What's a little naming-and-shaming compared to calls for public hangings and chemical castration?
The government has decided it's going to prepare a database of all rape convicts across the country. So far, so good.
But then it says it’s going to put them on the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) website complete with photographs, names and addresses. And the public can access the website.
It's hard to have much sympathy for rapists. Even prisoners thrashed the men accused of gang-raping the 23-year-old in the Delhi bus. Yet the prospect of this website should give us pause. It's always worrisome when policies are cooked up in an overheated chamber of righteous popular outrage. This proposed database seems prompted less by a concern for public safety than a belated attempt by a flatfooted government to give the appearance of swift action. If we cannot hang them in the public square, let's hang them in a public database at least.
The database sounds dangerously like a well-planned roadmap for a lynch mob.
As a country we have been rightly castigating ourselves for keeping quiet when we see women being harassed on a bus or a train. But if we err on the side of no action, we also can just as easily hurtle towards the other extreme. The power of a mob can go both ways. It can molest a woman the way it did in front of a Guwahati bar earlier this year. Or it can turn on a suspected rapist and thrash him to death. Soon after the Delhi gangrape, five men in a Jharkhand village, all “suspected eve teasers” were beaten to death by an angry mob. “We were fed up with their misbehaviour with women of the villages,” a villager told a local news channel.
In a society which has little faith in the process of law actually delivering justice speedily, it’s very tempting to dish out vengeance instead. A government should not be making it easier for frustrated citizens to do just that by making vigilante retribution only a mouse click away. If a woman is molested somewhere, would any registered sex offender in the neighbourhood be safe? And what if a clerical error puts the wrong name into a database? One shudders to imagine what someone will have to go through to get the behemoth of government bureaucracy to fix that mistake.
Mind you, this is meant to be a database for convicted rapists. So this means that even if the rapist has served whatever sentence a court has laid down for his crime, he (and his family) will be tarred and feathered for the rest of their lives. And yes, it will affect the family as well because the sins of the son always come to rest on the parents. (Case in point — all those calls for Pranab Mukherjee to apologise for his middle-aged son’s idiotic statements.)
The government says the idea is to prevent repeat offences. Yet is it even clear that rape is a “repeat offence” in the way pedophilia usually is? The US has something similar for sex offenders. It’s called Megan’s Law. It too was passed at the height of feverish national outrage. In 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who lived across the street from her with several other sex offenders. It was a quiet neighbhourhood where children played in each other’s homes and the parents had no idea that sex offenders were living in their midst. Now sex offenders have to register with police and the community had to be notified when one moves into a neighbourhood. When some raised privacy concerns the lawmaker who proposed the law said simply if that law had been in place in 1994, Megan Kanka would have been alive. The consensus is the importance of protecting public safety outweighs the convicted sex offender’s right to privacy.
In the US, there have not been many instances of vigilantism on the basis of Megan’s law. But it’s hard to be as sanguine about India. Today’s Telegraph has the story of an angry mob in the Tiljala neighbourhood of Kolkata beating up a rag-picker who had picked up a baby outside a shanty. They suspected she was part of a child snatching racket. A local youth alleged he had heard her muttering “I have lifted many before and today it’s the turn of this kid.” That’s all it took to beat her to death. In a hot-headed culture where we are happy to act first and think later, this public database could be a ticking time bomb.
This gruesome Delhi case notwithstanding, the thing to remember about rape is that women (and children) are often more at risk at home and among people they know than out on the street. A district judge in Delhi just let off a man accused of marital rape by his wife not because he didn't do it but because the penal code does not recognise marital rape. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code says “Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape.” The attitudes towards women are regressive across the board. The president’s son might be the current target of national ridicule but he has plenty of compatriots in parliament (and indeed everywhere else) who are breathing a sigh of relief that no one is paying attention to the idiotic things they have said. The louder the cry to name and shame others, the more it seems we want to deflect attention from our failings.
According to the NCRB’s statistics two women are raped every hour in India. Between 2007 and 2011 rapes have gone up 20 percent all over the country. And the conviction rate is abysmal. The national average for conviction hovers at around 27.7 percent. Perhaps we need to look closely at the reasons for that. What will a database of convicted rapists achieve other than naming and shaming?
A government should provide safety. A government should provide fast track justice when rapes occur. A government should hold its police accountable when a woman walks into a police station to report a rape and then wishes she had not even bothered.
That is the business of government.
When naming and shaming becomes government business, we should all be worried.