Voices either in support or dissent became vigorous soon after the Supreme Court on Friday confirmed the death sentences to the four convicts who had brutally raped 23-year-old paramedic Jyoti Singh at Munirka, a neighbourhood in South Delhi, on 16 December, 2012 leading to a nationwide shock and outrage. The nature of the assault on her was so barbaric that she passed away on 29 December the same year at a Singapore hospital.
While six people were behind this heinous act, one committed suicide in custody and the other, a juvenile was let off after he spent three years at the remand home. In a country, where it is not an exaggeration to call rape epidemic, this particular incident had sparked off a gargantuan public outcry, leading to a domino effect, as protesters seething with rage thronged the streets in a shrill call for justice.
On 5 May 2017, when the Supreme Court upheld an earlier order passed by the Delhi High Court of awarding capital punishment to the four convicts — Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur — the millennials who would take charge of the country gradually had many things to say about the verdict.
Response to the judgment
Smera Jayadeva, 20, a final year undergraduate student of International Studies said that the much-awaited Supreme Court judgment provided some salvation to Jyoti. However, the employment of capital punishment continues to remain a contentious subject for her.
"While the death penalty can be a deterrent to serious crimes, the human psyche is not conducive to fear-enabled techniques of crime prevention. Capital punishment has not been looked upon favourably owing to the judicial trials that have been conducted in the past," she said.
Sahana Maddali, 20, a Life Sciences graduate felt that the verdict awarding death penalty represents the right stance in the debate of right and wrong, and makes for a very pressing statement concerning the implications of rape in the light of the 2012 act of gore. However, Maddali, was quick to add a caveat.
"Capital punishment should not be misinterpreted by anyone as a convenient one off solution to rape," said the Life Sciences graduate.
Louis Unni, 20, a third-year law student was of the view that Friday’s judgment was a thorough affair wherein the proceedings took into question all the facts of the case and evidence put forth.
"This case made for a compelling argument to be passed off under the title of the 'rarest of rare'. The apex court was justified in the pronouncement of the death penalty. The entire debate now rests on thin ice, questioning whether the pronouncement of the death penalty itself passes moral muster," Unni said.
Jaslein Mahil, 22, an English Literature graduate was both satisfied and dissatisfied with the verdict.
"The verdict comes after five years, which in my opinion, is a copious amount of time. No innocent human being should ever be placed unfairly under the gavel yet in this case the facts seemed pretty self-evident. It eludes me as to why the court took five years to make up their minds on the matter?" Mahil asked.
Is the death penalty justified?
Maddali said that the death penalty is irreversible, which is why it is usually considered unhealthy for legal systems seeking to reform convicts. The 2012 gangrape case, though, was far from anything that has been witnessed in the past.
"How much ever one may argue that there have been similar or more perverse cases in the past, few have incited such explosion of outrage or a display of unity and purpose," she said. The Life Sciences graduate deemed the verdict fair for it sets a serious precedent on the consequences of committing rape, much like an electric fence surrounding what seemed to be a sandbox up until now. "It pushes them to wake up and smell the coffee, come to terms with the seriousness of the crime," she said.
Shivali Shrivastava, 20, another third-year law student was however not in favour of a straight death sentence.
"Life imprisonment until death should be the maximum punishment handed out for the most heinous of crimes. No person or institution should be the authority on sending people off to the gallows. There are several Supreme Court judgments wherein the death penalty was revoked by the court on finding faults in the verdict issued. This could also conversely lead to innocent people getting executed because of unfair and discriminatory application of the death penalty," said Shrivastava.
"Studies across the world have shown that in most cases, the person sentenced to death comes from an economically and socially backward section of the society indicating their depraved status and lack of access to public infrastructure thereby paving their way to delinquency," she said.
There is no official proof so far in the world that death sentences serve as a deterrent. That's what bothers
Abhiraj Singh, 24, a Political Science graduate.
"Death penalty serves zero purpose. There is no scientific or empirical method to measure the extent of the deterrence it serves. It’s almost similar to regressing to the medieval system of public executions. We’re no longer savages to answer brutality with brutality. The need of the hour clearly is stricter laws for convictions and the widening of the definition of rape to ensure provisions for all victims regardless of sexual orientation," he said.
Punishment was lenient for the juvenile?
Jayadeva, believed that in the case of the juvenile offender, he ought to have endured a longer sentence in the correctional facility as this would serve to bring a change in his mindset. Considering that he was still in his formative age, being let off for a crime as heinous as rape would only cushion the boy's privilege.
"There’s a good chance that he would grow up to believe that he could get away with the same in the years to come," she said.
Not everyone though shared Jayadeva's views.
"I think to say that the juvenile was 'pardoned' is wrong. He was dealt with in a manner provided for under the law of our land. Having said that, I wish he was provided with some sort of psychological or mental intervention that would help reform him," said Soujanya Sridharan, 21, in her final year media studies.
Some even feared that letting the juvenile roam free might prove to be a costly proposition for the society at large.
"Regarding the minor, allowing him to run loose outside the framework of the law, especially surrounding the nature of his offences, without exacting any true payment for his misdeeds is at total cross-purposes with the statement the death penalty makes. What is a ringing statement if it is not a statement to all? Do all the degenerate juveniles get to poke fun at all the degenerate adults for what's meted out to them for the same crime? To let him off the hook is to point at a shortcoming in the sentiment backing this verdict and a verdict this important has no business in having any shortcomings," said Maddali.
It is unlikely that the debate whether the juvenile was let off lightly or adequately punished would ever end in a manner where we can have a logical conclusion. But the debate has brought out some key issues like the lack of adequate child psychologist in the country.
"I’ve heard speculations that the juvenile himself was a victim of sexual abuse, where was the safety mechanism when this child off the streets actually required it? How is it psychological reform if there’s no dedicated child psychologist who is having sessions with such ‘baby’ criminals? More importantly, is anyone having sessions with these children at all? Why are we spending obscene amounts on Commonwealth Games instead of rehabilitating these children and making them stand up on their own feet?" Mahil asked.
Her second issue lies with the differential punishments meted out to the juvenile delinquent vis-à-vis the adult perpetrator.
"If the said juvenile has the temerity to insert an iron rod into the genitalia of a woman then why can’t he be held accountable for his actions? Though accountability is taught and as much as I love the idea of how fear shouldn’t be a tool for us to whip people into shape, the idea of reforming the mind is exceedingly utopian for a country like ours," Mahil said.
Unni felt that the involvement of the juvenile unfurled a huge moral debate on whether trial as a minor offender is truly in the interest of justice. Riding on this emotional upsurge the Parliament even passed the Juvenile Justice Act that allowed for a 16-year-old to be tried as an adult provided s/he crime commits a crime of "heinous" nature.
"The law does not exhaustively define what constitutes a 'heinous' crime and thus leaves us with the extreme subjectivity of judicial interpretation. It is such subjectivity that causes the various legal conundrums that exist," he said. "Secondly, the efficacious nature of a law that is made primarily on the basis of one singular case seems to be questionable. It is my submission that the law that governs the entire nation cannot and should not be altered on the basis of one singular and particularly rare case. This does not go on to say that I do not condemn the acts of the juvenile, in this case, I most certainly do. I just do not think it mature for the country to subject its citizens to a law that is premised on one isolated incident."
Did Bilkis Bano get justice?
On Thursday, the upholding of the life sentence to the rapists of Bilkis Bano by the Bombay High Court who was raped and left to die in the post-Godhra riots in 2002 amid the dead bodies of her many family members including her daughter, came into direct comparison with the apex court verdict on the Delhi incident as soon as it was out on Friday.
"There is a definite bias in the verdict awarded to Bilkis Bano in comparison to the Delhi gangrape case. This could be attributed to the manner in which the media built up the case and brought it to the fore. Sadly, the trajectory seems as though the gravity of a rape and the severity of the punishment can be determined only after the victim’s death," said Jayadeva.
Trial by media
There is little doubt that the 2012 Delhi gangrape incident came under intense media scrutiny leading to questions whether it was right to go for such kind of a frenzied coverage.
"I believe that the media has been extraordinarily insensitive in revealing the names of the convicts and the rape victim. Everyone, including criminals, deserves a right to privacy and this has been violated," said Sridharan.
"Banning the (BBC) documentary (on the incident) was a bad decision. Not only does it undermine the freedom of speech and expression but also portrays the country in a much worse light. When you can't address the situation of dwindling women's safety, why must you stifle them? Whatever the convict spoke of in the documentary is clearly indicative of the fact that he's hardly changed or reformed. Also, the prosecutor's comments are misogynistic and undermine the status of women," she said.
The media student said that she does not support capital punishment but the news of the verdict hardly came to her as a surprise considering the hypersensitive media trial.
Reforms that can make a different tomorrow
More than the legal provisions and the general outrage towards this kind of incidents it is important that the society itself undergoes a thorough change in terms of how women should be treated in society. It is the thought process of people that needs to have an overhauling including those who intend to rule and govern us — the political class.
"Hold politicians accountable for statements like ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘they should be thankful they didn’t rape their daughters’. If a normal citizen can be pulled up for mere defamation, the lawmakers should be taken to task for reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes," Mahil said.
What was particularly worrying for this literature student is that rape cases are not treated with similar intensity across the country despite being equally grave in nature.
"Women are women, it doesn’t matter if they’re tribals, Muslims or Sikhs. It is irrelevant if they are immigrants or Kashmiris or from the North East. We need to look at rapes objectively, punish perpetrators sans ridiculous biases. We’re a lot better from a certain point in time but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to work on for our future," Mahil said.
These women in distress need support. They are ought to be shown that the law and the society are with them. It is but natural that when a woman's body is violated so gravely a sense of hopelessness pervades entirely and this is where the support mechanism comes in. Unfortunately, this is where the sensitivity is lacking even among those who are entrusted to secure us.
"Try looking at this rape victim who committed suicide in Patiala somewhere between 2012-2013. She was a teenager (maybe 13/15) who the cops made fun of while she was called in to give her statement, she felt so ashamed over the heartless joking that she committed suicide. Serious sensitisation drives should start with the cops first," she said.
The literature graduate also pointed out to another grave predicament of the society — trafficking of girls — in this context.
"Why aren’t we also talking about human trafficking? Many of the girls caught in the racket have been raped so many times by now, it’s a way of life for them. Do they not deserve any justice? Do they not deserve any aid?" Mahil asked.
Not just restricting itself to condemnation and seeking exemplary punishments for the perpetrators, another area that requires society's positive intervention is the reformation centres.
"The juvenile homes in Delhi do not have the adequate resources and infrastructure which is needed for the care and protection of the concerned children. It is the society which makes a juvenile, a delinquent and by trying him/her in courts for adults, all hope for reformation is lost as s/he would be exposed to a world of heathen criminals instead of receiving rehabilitation and an education," said Abhiraj.
Apart from improving the conditions in the juvenile homes, what he suggested, was the pressing need for increased involvement of science and technology while collecting evidence from the crime scenes and their study later on.
"We even need lot more women personnel in our police force as well. Women should be made aware of the various provisions that are accessible to them and which they must thereby exercise such as the likes of free legal aid, ability to file a case in any jurisdiction and not specifically hers alone and her ability to exercise the right to private testimony," Abhiraj said.
Will hope be elusive forever
Murmurs of exaltation and disparagement would always be heard no matter what the judgment is. The only worry is will the word 'rape' ever disappear from the dictionary or is there another Jyoti Singh unknowingly waiting to be taken down the gory path again? I pray not, I fear there is.
Updated Date: May 07, 2017 09:59 AM