2012 Delhi gangrape case verdict: Is denying death penalty in the Bilkis Bano episode justice denied?

How could the same law be applied differently to two similar cases is a question only legal experts and courts can answer.

Sandipan Sharma May 05, 2017 17:49:03 IST
2012 Delhi gangrape case verdict: Is denying death penalty in the Bilkis Bano episode justice denied?

In Anurag Kashyap's dark psychological thriller, Raman Raghav, a cop tells his girlfriend about a serial killer on the loose and how he plans to punish him for the crime.

The girl, who has been forced to abort thrice, replies: Tune bhi to mere teen bachche maare hain! (You have also killed my three children).

2012 Delhi gangrape case verdict Is denying death penalty in the Bilkis Bano episode justice denied

Bilkis Bano. Image courtesy IBN Lokmat

The sequence comes to mind after the Supreme Court's decision upholding death penalty to four persons who gang-raped and killed Jyoti Singh Pandey on the roads of Delhi in 2012 and the Bombay High Court's refusal to award a similar punishment to the men accused of the gang-rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her daughter and many of her family memebers during post-Godhra riots in Gujarat.

Prima facie both the cases look almost similar. Pandey was lured into a moving bus by six men, tied, assaulted and gang-raped. Not satisfied with their barbaric act, the perpetrators of the crime inserted an L-shaped iron rod into her, tore out her intestine and threw Pandey out of a moving bus to die on the road on a cold winter night.

Similarly, on 3 March, 2002, a mob assaulted Bano in the aftermath of the Godhra riots. Bano, who was 19 and pregnant then, was raped, brutally beaten and left her for dead. The crowd also killed her five-year-old son.
On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty awarded by a trial court to the four main accused in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. The court ruled that if ever there was a crime that deserved a death sentence, it was the brutal rape and murder of Pandey. "Human lust," the court observed, "was allowed to take demonic form."

"It is manifest that the wanton lust, the servility to absolutely unchained carnal desire and slavery to the loathsome bestiality of passion ruled the mindset of the appellants to commit a crime which can summon with immediacy "tsunami" of shock in the mind of the collective and destroy the civilised marrows of the milieu in entirety.... Therefore, we conclude and hold that the High Court has correctly confirmed the death penalty and we see no reason to differ with the same," the SC said in its verdict.

Pandey's rape and murder was indeed a demonic act. Considering the brutality of the crime, the four accused who were awarded the death penalty — the juvenile was let off after a three-year term in a reformatory and one accused committed suicide during the trial — should consider themselves lucky. In many other societies, there would have been valid reasons to make them undergo the exact pain, evisceration and humiliation that Pandey suffered before succumbing to her injuries. Death is too mild a punishment for them, a too easy exit from the hell their lives should have been.

Ironically, the accused in the Bilkis Bano case got off with a comparatively lighter punishment. Even though they were accused of gang-raping Bano and the murdering her child, the Bombay High Court overturned the CBI's appeal for the death penalty to the three main accused in the case. The court upheld the life sentence awarded to them by a lower court.

How could the same law be applied differently to two similar cases is a question only legal experts and courts can answer. It is also possible that the SC, if approached by the prosecution against the HC verdict, may uphold the fundamental principle of equal punishment for equal crime and look at the Bilkis Bano case in a different legal light. But, at the moment it seems the kind of justice that has been done to Pandey, has been denied to Bano.

Pandey's gang rape and murder was one of the defining moments in Indian history. The spontaneous outrage across the country over the crime in the capital of India had turned it into a test-case for the justice system. Had the guilty been let off with a milder punishment, the verdict would have failed to serve as a deterrent. To quote the SC judgment in Afzal Guru's case, it would have failed to satisfy the collective conscience of the nation.

Had the perpetrators got away with just a life sentence, the impact would have been similar to the fate of the juvenile — the co-accused who actually lured Pandey into the bus and inserted the L-shaped rod into her private parts — who was let off with a mild punishment.

Just a year after Pandey's rape and murder, when five persons were accused of raping a photojournalist inside Mumbai's Shakti Mills compound, one of them immediately drew attention to his juvenile status to seek leniency. Perhaps he was emboldened, not deterred, by the fate of Pandey's juvenile murderer.

The spectre of Pandey's murderers and rapists getting away with a lifer would have failed to instil fear of the law in the hearts of future criminals. So, the four men deserved to be hanged.

But, Bano's case too deserved a similar denouement. The CBI was right in seeking the death penalty for the deranged criminals who raped a pregnant woman, left her to die and killed her daughter. Letting the accused hang would have sent the right message to bigots and maniacs who act like demons in the name of religion and perpetrate violence on the pretext of delivering mob justice.

Perhaps the SC would ensure some day that if Raman is to be hanged for rape and murder, so should be Raghav for his equally heinous and barbaric crime.

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