Is life a lesser punishment than death? Less than a fortnight ago, India came face to face with her stand on the death penalty. Although there was widespread disappointment that capital punishment was not announced in the heart-wrenching cases of Priyadarshini Mattoo and Pratibha Srikanthamurthy, how sure are we that the death penalty is the best punishment for the worst of our criminals? The death sentence of former law student Santosh Singh for the rape and murder of 23-year-old Delhi law student Priyadarshini Mattoo was commuted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court. In the case of the 22-year-old newly-married BPO employee from Bangalore, Pratibha Srikanthamurthy, the cab driver who raped and murdered her was sentenced to life imprisonment till death. The general consensus was that the two cold-blooded criminals deserved the death penalty. The courts in their wisdom, however, did not see the crimes as the â€œrarest of the rareâ€ which would have invited such a punishment. There is a finality about the death sentence that seems to satisfy the popular perceptions of justice in matters of crime and punishment. This explains the populist stance of some political parties who demanded that the 26/11 terrorist Mohammed Ajmal Kasab be â€œpublicly hanged from the Gateway of India without a trial.â€ Arguments in favour of the death penalty rest on the call for permanently eliminating the worst criminals from society, not wasting public exchequer on their imprisonment and providing a strong deterrence against serious crimes. Coincidentally, on the day the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence in the Mattoo case, European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek spoke against death penalty stating that â€œDeath can never ever be considered an act of justice.â€ The European Parliament has observed that barely 43 countries retain this punishment. According to it, the highest number of executions in 2009 took place in China (5000) followed by Iran (402), Iraq (77) and Saudi Arabia (69). India has not had a single execution in the last five years, and in that sense has been moving away from capital punishment, although more than 50 people were sentenced to death in 2009. Nepal and Bhutan have abolished the death penalty. Innumerable people have questioned this practice. In July this year, former president APJ Abdul Kalam added his voice to the call for a national debate on the need to continue with the death penalty. Life imprisonment till death (life without parole) is not a soft sentence as it seems but is often considered a harsher punishment than the death sentence. In 2007, 311 Italian prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment till death, petitioned the government for the right to be executed. They described life without parole a â€œliving deathâ€. It is natural for the relatives of victims to support the death sentence as part of their pursuit for justice. Not all, however, feel that imprisonment for life is a soft verdict. As a victimâ€™s relative commented following the Pratibha verdict, the sentence will force the criminal to ponder daily â€œon the diabolic act he committed.â€ Crime and punishment have a deeper aspect to it. This is the redemptive power and potential of the human soul. The story of the bandit-turned-sage Valmiki, who escaped the death penalty and gave Hinduism the epic Ramayana, conveys this aptly.