The social protests of unprecedented reach and intensity that followed the brutal gangrape of a woman in a Delhi bus in December 2012 led to amendments to the law against rape, making it more stringent and inclusive. Since then, women’s empowerment and gender justice have tended to emerge as mainstream political issues in the country. However, incidents of gender crime continue to occur at an alarming rate. The most recent instance that has captured the media’s attention has been the gangrape and murder of two minor girls in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. Understandably, both the public and the media have decried the incident, and the chief minister of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, has agreed to a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the matter. The next step, we can imagine, would be demands by the public and the media for death penalty for the rapists.
Indeed, capital punishment for rape has been one of the chief public demands made after the December 2012 incident. The amendments to the (anti-)rape law created the scope for sentencing a repeat offender to death, especially if the victim has been killed or permanent physical damage inflicted upon her. In April this year, the Mumbai court that tried the accused in the Shakti Mills twin rape cases put this new legislation into practice by imposing the death penalty on the three repeat offenders among the accused. For the first time, rapists were handed the death sentence, thereby sending what many think is a sharp warning to potential offenders. The Badaun incident — the two minor victims were killed — is likely to renew public demands for capital punishment.
Gender crimes of such brutality need to be handled with an attitude of zero tolerance. However, there is scope for debate as to what is the best way to go about it. The efficiency with which the Maharashtra administration and the court completed the investigation and the trial in the Shakti Mills cases, for example, was admirable. But sentencing a rapist to death even when the victim has not been killed or dealt permanent bodily damage raises a question. Even without pleading against death sentence per se, it is still possible to wonder if the principle of fairness was smothered by the societal outrage generated by the acceleration of gender crimes in the country.
Besides, the societal demand for the rapists’ head underlines a perspective on women, one that equates a woman’s ‘honour’ or physical ‘purity’ with her selfhood and, ultimately, with her life itself. This is the point of view that sees rape not merely as a terrible accident with criminal implications that befalls a woman but as a life-changing event of irrevocable impact. True, rape, apart from causing grievous bodily harm, is bound to be an intensely traumatic experience for women. It is indeed difficult and time-consuming to undo the psychological damage it inflicts. But often it is the social stigma that is attached to the loss of bodily ‘purity’ that makes recovery more difficult.
The average rape victim faces insult and neglect at the police station; she faces uncomfortable questions and is the subject of prurient curiosity at the hospital and even in the court; snide remarks and isolation in her neighbourhood and even in her home are also part of the package. In extreme cases, the trauma of the aftermath becomes more painful than the immediate consequences of the assault. In such cases, the victims are even led to kill themselves — like, possibly, the Madhyamgram girl earlier and the woman from Malda in recent times. It is to counter such post-rape torture that the J.S. Verma Commission’s recommendations regarding humane treatment of victims in hospitals and courts have been incorporated into the law against rape and the infamous ‘two-finger’ test abolished. But mindsets do not keep pace with changes in legislation.
Around the time the Shakti Mills verdict was announced, we witnessed another phenomenon relevant to the understanding of gender attitudes in India. The Samajwadi Party supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav, declared in Moradabad that rapes take place due to relatively pardonable ‘boyish mistakes’. Soon after, his colleague, Abu Azmi, observed that the death penalty should be handed to women who, after having consensual sex, accuse the perpetrator of rape. These might have been constituency-sensitive gimmicks targeted at khap-panchayat patriarchs in UP. But the fact that prominent political leaders, electoral candidates to boot, have the temerity to make such rabidly anti-feminist remarks is an indication of the depths of misogyny in our society.
Indeed, the attitude towards women reflected in these comments is in perfect harmony with that which is pervasive in the Indian society. Many Indians, women included, tend to think that a rape victim is somehow accountable for the crime committed against her. Attempts to dilute the gravity of the crime and delay investigations and the framing of charge-sheets reflect administrative laxity that arises out of relative tolerance of crimes against women.
Then there is the tendency to label rape victims as licentious by raising questions about their lifestyle, dress sense and marital status. An MLA in Bengal, who happens to be a former ‘star’, is only one among many who think that immodest dresses invite rape in urban India. The woman who had been gangraped while returning home from a night club in Park Street faced flak for staying out late, visiting a night club, and travelling with male acquaintances. There had even been rumours that the victim — a divorcée — was actually a call-girl. The insinuation was that the circumstances extenuated the culpability of the crime. Clearly, as a society, we are unaccustomed to think that adult men have a responsibility to behave sensibly with women, irrespective of their sense of dressing, professions or lifestyles. We are incapable of or unwilling to concede that women have equal rights to personal liberty. We tend to forget that without this right, the right to life itself becomes meaningless for women.
Until we are able to view rape for what is — a traumatic assault that violates a woman’s person — and cease to look at it as a fate worse than death, women will continue to suffer and wily politicians will keep pandering to socially entrenched misogyny. Demands for the death sentence for rapists reflect something more than righteous rage: it is a tacit endorsement of the archaic and pernicious view of womanhood that equates a woman with nothing more than her body. It also side-steps the issue of the raped woman’s rehabilitation and the State’s frequent failure to give her adequate care and protection.
A society in which rape victims get threatened by rapists and are led to suicide and a nation that averages a 26 per cent conviction rate of rapists should perhaps focus on unbiased investigations and, above all, on the protection and rehabilitation of victims rather than on vindictive justice. If anything, sentencing rapists to death would delay the dispensation of justice and may even lead to acquittals. The success of the Shakti Mills case is offset by the Suryanelli episode — 18 long years from crime to conviction. The focus should be on speedy justice rather than on hasty revenge since the impetus to seek revenge arises from a regressive, misogynistic mindset.