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Death penalty is not the best fix: Six ways to curb rapes in India

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

The highly charged primetime debates on television last night revolved, as expected, on the topic of death penalty and its utility. While advocate Sudha Ramalingam infuriated her News Hour co-hosts by declaring such blood lust unseemly in the land of Gandhi, activist Sunitha Krishnan on CNN-IBN went to the other extreme, demanding the noose for all rapists:

One death penalty would ensure that ten others would be scared to commit an act like this...Yes there is a danger that the victim could be killed but, even if she is killed, this gentleman is not going to go scot-free, right? And for one victim who could be killed, there will be 100 victims who would be saved.

The problem with the debate over the death penalty is that it confuses prevention with punishment. AP

The problem with the debate over the death penalty is that it confuses prevention with punishment. AP

If Ramalingam was overly idealistic, Krishnan sounded wildly illogical. Punishing all rapes with the death penalty would indeed ensure that women were not just raped but also killed precisely so the rapists could go "scot-free". The Delhi gangrape verdict could have been very different if both victims had died and the police didn’t have their testimonies.

The problem with the debate over the death penalty is that it confuses prevention with punishment. As a number of other panelists — ranging from Kiran Bedi to Vrinda Grover — tried to explain, deterrence requires active, ongoing intervention, much less dramatic than a hangman’s noose.

The aim ought to be to nip sexual violence in the bud, to prevent it from escalating to the extreme act of rape. Bedi called it the "broken window" approach to sexual violence, others described it as a "zero-tolerance" policy. We may not be able to change cultural mindsets overnight, but vigorous and targeted policing can change behaviour by eroding the sense of impunity that has fueled this rape epidemic.

But what would such a policy look like if we moved beyond rhetoric to real-life implementation though we should keep in mind many rapes occur not on the street but at home?

One, no crime is too minor. The "broken windows" approach to combating crime — adopted most successfully by then New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani — advocates zero tolerance of petty crimes which, its advocates argue, inevitably escalate to more serious offenses if left unchecked.

A similar approach to sexual violence would crack down on all the offenses — stalking, groping, verbal harassment — that are covered by the infamous euphemism, "eve teasing." The police is notoriously indifferent to such crimes, treating them as routine, even normal behavior. But men who worry about being punished for grabbing a breast on a bus or the street, because there might be random checks from plainclothes police officers, are far less likely to muster up the courage to escalate to full-on assault.

The new anti-rape laws — which raise both fines and jail time for such offenses — offer sufficient legal room for a serious and overdue crackdown. It's time the UPA government puts its money where Sonia Gandhi's mouth is, and creates a dedicated police cadre aimed at ensuring street-level safety. That will send a message without requiring expensive prosecution or crowding the jails.

Two, street-level watch. Shakti Mills was well-known as a hangout of drunks, alcoholics and drug peddlers. Kamduni near Barasat where a gangrape happened recently was ill-lit and ill-served by police stations, surrounded by fisheries. But once the hubbub dies down everything goes back to same old, same old. Indian Express reports Shakti Mills had police cover for exactly one week. “The arrests have not stopped local boys from gathering on the street and commenting on every girl that passes by. They still drink out in the open at day time and do drugs in the recesses of the ghat. We are afraid to step out after 4 pm,” says resident Nilofer Shaikh.

The rape accused often come with either rap sheets or at least neighborhood notoriety. In Shakti Mills the juvenile and his brothers were notorious as “raat ke badshah” and caught recently for petty theft. The Singh brothers in the Delhi gangrape were known for drunkenness, crime and violence in the neighbourhood.

The police know the troublemakers and the trouble hot spots. But they ignore it because it’s too much hassle or because many of the men who commit such crimes are party workers or thugs-on-hire for the same politicians who wax indignant over sexual violence. The main accused in the Kamduni gangrape is a known CPM enforcer, now turned Trinamool man and the others belong to his mini-mafia ruling, over their fisheries with impunity.

Three, police face the music. Just last week four youngsters from Kolkata, two of them young women, returning from an out-of-station DJing gig found their car chased by six hoodlums on motorbikes for 19 km on the highway. The men were dragged out and beaten. The women tried to lock themselves in the car, but the windows were broken with beer bottles. It didn’t escalate to rape, but no thanks to the cops. Three terrified calls to 100 were just shrugged off by policemen saying it was “outside their jurisdiction.” The Telegraph reports that “a patrol team of Uluberia police station, said to be barely 200m from the spot allegedly did not move despite being alerted about the assault by passing trucks.”

A passer by stopped seeing the fracas and the assailants fled. The alleged culprits have been arrested, but what about the police who are so quick to pass the buck? It’s not just the reluctance to file an FIR, it is this lackadaisical approach to policing all around that needs exemplary and fast-track punishment.

It’s too convenient to wring our hands over the fact that policemen often come from the same sexist stock as the assailants. Too many believe, as Sunil Kumar, a Delhi police inspector said in a sting “No rape in Delhi can happen without the girl’s provocation.” But as long as the cop wears the uniform and draws that salary, he needs to leave that attitude at home and do his job or face the consequences.

Police have no problem raiding a pub or a private party to dole out morality lessons with the help of a lathi to innocent people having a drink or dancing. How about expending that energy and manpower on miscreants actually harassing women?

Four, license, license, license. Rewinding the Delhi gangrape victim’s story several what-if moments stand out that could have changed the course of events that night. As Jason Burke recounts in The Guardian:
On this Sunday night there were no official Delhi Metropolitan Corporation buses to take J and Pandey back to Dwarka. No auto-rickshaw wanted such a distant fare either.

This is a story of the failure of public transportation that has resulted in a fleet of unlicensed buses which commuters are forced to take. The owner of the bus that J and her friend boarded had been caught several times running unlicensed buses. Obviously it never had an impact because he just bribed his way out.

A licensed bus, taxi, auto, with the driver’s information prominently displayed is a clear and obvious deterrent. The driver knows that if anything happens to his passenger, he is the first person in the firing line.

After three men kidnapped and gangraped a Manipal University student in an auto-rickshaw, the police plan to institute mandatory rickshaw driver license display system behind the driver’s seat. Other cities should not wait for a horrific gangrape on their watch before implementing something like this.

Five, good samaritans must act. One of the more shameful aspects of sexual violence in this country is the passive role of the community which allows women to be attacked in the most public of spaces. Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes were killed on a busy street in Mumbai. A young girl was molested in full view of cameras and a mob in Guwahati. Most of us prefer not to get "involved," while others prefer to gawk from the sidelines.

One way to encourage community responsibility is to introduce a Good Samaritan Act which protects anyone intervening to save a person from physical harm from police harassment or other kind of punitive legal action. It would also require citizens to take minimal action — which does not endanger their own lives — to help a potential victim, much like the Israeli version. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call or stopping your car to help — as did the man who eventually rescued the Guwahati girl. While failure to take on a gang of hooligans is hardly a crime, the law can make it an offense to actively cheer or encourage such assaults from the sidelines.

Six, zero tolerance without fear or favour. It is a fallacy to assume that middle class women in big cities can be protected while we leave their rural or less affluent and visible sisters to their fate. As Jason Burke notes in The Guardian, Nirbhaya's rapists all came from remote, impoverished parts of the country, where women "suffer systematic sexual harassment and often violence. Rape is common and gangrape frequent. Victims are habitually blamed for supposedly enticing their attackers. Many are forced to marry their assailants; others kill themselves rather than live with the social stigma of being "dishonoured". Police rarely register a complaint, let alone investigate."

The Mumbai gangrape case revealed that the suspects had raped four other rag-pickers and a call centre worker in the same mills compound. It is no wonder these men believed they could just pick up, assault and discard any young woman without consequences. A zero tolerance policy can work only when it extends to all women all over India.

Of course, now that we've set out the elements of a zero tolerance policy it reads like a pipe-dream, and for one simple fact: our police force is entirely compromised and held hostage to the political class. Some of the assailants are more powerful than the hawaldar because they moonlight as political muscle. And naysayers will say we just don’t have the resources.

But to paraphrase Sonia Gandhi "The question is not whether we can (raise the resources to) do it or not. We have to do it.” The security of half the population of this country is no less important than food security. And it will not come for just the price of a hangman’s salary.