It’s not just the call of feminist fundamentalism. From Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to former British home secretary John Reid to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, lawmakers around the world have always sought a magic bullet to stop rapists and serial sexual offenders from committing their heinous crimes. One of the punishments often touted as a deterrent is chemical castration — a subject which became the centre of a furious debate in India earlier this month when a Delhi trial court judge, Kamini Lau, prescribed it to rein in rapists and paedophiles.
Chemical castration essentially involves the administration of certain drugs to suppress the normal levels of sex hormones in men. “The idea is to lower sex drive, diminish sexual fantasies and consequently reduce deviant sexual behaviour,” explains Dr Ritesh Gupta, head, clinical operations, Fortis C-DOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology, Delhi.
Chemical castration for rapists and child molesters is not some fanciful, theoretical idea either. The punishment is actually enforced in many developed countries like the US, the UK and Germany. Several states in the US like California, Florida, Iowa and Louisiana use chemical castration to tackle those who sexually abuse children. A few days ago, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev too expressed his keenness to promulgate a chemical castration law against paedophiles. Poland has also passed a law wherein anyone found guilty of sexually assaulting children below 15 years is administered drugs to minimise his sex drive.
Back in India, Delhi judge Lau’s statement sparked a controversy as there is no precedent in the country that recommends chemical castration for sexual offenders. Lau was deciding on a case where a man was accused of raping his minor step-daughter for over four years. While sentencing the man to 10 years’ imprisonment for the crime, she observed that India was in dire need of a law that allows chemical castration since the existing laws in the country have failed to contain sex crimes, particularly those against children. She even added that Indian lawmakers should take note that the punishment is enforced in other parts of the world, especially in the West.
The judge’s view has been hotly debated ever since. Even social networking sites like Facebook are abuzz with arguments for and against chemical castration. Groups like Talking Sexual Abuse in India and Safe Delhi Campaign are trying to highlight the issue in the social media. “It’s the first time that such a remedy has been suggested or recommended in a judgment in India,” says Mumbai-based women’s activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes. “I don’t think there has been any such suggestion even by the Supreme Court.”
But will chemical castration work in India? Can it be a more effective punishment for rapists and child molesters than rigorous imprisonment extending up to 10 years or a hefty fine under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code? If we look at the statistics, sexual offences against children in India are a matter of grave concern. According to the latest data available from the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2009 about 11.5 per cent of rape victims in the country were girls under 15 years while 15.6 per cent of the victims were girls aged between 15 and 18 years. What’s more, the offenders were known to the victims in as many as 94.9 per cent cases.
However, most experts feel that chemical castration will not work in India, if for nothing else than for the fact that very few people are actually convicted of rape here. “Our conviction rate in rape cases is dismal. In the current legal system, acquittal takes place because of haphazard police investigation, corruption and collusion between the police and criminals. This will continue even if there is a more stringent punishment like castration — chemical or otherwise,” says Agnes.
She adds that the need of the hour is a more efficient legal delivery system to bring the guilty to book and ensure that the wealthy do not get away with committing such crimes. “It is the poor who will be targeted for this type of punishment, which will amount to the violation of one’s basic human rights,” feels Agnes.
Agrees Kaushik Gupta, lawyer, Calcutta High Court, “Chemical castration goes against the very essence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, it’s similar to recommending appetite-killing drugs to people who go hungry.”
Others term the punishment almost medieval in its harshness. Says B.D. Sharma, inspector-general, correctional services, West Bengal Police. “All the pros and cons must be thoroughly looked into before any such law is incorporated. What if the process is irreversible, and a person charged with rape is found innocent in a higher court? Even if it’s not an irreversible process, who’d be responsible for the trauma caused to the person? I think it can lead to great injustice. In any case, it will not be easy enforcing such a law.”
Doctors clarify that chemical castration is not an irreversible process, but side effects cannot be ruled out. “The effects are usually reversible on stopping the drugs. However, side effects on the heart and other organs may persist long after the drugs are discontinued,” says Dr Gupta of Fortis.
Experts point out that it’s still too premature to get exercised over whether or not we should have a law that allows chemical castration of sexual offenders. After all, the pros and cons of such a punishment are yet to be discussed seriously. Agnes says that if there is any suggestion to this effect it needs to be referred to the Law Commission of India, which will examine the issue and also seek public opinion on it. “I can foresee hesitancy on the part of courts to use this remedy in the case of rape and sexual abuse. In most cases of child abuse, offenders are young men or juveniles,” says Agnes. “The courts may feel that it’s barbaric to deprive a young person of his reproductive capacity. In a society that values and reveres male sexuality and a man’s right to procreate, I do not see judges using this remedy.”
Some argue that chemical castration might work in the case of hardened sexual offenders and those who commit such crimes repeatedly. “Lawmakers can target such cold-blooded sex offenders who repeat their crimes and cannot be controlled. But then it must be resorted to in the rarest of rare cases.” says Dr Sanjay Sen, consultant psychiatrist, AMRI Hospitals in Calcutta.
Chemical castration has an inherent populist appeal, as most are likely to feel that a rapist deserves just such a stringent punishment. And for the first time the matter has found a place in public discourse. However, unless our criminal justice system itself is toned up and more sex offenders are convicted rather than acquitted, the prospect of a harsh punishment like chemical castration will do little to bring down the shocking incidence of sexual crimes in our country.