Off with their heads! Yes, hanging has been suggested as one of the punishments for rapists, but should the people making this suggestion lose their heads too?
The reaction to the horrific Delhi gangrape has been of white-hot anger right across the country. And why shouldn’t that be when reading about the revolting details of the rape fills you with such fury that you want to take the law into your own hands and lynch the men who did such unspeakable things to another human being?
But we don’t, and shouldn’t. A civilised society must deal with even the most grisly crime with a calm and collected mind and according to the laws of the land. Yet, on television you had anchors in their daily state of apoplexy asking questions like “Why should the rapists’ heads be covered when they were being taken to jail?” “Why shouldn’t they be summarily tried and sentenced?” These are questions fit for the street, not for those who would be thought leaders. The faces of those arrested are covered so as not to prejudice their identification parade. Secondly, the police may well have arrested the wrong man.
Public outrage is another thing. The spontaneity and genuineness of the demonstrations and the fury of public reaction needed inspired leadership to quickly assuage inflamed feelings. Instead, the Prime Minister read (yes, read) his address to the nation in a tone normally used for Annual Reports; Sushilkumar Shinde showed that it’s possible to put more than two feet in the mouth at the same time; the hitherto much-admired Sheila Dikshit fell of her pedestal with her plea of helplessness; the BJP, as usual, attacked the government; Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, instead of seizing the moment, did nothing, and Arvind Kejriwal and his band of opportunists threw their topis into the ring.
It’s clear we are not going to get any leadership from this bunch in Delhi. Are we, at least, going to get some action? The government has appointed the Justice JS Verma Committee to review within one month present the laws on sexual assault, and with the help of suggestions from women’s groups, NGOs and civil society, suggest changes and amendments to the present laws.
The committee will probably discard the more extreme suggestions made by demonstrators and parliamentarians, like the death penalty or castration. Many countries in the world are moving away from the death penalty even for murder, and in India this extreme punishment is reserved for ‘the rarest of rare cases.’ Chemical castration, adopted by some countries in the West, is usually reserved for habitual offenders, those who seem biologically and mentally unable to control their violent sexual urges. What will undoubtedly be recommended is more stringent punishment and longer sentences, perhaps extending to life imprisonment.
But let’s have no illusions about this: even if the Verma Committee quickly gives its recommendations and they are equally quickly passed by Parliament and become law, they will only serve to soothe public fury and nothing else. Because the problem we are faced with is not the absence of laws, but the absence of enforcement. The conviction rate in rape cases has actually been dropping drastically: in 1990, it was 41 percent; in 2000 it was 30 percent; in 2011, it was only 26.6 percent.
In other words, for every one person jailed for rape, three walked away free. Are more stringent laws going to change that? And are new laws going to change old judicial habits? Out of 1.27 lakh rape accused facing trial in various courts in 2011, verdicts were given in just 21,489 cases. Fast-tracking of rape cases is easier said than done. When the acute shortage of judges delays verdicts in even murder trials, where will we suddenly get extra judges for the proposed special courts for sexual assaults cases? ‘Fast track courts’ is a nice new phrase, but it’s only a placebo to calm frayed tempers.
Even more basic is the role of the police. Their role is vital in this field: first, they have to be vigilant so that sexual assaults do not happen. For this, we need policemen (and importantly policewomen) in adequate numbers. Yet 20 percent of the nation’s police force is only on paper! The sanctioned strength of police across the country is 20.80 lakh. But even this measly number is further reduced because 4.20 lakh vacancies have not been filled. Since we are not talking of highly skilled personnel, this can only show the apathy of state governments.
Worse, the men who are in the police force are poorly trained. Sensitizing them to issues like the victim’s trauma doesn’t even seem to be on the police leadership’s agenda. As a result, police often refuse to register rape cases, and when they are registered, they do a shoddy job of investigation. To top it all, the police force’s political leadership is filled with male chauvinists, misogynists and men with outmoded ideas.
So, however furious we all are, we are in for a very long haul. Are the crowds in Delhi and the crowds in Mumbai going to sustain their anger for this prolonged period? For the sake of the young Delhi heroine fighting for her life, and so many other victims like her, let’s hope we too will have the stamina and the will to fight and not give up.