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Supreme Court commutes death sentence of rapist to life imprisonment; journalist says Oscar Wilde quoted out of context

Journalist Kanchan Gupta averred that the Supreme Court might not have understood the context in which Oscar Wilde made the character of Lord Illingworth mouth those lines

The Supreme Court on 20 April commuted the death sentence of a rapist, Firoz, convicted of raping a 4-year-old girl, to 20 years of imprisonment, citing Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde’s famous lines “the only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future”. Journalist Kanchan Gupta pointed out on Twitter that the bench of Justices UU Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and Bela M Trivedi might have not quite understood the context in which a certain grey character in Wilde’s fiction mouthed the lines.

The Supreme Court also refused to sentence convict Mohd Firoz to imprisonment for the rest of his life and instead ordered 20-year imprisonment.

Gupta wrote on Twitter: “Quote wisely, not blindly from ‘100 Best Quotes’ on Google. ‘The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future’ is from Act 3 of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘A of No Importance’. Its meaning is entirely different.”

“Oscar Wilde meant exactly the opposite of what he penned; he would be hooting, laughing and rolling in his grave that he has been quoted so severely out of context by the Learned. In the play, the line is spoken by an amoral and dishonorable Lord Illingworth,” Gupta wrote in the second tweet of the thread.

“What Oscar Wilde/Lord Illingworth meant is that saints are fools for having given up lives centered on illicit sensual pleasure, while sinners can look forward to such pleasure.
May I recommend A of No Importance as summer vacation reading?” Gupta said in his third tweet.

The journalist concluded with a comment on the subtlety of the English language: “English, we were taught, is a language of understatement. One has to read between words and read the entire context in which those words feature. Unfortunately, the Learned indulge in overstatement.”

In the case concerned, the Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence of a man, who had sexually assaulted and killed a four-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh in April 2013, to 20-year imprisonment.

“…one of the basic principles of restorative justice as developed by this court over the years, also 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,” Justice Trivedi writing for the bench said in the court’s 19 April order.

The court observed “one of the most barbaric and ugly human faces has surfaced”. “A tiny bud like girl was smothered by the appellant before she could blossom in this world. Any sympathy shown to the appellant would lead to miscarriage of justice. This court has not treated such cases as the rarest of rare,” reads the order.

The trial court had awarded death sentence to Firoz and his co-accused Rakesh Choudhary was handed seven-year rigorous imprisonment. On appeal, the Jabalpur bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court acquitted Choudhary but confirmed Firoz’s death sentence.

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