The capital of India may be on the verge of acquiring the reputation of being India’s rape capital. The abduction of a Swiss diplomat from the parking lot of the Siri Fort complex — the venue of the international film festival — and her subsequent assault comes in the wake of the rape of a college student by three soldiers of the elite president’s bodyguard. If Tuesday night’s assault was a serious diplomatic embarrassment, last week’s incident was shocking enough for the president, Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to press for exemplary disciplinary action against the criminals in uniform. After the furore, it is likely that police vigilance will be stepped up and the culprits apprehended. However, the bigger question of the social environment that makes it possible for sexual crimes to be repeated at periodic intervals is likely to be unaddressed. At the heart of the problem are issues of law and justice. For far too long, it has become customary for a go-getting section of Delhi to seriously believe success lies in extending the boundaries of the law. Whether it is the wilful violation of building regulations, the capture of public land for private use, the wanton disregard for traffic rules and the lecherous behaviour with women tourists from overseas, Delhi in many respects operates as a frontier town — the law being defined as what you make of it. This is a mindset that is now ingrained. This casual indifference to the law is compounded by the belief that justice is negotiable. The failure of the law-enforcement agencies to secure convictions in well-publicized murder cases involving the rich and the famous — the familiar excuse is that witnesses have turned “hostile” — has nurtured the impression that it is possible to get away with anything as long as there is money to throw about and influence to be peddled. It was this underlying brazenness that found expression in the assaults on women. The perpetrators seriously believe that they can get away with the minimum of fuss.
This is why it may make sense to some for the home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, to revive his earlier plea of capital punishment for convicted rapists. When he suggested this drastic course last year, it was greeted without enthusiasm, even by the feminist lobby. It was argued that capital punishment could end up ensuring fewer convictions. Now, as rape assumes epidemic proportions in a rootless society, it may be opportune to look at deterrence. Widespread public abhorrence and police vigilance are, of course, immediate necessities. But shouldn’t they be coupled with the fear of draconian punishment' It would correspond with the ways of the frontier.