When Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru were executed – swiftly and almost stealthily – by the central government in November 2012 and February 2013, many citizens viewed their hangings as justice for horrific acts of terrorism inflicted on India. But some people those moments to protest against the death penalty.

In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment should be imposed only in the “rarest of rare cases”, and the state has accordingly used the death penalty sparingly: the hangings of Kasab and Guru came after eight years without executions. Yet most of the debate provoked by the hangings has been informal, encompassing citizen protests, petitions and news panel discussions.

But now the Law Commission of India, which advises the Ministry of Law and Justice about legal reform, has formally invited citizens to express their views on the death penalty. Last month, the commission put out a questionnaire for the public on the pros and cons of capital punishment, as part of a consultation paper that can be downloaded from its website. Citizens can fill in the questionnaire and mail it directly to the commission. Besides seeking public opinion, the Law Commission’s research will use data from various courts, prison authorities and even law school researchers.

The Law Commission, a 12-member body of legal experts and scholars, is appointed by the central government to assess the state of laws in the country. Historically, law commissions have submitted reports reviewing obsolete laws, analysing the efficiency of judicial administration and suggesting reforms on existing laws. Both courts and government take its reports extremely seriously.

“When the Law Commission researches an issue, it typically consults a large range of enlightened experts and various stakeholders,” said Yug Chaudhry, a Mumbai-based criminal lawyer who has been actively circulating the commission’s questionnaire on capital punishment amongst friends and colleagues. “The public consultation on the death penalty is important because the committee’s views are usually given the greatest respect and consideration.”

The current commission, chaired by former Delhi high court judge Justice AP Shah, was directed by the Supreme Court to study whether the death penalty needs to be completely abolished or retained in some cases. Since the start of 2014, the Supreme Court has been particularly sceptical about the application of capital punishment, and has commuted the death sentences of at least 19 convicts to life imprisonment.

It is not unusual for the Law Commission to seek the public’s opinion on an issue that it is researching, but this is only the second time since Independence that a commission is studying capital punishment. The first occasion was nearly 50 years ago, in 1967, when the commission’s report concluded that given the diversity of India’s population and the need to maintain law and order, “at the present juncture, India cannot risk the experiment of the abolition of capital punishment”.

In the decades since, whenever there has been a challenge to the concept of capital punishment, the Supreme Court has often cited this Law Commission report in order to retain it.

“But a lot has changed since the first report was published,” said Chaudhry. For one, he says, murder rates have declined in the country in the past 22 years. The Supreme Court has also admitted that on various occasions there have been cases where the death penalty has been carried out arbitrarily, inconsistently or incorrectly.

“History has shown us that the death penalty does not really serve as a deterrent to crime – it is as effective or non-effective as life imprisonment,” said Panachand Jain, a retired judge of the Rajasthan high court. He is one of many who have already responded to the questionnaire. “We need to make life imprisonment – all of one’s life until the time of death – the highest form of punishment for any crime,” said Jain.

Since the 1970s, more and more countries around the world have been abolishing capital punishment. Only one-third of the world’s countries still retain this form of punishment.

“I think that the death penalty is barbaric, serves no purpose, encourages violence in society and brings out the worst in us,” said Chaudhry, who has also sent his views to the Law Commission. “Nobody should have the right to kill, except in self-defence.”