Rare actions, virtue and vengeance: India’s notorious rape case and the death penalty

There is a provision in Indian law, under which the death penalty can only be handed down in a case which meets the definition of the ‘rarest of the rare’. Today, a court ruled that the notorious Delhi rape case, met that definition. The four men earlier found guilty of rape and murder, were sentenced to death by hanging this morning.

Rare it might be, in terms of the magnitude of the brutality, and in particular in terms of the notoriety. But rare as an example of violent sexual crime against women in India, it is not. Estimates suggest that a woman is raped every 20 minutes in the country, though statistics are hard to come by as crimes against women are still under-reported. Yet even from anecdotal evidence over recent months, it is clear that sexual violence against women is a huge problem in India, and it shows no signs of dying out.

Execution kills the criminal not the crime, as the saying goes. It is clear that the Delhi rape case has galvanised public opinion in the country, and it is certainly true that the sentence met with support from the many people outside court attending daily with ‘hang the rapist’ placards.

But this horrific rape and murder did not happen because the death penalty was not used enough, it happened for a plethora of reasons, foremost of which are some appaling attitudes to women. Putting these four men to death is not only to answer one brutality with another; it is also to ignore the real problem.

In April, the Indian government passed new laws which criminalised several forms of violence against women including acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism.  But they are yet to fully implement several progressive recommendations made by the Justice Verma Committee, which set out to review India’s rape laws. These seek to improve police training and reform, and change how reports of sexual violence are registered and investigated. 

Unacceptably, rape within marriage is still not considered a crime if the wife is over 15, and the security forces continue to enjoy effective immunity from prosecution for sexual violence.

Reform in India needs to start with institutions. The Indian police force has to be better trained to deal with victims of sexual violence, and there is a need to develop support systems for survivors. Many women are reluctant to report crimes, fearing humiliation and degrading treatment by the police, and indeed by society more generally.

The Indian legal system today submitted to the baying for vengeance in the country and sent the four men to the gallows, but that was not the inevitable outcome. Up until 21 November 2012, when the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Ajmal Kasab, was hanged, India had not carried out a single execution for almost eight years. Kasab’s killing meant India took a significant step backwards and joined the minority of countries in the world that are still executing. In that context of recent resumption, though, it was unlikely the calls for the noose would be resisted.

If only the baying for reform of the legal system and addressing  deep-rooted  issues relating to violence against women and the perception of women generally, from birth and throughout their lives, was as loud

The lawyer representing one of the men found guilty, invoked Gandhi in the pre-sentencing summing up, and it is hard not to call to mind the old adage with which he is most associated; ‘an eye for an eye, leaves the whole world blind’. Blind perhaps to the problem of attitudes to women which continue to dog India. As a result of that blindness, this case is depressingly less rare than it should be.

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