Delhi rape case: Will castration be an effective deterrent?

It is perhaps symptomatic of our society that when confronted with a serious problem, we let our emotions run riot even while refusing to look at the real solutions.

A case in point is the horrific gang-rape of a medical student in a moving Delhi bus last Sunday. Television and media in general have gone hysterical, and suddenly the same country that was discussing the barbarity of the death penalty in the context of terrorism is now enthusiastically espousing blood-lust as retribution for rape.

At another level, non-solutions are the order of the day. Since the rape happened in a bus with tinted windows and curtains drawn, the Delhi police are seeking to ban tinted glass and curtains. How ridiculous! Tinted glasses are intended to protect you from the heat and dust. They are not the cause of rapes. Their abolition is not going to get the crime rate down in rapetown. Rape will happen elsewhere.

Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, for his part, has set up a special task force headed by the Home Secretary to look at the issue of safety of women in Delhi.

Is he for real? After hundreds of rapes in the capital, does Shinde still need yet another task force to figure this out?

The answers, Mr Shinde, are obvious: we need more aggressive beat policing, especially at night, more women police officers and constables to handle women’s cases, specialised crime investigation teams that can nab the guilty with solid evidence within hours, fast-track courts that guarantee convictions within two months, and guarantees to both victims and witnesses that the police-legal-court system will not make them run around while seeking justice or giving evidence to nail the culprits.

Protests against the Delhi gangrape. AFP

The only thing that will deter rapists is the certainty of punishment, and not its quantum, or even the death penalty.

However, it is worth discussing an increase in punishment or a new form of punishment — if the intention is to publicise it widely and put fear into the minds of potential offenders.

Let’s first ask: is death penalty a deterrent?

Many male MPs in parliament have been busy demanding this, and some women MPs have also joined them in the surge of anger and horror over the bus-gang-rape.

But the death penalty is always problematic since the world is moving away from it. India is one of the few holdouts, but even we are reluctant to execute our death row inmates. So sending rapists to the gallows is hardly a rational choice. It is also worth recalling that before demitting office as President, Pratibha Patil commuted the death sentences of several rapists. A record 30 pardons were granted in double-quick time.

Among them was Santosh Yadav, who was already serving a jail sentence for rape. In jail, as gardener of the jailer, he and a fellow convict raped the jailer’s own daughter. He was pardoned by Patil. Dharmender Singh and Narendra Yadav killed a family of five when their minor daughter resisted rape. They, too, were pardoned. (Read here)

If the general trend is pardon for even heinous rapes, it is difficult to believe that society will support the death sentence for rape once the immediate public anger abates.

Moreover, the problem is different: the purpose of the death sentence is to serve as a deterrent, not as retribution alone. There is no evidence that men with high libidos and weak moral consciences will be deterred by it. Few men are scared enough of the death sentence, especially when the process of conviction and sentencing takes years.

So if one is looking for deterrence, only something that frightens men might work.

Castration is one such possibility. If there is one thing that all men consider with a sense of dread, it is the loss of libido and the sex drive. So, the fear factor of castration would clearly be a deterrent, especially if it was widely publicised and the public knows in advance what is in store for rape. Some Indian judges has also mentioned it as a possible deterrent.

But castration, unfortunately, has its own problems. Many countries have tried them, with mixed results.

There are two kinds of castration – one is physical, where the male testicles are physically removed; the other is chemical, where male testosterone levels are reduced with drugs — usually Depo Provera — which lowers the libido and sex drive.

The physical approach seems the most effective, and studies over long periods show that physically castrated men do not usually relapse into sex crimes since the drive itself drops like a stone. But the physical removal of testicles does not by itself reduce the production of testosterone, since this is also produced by some other glands, and some men have reported normal sex drives even after the removal of their testes.

Chemical castration — which some countries like the Czech Republic, Korea and some states in the US have accepted — involves the injection or consumption of Depo Provera for long periods of time. It is effective, and if voluntarily taken by sex-addicts or high-libido persons, it can be effective. But any reduction in dosage can lead to relapses, as one case in San Antonio suggests.

However, castration is a leap into the dark for India for two reasons: if administered involuntarily to rapists, it can do psychological damage. If rape is partly the result of a damaged self-esteem, castration could compound this problem. Amnesty International says castration is "inhuman". One one does not know if castration could lead to other undesirable side-effects. In dogs, castration sometimes leads to obesity since the operation causes a drop in the metabolism rate. If food intake remains the same, they gain weight.

If done voluntarily, castration will need enormous police and social monitoring to make sure rapists do not accept the punishment only as a ruse to obtain a lighter jail sentence.

Even so, on balance it may be worth having castration on the statute book as an option for one simple reason: it does scare the daylights out of many men. It could serve as a deterrent, even though its frequent use needs further study and research.

Coupled with the normal or enhanced jail sentence, it is worth trying out in extreme cases.

Updated Date: Dec 19, 2012 14:29 PM

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