Do you remember the 90s Bollywood, where after a long emotional monologue on morality, the scene would zoom into the judge emotionally signing their sentence, and breaking the nib of their ink pen?
Then, the scene would pan out to the exterior of the court, where a voiceover would announce that the accused has been sentenced to death.
While we have all come across such scenes, we witnessed this in real life when the accused of the Nirbhaya case was given the death penalty by a Delhi trial court in 2013.
For a long time, many of us believed that this was also part of legal procedures while sensitive legal judgments are made.
However, with many discourses on death penalties, we have come to realize that pronouncing death to someone is such a heinous act even when it is under the court of law.
Today, we will dig deeper into the custom that precedes such delicate issues.
The Colonial Hangover
To begin with, breaking the nib of the pen, is only applicable in death penalties which are rare, and is only given after years and years of thought and discussion.
However, you might think, from where did this tradition come about?
Because this act is purely out of the morality and humanity of judges than a legal procedure.
Yes, no legal structure has mentioned that this needs to be followed.
Then where did we get it from?
Tracing back history, the breaking of pen nibs is a colonial hangover in India.
This was followed by the British when they were here in India and like the many cultural impacts they have had on the Indian subcontinent, this is one as well.
But, where did it start from?
There are many interpretations of why this happens. Though we do not have a proper reason for why and when this started.
However, everyone you know unanimously agrees that this is a result of sewing solidarity and symbolism of the brutality of the act as well.
One story, according to many books and literature, it is believed that in the 1600s, the judge would pronounce a death sentence and would break his wand of the office into pieces and throwing them indicating a closure and confirmation to the death penalty awarded.
The wand is supposedly used to represent the power of the office and the judgment taken at that moment. Thus, it has also been mentioned in one of the old writings, The Hungarian Rebellion.
Moving further, such depictions of breaking the wand have been found on multiple occasions representing the seriousness of the judgment, like in the Chamber’s Encyclopaedia (1892).
This custom has been followed ever since the 17th century, but now in modern times, it has been replaced by breaking the nib.
This custom could be traced back to Hungary, Germany, and other European countries. However, this custom has had its own variations in countries across the world.
The Different Variations of the Custom
Other interesting stories and acts in the aftermath of pronouncing death penalties include fasting for the rest of the day.
It has been observed in the British Raj in India that they believed that the right to live was a fundamental right, and taking away someone’s life with power was only under the jurisdiction of the creator, God.
Thus, British judges would fast for the rest of the day and would usually be seen wearing a red robe rather than the uniform black robe.
However, legal professionals believe that this custom has stopped entirely in India, post-independence.
It was believed that judges would wear a black cap during the execution of death sentences however, later it was found that it was always part of the formal attire and does not hold any significance.
A Symbolic Act
There have been multiple interpretations and reasons on why these judges are often prone to break the nibs of their pen.
Some of the reasons in popular culture are listed below:
- One theory behind it symbolizes that the case is closed and there could be no other judgment for reopening the case, whatsoever.
- The legend goes that the particular act of nib-breaking is that, a pen that is being used to take away the life of someone else should not be used for any other purpose at any cost.
- This also represents how judges would like to distance themselves from the gruesome act of stealing someone’s life by destroying the pen. This gives some kind of closure to the judges and to the decisions that they have taken.
- Also, this means that once the decision is made it could not be repeated in the same court and someone has to take it to the higher authority. Also meaning that the power that the judge in that particular court holds over a death sentence is invalid anymore.
Moreover, it is also an interesting point to highlight that, all these metaphorical representations of the death penalty are rooted in the idea that human life is beyond any value and the right life is as applicable to a criminal as any common person on the walkways.
It is also imperative to note that these laws, legal procedures, and punishments were made to imply cognizance and peace in the world rather than taking away someone’s life.
This has been the sole reason why the death penalty has always been a controversial idea to analyze and come to a consensus.
The Moral Structure of Death Penalties
Death penalties have been discussed and vehemently debated across nations.
Human rights commissions and organizations have been vocal on how the death penalties often infringe basic human rights.
The question of how killing people would keep away people from killing more people is an argument brought up in every courtroom and legislation.
Amnesty International holds that capital punishment is the cruelest act anyone could commit irrespective of the crime committed, the intensity of the harm, and the number of evidence to prove them guilty.
On the surface, although taking away one’s life as a punishment is seen as an act of justice, it is debated that at the roots of the problem it is just an act of revenge rather than justice.
The breaking of the nib in these cases is a representation of how taking away a life even for reasons valid, does not make the act any pure as we would like to believe it is.
However, then what is the right way to get justice?
- How do we compensate for the pain that human beings inflict on each other, and do not follow the basic ethics of human existence?
- How could empathizing with the life of an accused of gruesome crimes be the right thing to do?
- How is impunity a solution?
While these are questions we as commoners keep analyzing, it is imperative to understand the nuances of how we as political beings live in this world.
Breaking of nibs of the pen by a Judge at the end of a judgment feels like such a non-significant action.
But, when we look at the why and hows of this ‘ritual’, we are pushed into a never-ending debate of morality, life, and justice.
What do you think of this?
Tell us in the comments below!