This is the second time that Mr L.K. Advani has proposed that rapists be punished by death. This seems sane and just, and underlines the government’s concern for victimized women. Yet the proposal has given rise to a paradoxical situation, as it had in 1998. Women’s organizations and activists are objecting strongly to the proposed measure. It is possible to read into this manifestation of the government’s concern a desire to put skeletons back where they belong. Crimes against women in India show little signs of decline, although the code book is bristling with laws and women’s rights groups have been working tirelessly to raise awareness and create an ambience of social monitoring and support. Local achievements pale before the overall picture. Yet it is the local achievements that are important, since laws alone cannot alter social attitudes and cultural imbalances.
The objections of the women’s organizations must be placed in this context. The long struggle to change certain parts of the law against rape is still not over. Strangely enough, the crime of rape still confuses, and much of the confusion is rooted in the duality of attitude society harbours towards women. This is best seen by comparing the number of reported rapes with the number of convictions. According to the women’s groups, the death penalty would further reduce the number of convictions. It is far more important, they feel, to clarify the relevant clauses in the law against rape in order to make conviction inescapable. There is, perhaps, another equally dangerous possibility. Given the subtle variations of torture evolved for women, a death penalty for the more spectacularly violent crime may encourage more vicious but less obviously liable ones, while society might be tempted to look away. The logic could apply elsewhere too. What would happen, or not happen, to child abusers, for example, even if there were a law to apply against them' Perhaps Mr Advani should also think about what the women’s groups are saying, instead of just listening to the opinions of the states and political parties.