Kerala rape case: Why the death penalty does not deter

by G Pramod Kumar  Jan 4, 2013 13:54 IST

#Capital punishment   #InMyOpinion   #Rape  

Even as the trial on the Delhi gangrape case began on Thursday, the death sentence awarded by a district court in Thiruvananthapuram to a man who raped and killed a minor girl raises serious questions on the over-reliance of punishment as deterrent.

There was a near unanimous sense of victory and justice across Kerala over the verdict, particularly in the wake of the Delhi incident, with even a well-known rights activist and poet justifying the death penalty. “A severe crime like this deserves an equally severe punishment,” the poet reportedly said.

The public prosector dedicated his victory in court to the Delhi rape victim while prominent citizens, including the state’s home minister, said that this stringent punishment should be a lesson for others.

Violent protests were noticed against crime against women in New Delhi recently. PTI

Since the court found the accused, an auto-rickshaw driver, guilty two days ago, there were wide-spread calls for his head from various sections of society. The crime was gruesome: he allegedly raped and killed a 15-year old school girl, Arya, while she was home alone. He asked the girl for a screw-driver to repair his rickshaw and impulsively raped her when he found that she was alone. After killing the girl, the convict also stole her gold ornaments. The entire state mourned her death.

In about a year, this is the second death sentence for rape in the state. The last was when a beggar-criminal, who operated out of passenger trains in the state, raped and killed a working-girl while she was going home in a train from Kochi. The resultant outrage was similar to the Delhi gangrape and the victim, Sowmya, became a household name in the state.

Thanks to public pressure, the investigation was quick and the trial was fast-tracked. The accused was convicted and sentenced to death in a few months even as mobs wanted to execute him publicly. The convict, Govindachamy, also became a household-synonym for despicable criminal-rapists.

As in Delhi, it’s only natural for people in the state to be outraged by such incidents and to demand stringent punishment. But unfortunately, what goes into hiding behind the punishment is the will and responsibility of the State in creating an environment where rapes and violence against women seldom happen. Had the fear of death-sentence been an effective deterrent, there should have been at least a marginal respite in the incidence of rapes in Kerala since the Soumya case and the conviction of the accused.

Instead, the numbers rose dramatically.

The rape and murder of Soumya, the public-outrage and the promises of the government happened in February 2011 and the conviction in November. The same year, the number of rapes in the state nearly doubled compared to the previous year. In 2010, the state had reported 634 cases, which rose to 1132 in 2011. In the first nine months of 2012, the state has already recorded 715 cases. Considering a quarterly average, the number cannot be lower than that in 2011, if not higher.

Did the death penalty, promises of the government and public outrage work?

The data from the state clearly shows three things: one, the combo of law-and-order and extreme punishment, such as the death penalty, alone do not really work; two; an unimaginative state hides behind law and order solutions instead of rolling out a comprehensive and scientific response; and three, public outrage is momentary, ill-directed and is incapable of holding governments to account or changing the way we behave.

As Firstpost had noted earlier, the malaise is deeply sociological and requires responses that address the underlying factors. As the Kerala example shows, more surveillance, police, arrests, and even an improved conviction rate, are no guarantee for effective prevention because real reason lie elsewhere - in our horrendously male-dominated values, poor status and objectification of women, lawlessness and the overall cultural atmosphere in which we grow up and live.

If our social values do not respect women and allow us to grope, grab and rape them at will, that is what we will do with or without laws. A large number of Kerala’s rape victims are minors (nearly half of the victims in 2011 were minors), and sex-sandals and serial-rapes involving minor girls are so rampant. Till recently, rapes had been as crucial an ingredient as fights in Kerala’s popular films. Rape was also the principal theme of one of the most successful films 2012, which interestingly paved the way for the successful comeback for the actor who played the role of the rapist.

As in every case of rape, elements of the social conditions that breed violence against women were evident in the case of the Arya murder as well. The convict pounced on the girl when he saw that she was alone. His two wives reportedly narrated incidents that showed that he had been violent with them. Evidently, he was socially habituated to aggress women and treat them like sexual objects. He didn’t care if the Arya was a small kid preparing for her class 10 exams.

Had he been deterred by public anger or the possibility of death penalty, he wouldn’t have committed the crime because at that time, the state was gripped by anger over Soumya’s rape and murder.

On the other hand, had his society taught him values that treated women equally, he wouldn’t have looked at the girl as a sexual object. Ultimately, it’s the only protection that will work. Unfortunately, it’s not as popular and dramatic as the gallows and takes a lot of efforts and political will to execute.

The state government will escape from its responsibility yet again. The home minister might sound perfect for a TV show when he says that the sentence will be a deterrent. He, along with the fear-mongers, should sit back and look at Kerala’s rape-statistics with a magnifying glass—568 in 2009, 634 in 2010, 1132 in 2011 and 715 in nine months of 2012—even as the state continues to pile up rape-trophies: Sooryanelli, Kiliroor Shari, Sowmya, Arya...

Isn’t the story so clear? How come in Tamil Nadu, which has more than twice Kerala’s population, the incidence has been consistently half of that in Kerala? Is it because of better law-and-order or something else?

Fix your society first, before you send your police and courts.