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India's rape crisis won't be solved by hangman's noose; examining system that breeds such criminals need of hour

  • Faced with this kind of savage violence, a growing numbers of Indians have been calling for vengeance

  • The rape and murder of a Hyderabad veterinarian has generated calls for the accused to be summarily executed, tortured and maimed

  • The rage is understandable, but hangmen will not make women and children in India any safer

Manoharan and Mohanakrishnan picked up the 10-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother — on their way to school — from outside a temple on 29 October, 2010. They drove the siblings to the woods around the Gopala Temple Hills, telling them they were doing this “so that they could see tiger, lion and deer”. They took turns raping the girl. The children were then given milk; it was bitter, laced with insecticide, so the children spat it out. That plan having failed, they tossed them into the Parambikulam-Axhiyar canal. Manoharan and Mohanakrishnan watched the children’s bodies and schoolbags disappear downstream.

Later, judges were to hear that Mohanakrishnan said this might be a good time for him to grow what he called “a lion moustache”.

In all that time, the men never once asked the children their names.

 Indias rape crisis wont be solved by hangmans noose; examining system that breeds such criminals need of hour

Representational image. PTI

Faced with this kind of savage violence, a growing numbers of Indians have been calling for vengeance. The rape and murder of a Hyderabad veterinarian, like the 2012 Delhi gangrape, has generated calls for the accused to be summarily executed, even tortured and maimed.

The rage is understandable, but hangmen won’t make women and children in India any safer.

First up, there’s no evidence — contrary to the ill-informed rants you’ve likely seen on television from people who ought know better — that sentencing has any deterrent effect on the frequency, or intensity of crime. In the most thorough meta-study of murder data ever conducted, the United States’ National Academy of the Sciences concluded it was impossible to determine “whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates”.

There is some simple social science research for open-ended finding: The sample sizes are inadequate, for example, and it’s obviously impossible to test two identical populations of criminals to see how their behaviours are impacted by varying kinds of sentencing.

But the academy discovered that homicide rates in different states of the country, as well as Canada, moved in lockstep, even as they experimented with very different death penalties. Federal Bureau of Investigations data shows that US states with the death penalty have consistently higher murder rates than states that have abolished capital punishment.

Iran, which until 2018, executed hundreds for narcotic trafficking offences, has a far higher addiction rate than Sweden, where the penalties are low. In spite of its draconian punishment regime, Singapore has a similar murder rate to Hong Kong, which does not have the death penalty.

This much is inescapable: Death sentences alone don’t deter murder.

There’s no truth, either, that the death penalty helps deter crimes like terrorism. Israel — held out an exemplar in fighting terrorism — hasn’t executed anyone since it hanged the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962. Its only other application of the sentence was in the case of Meir Tobianski, a soldier executed on treason charges in 1948, only to be later established as having been innocent.

Finally, there’s the real problem of evidence. In the United States, which has a far more sophisticated criminal investigation system than India, DNA testing has, thus far. far freed 367 prisoners: 21 from death row. In 44 percent of those cases, the Innocence Project records, there had been misapplications of forensic science; in an astonishing 41 cases prisoners pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.

Eyewitness testimony — the purportedly-unimpeachable “I saw it myself” evidence which forms the bedrock of the criminal justice system — has come under growing assault from scholarly study. Gary Wells and Elizabeth Olsen have shown, among others, that a welter of factors, from age and race to lighting conditions can lead to false results. They note that double-blind tests — the gold-standard in science — are unknown in eyewitness credibility studies.

In many cases, it would appear that there can be no reasonable doubt at all, like Mohammed Ajmal Kasab's journey, filmed on closed-circuit television, through Mumbai on 26/11. Yet, the history of capital punishment is full of examples demonstrating that what seems open-and-shut today doesn’t always seem so a decade later.

Karl Marx, writing in 1858, noted that “since Cain, the world has been neither intimidated or [sic] ameliorated by punishment”. His followers, among them the leaders the Soviet Union and China, were enthusiastic advocates for the death penalty. Marx instead asked for contemplation of the “system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room only for the supply of new ones.”

Behind the calls for maiming or castrating criminals lies despair: the belief that crime can’t be fought, just punished. Even though the number of victims reporting rape to the police has climbed 60 percent since 2012,  suggesting a growing hope for justice, the conviction rate remains around 25 percent — suggesting police investigation hasn’t improved significantly. Perhaps worse, there were more than 133,000 cases pending in courts at the end of 2016, the last year for which data is available; that year, less than 85 percent of cases brought to trial were concluded.

For obvious reasons, political leaders have been enthusiastic in their support for savage punishment; it’s a lot easier, after all, to demand that rapists be castrated than to train and equip police, or to bring about trial court reforms to speed up justice.

Experience from around the world teaches us sexual violence can be fought, but not by executioners. Figures derived from the United States justice department’s authoritative National Crime Victimisation Survey — designed to capture rape cases which do not make it into the criminal justice system — show the incidence fell from 2.8 per 1,000 population in 1979 to 0.4 per 1,000 in 2004.

The decline in rape in the United States has mainly come about not because policing has become god-like in its deterrent value — indeed, conviction rates are no higher than in India — but because of hard political and cultural battles to teach men about consent.

Key to these gains was acknowledgment that rape wasn’t the work of a handful of evil men: it was, instead, embedded in everyday culture. In 1980, Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla began an extraordinary series of conversations with convicted: among them, one who had forced a vacuum cleaner hose into his victim’s vagina, before severing her nipples with his teeth; another, a college student who, as part of a gang of four, forced his victim to lie naked on snow to add to her pain.

Like Manoharan and Mohananakrishnan, most saw inflicting pain as entertaining, even empowering. “I always felt like I had just conquered something” one prisoner said, comparing his serial rape experiences to a visit to a famous amusement park ride in Dallas. “Like I had just ridden the bull at Gilley’s”, he added.

Few rapists indicated that “guilt or feeling bad was part of their emotional response” to their crimes; 92 percent said “they felt good, relieved or simply nothing at all”.

After the 2012 gangrape, many hoped India would see genuine reflection on why its men believed what they did, and behaved as they do. That hope, however, has been drowned out by primal screams for vengeance.

No society can afford to be casual about causing harm to human beings. The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued communities had the right to kill to protect themselves: “If any man is dangerous to the community and is subverting it by some sin, the treatment to be commended is his execution in order to preserve the common good”. Mosheh ben Maimon, Aquinas’ Jewish near-contemporary, disagreed: to execute anyone on less than complete certainly of their guilt, he wrote, would reduce justice “to the judge's caprice”.

Torturing, maiming and killing are just that: caprices that serve no ends other than to inflict pain on perpetrators and innocents alike. They will not make streets and homes safer for women, children or men. The victims of sexual violence in India deserve something better: a thing called justice.

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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2019 20:32:45 IST