It must agonise the Indian intellect that at a point in time when most modern societies are discarding the death penalty, the apex court should find itself bogged down in attempting a judicial determination of which is the least brutal method of execution ~ hanging, lethal injection, electrocution or a firing squad.

What is equally troubling is that the state seems to be trapped in a regressive, vicious cycle: effectively expressed in the mob-rule mentality that advocates hanging an offender from the nearest lamp-post ~ or the vernacular version phansi se latka do.

For while defending execution by hanging, and asking the court to reject a petition opposing the rope, the affidavit from the home ministry points to a strong element of vengeance ~ not reform ~ in the penal system.

Though insisting that hanging was “not barbaric” the official line was that “making the entire process of death penalty overly comfortable, serene and painless for the convict may substantially reduce its effectiveness in acting as a deterrent against abhorrent criminal acts as was intended by the legislature, and may not be able to serve its social purpose”.

That is hardly an advertisement for North Block’s humane credentials, it does however reflect the same thought process that resulted in the promulgation of the ordinance on child rapists ~ which satisfied lusty demands from the political-bazaar but ignored the opinion of the eminent panel headed by Justice JS Verma (dealing with the conscience-demolishing Nirbhaya case) that the death penalty was no “deterrent.”

Maybe the muscular ministry believes it can boost its image by publishing figures of the number of persons executed ~ as it does for Maoists “neutralised” in Central India, or militants killed in the Kashmir Valley. The government, to be fair, is not alone in the overzealous enforcement of the law.

If the electronic media has its way, the granting of bail is as much an offence as the crime for which the arrest was made. As Mickey Spillane thrillers were captioned, “Vengeance Is Mine”, and “I the Jury”.

To revert to the basic issue, the court was not dealing with capital punishment per se, only the methodology of what human rights activists slam as “assassination by the state” ~ fortunately the judiciary has laid down the “rarest of the rare” yardstick and other safeguards.

The home ministry affidavit pointed to shortcomings in execution by lethal injection and firing squad (and the layman would insist frequent power cuts rule out death by electrocution).

Yet the theory in support of “hanging by the neck until dead” would hardly find favour with those who reject the contention of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Nor did the affidavit address another critical issue ~ a shortage of hangmen, most jails do not have one. Will North Block have a specialised training course introduced?