativism has become the bane of modern reason. The last thing a society needs is for its courts to get infested with such thought processes – even inadvertently.

Third, an element of absurdity is also at play. As the venerable Kanchan Gupta pointed out, the Oscar Wilde quote has been taken out of context so viscerally, that its meaning is reversed. What Wilde actually meant was that ‘saints are fools for having given up lives centred on illicit sensual pleasure, while sinners can look forward to such pleasure’.

The problem here is that this quoting out of context – or mis-quoting, really – exposes the calibre of the judgment’s authors, and we don’t like that, because Indians normally believe that their judges are wise, authoritative figures who know what they’re talking about.

Fourth, the judgment concludes that, Mohd. Firoz’s crime does not fall under the ‘rarest of rare’ category for various intensely legalistic reasons. The argument, broadly, is that the Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence in similar cases previously, so, therefore, it can be done in this case too; i.e., precedent.

Milords may be right, but we must also not forget that both the trial court and the High Court upheld the death sentence. If, after that, the rape and murder of minor girls is still happening so often that they are, in fact, no longer the ‘rarest of rare cases’, then that is no argument to offer leniency to a monster.

Fifth, the judgment says that “The maximum punishment prescribed may not always be the determinative factor for repairing the crippled psyche of the offender”.

By what precise metric does the honourable Supreme Court presume that the ‘crippled psyche of the offender’ might ever be repaired if he is spared the noose? This point is not clarified in the judgment.

Sixth, it goes on to say that “One of the basic principles of restorative justice … is to give an opportunity to the offender to repair the damage caused, and to become a socially useful individual, when he is released from the jail

We can’t object to legal principles which seek to improve individuals, but frankly, what opportunity might the law give a man, who brutally raped and killed a four-year-old girl, to become a ‘socially useful individual’ upon release from prison?

This leniency, by the judgment’s own words, is supposed to strike a balance between the two principles of ‘retributive justice’ and ‘restorative justice’. And here, again, a full, detailed explanation of what exactly this balance is, and why a balance needs to be struck in the first place, is not adequately clarified.

Once again, we are left wondering if this is the debilitating judicial wokeness which Jagannathan referred to in his comment on the judgment? If yes, then India needs a formal debate on a number of points.

To what extent should we, as a society, take into account the crippling of the psyche, of a brutal rapist and murderer of a four-year-old girl? Do we honestly believe that such crazed individuals – and no other sort would indulge in such monstrous crimes – can, or should, ever redeem themselves enough to fit harmoniously back into society? Can we take that risk?

It should not be that justice becomes too unimportant to be left solely to the judiciary. There has to be some significant element of parliamentary oversight. And perhaps, that is the most important takeaway from the Oscar Wilde judgment: maybe it is time India started to question this extremely unique, and questionable, practice of judges appointing and overseeing their functioning themselves, without being answerable to government.

All in all, the decision to first commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, and then to reduce that to a duration of twenty years, smacks of whimsicality because the judgment offers inadequate proof of thought to lay readers.

Most of us are not lawyers, and we shouldn’t need to be, to easily understand the reasoning employed by learned judges to arrive at a verdict. But we are individuals with adequate intelligence and requisite comprehension, to understand both the utter inappropriateness of the Oscar Wilde quote in this case, and the absence of adequate explanations, on why exactly the sentence was changed twice.

It’s time the Supreme Court stopped moralising and stuck to direct speech, if its high standing is not to be eroded. This is not contempt of court but concern for court, and the justices should take it in that spirit. For, if not, society might descend to a state where a quote from “The Duchess of Padua”, by Oscar Wilde, and also taken entirely out of context, rings sadly true: “I like no law at all: Were there no law there'd be no law-breakers, So all men would be virtuous”

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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