The demand for stronger laws, quicker justice, and harsher punishment arises because people feel criminals are being treated leniently, and because they think that the statutory punishment is not a sufficient deterrent. But both can’t be right. If criminals are being let off lightly, then even a harsher punishment won’t make any difference.
In the upsurge of collective anger in India over the tragic death of the 23-year-old woman who was sadistically gang-raped two weeks ago, the proposed solutions include publicly registering rapists (presumably after conviction), death penalty and chemical castration. All three responses are wrong.
A register on a website, or in public places, is unlikely to stop a man intent on raping a woman. Nor would it provide any real means of defence to a woman who faces him. If he is a danger to others, he should be in jail; if not, and if he has served his time, what is the need for continuing to out him?
While the Supreme Court’s informal moratorium on the death penalty ended with the execution of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving Pakistani terrorist who attacked Mumbai landmarks in 2008, the court’s view, that the death penalty be imposed only in the rarest of rare cases, remains. I happen to be against the death penalty, but that apart, in the context of the Delhi crime, which has rightly aroused so much revulsion and emotion, it will be difficult for any judge to be dispassionate and apply the test fairly. The public wants a quick trial and execution, which is why we rely on impartial judges to rule in a fair, non-discriminate manner. The death penalty is often administered imperfectly; it is more likely when the defendant is poor, vulnerable, or not influential to hire a top defence lawyer.
The idea that chemical castration would deter rape is based on a false assumption, that the main driver for rape and sexual assault is libido or erotic desire. Castrate them painlessly (to show the society’s humanity) and you eliminate the driver.
But lust alone does not drive rapists. Misogyny—the desire to subjugate a woman through sexual violence, the instinct to control, to disempower the woman, and to demonstrate power lie at the heart. The gang in the bus that night had used iron bars. In other incidents around the world, men have used crude instruments limited only by their morbid, ghastly imagination on women. Would a castrated male, already humiliated, not use force again on a woman after he is released?
If the government appears to be entertaining such ideas, the opposition perpetuates bad ideas. One Bharatiya Janata Party legislator wants to ban skirts as school uniform. Others have criticized women who use make-up—painted and dented (sic)—as one Congress parliamentarian said, in a tainted and demented moment. And Sushma Swaraj may only be describing the fate of a raped woman when she used the term zinda lash (living dead in Hindi), but her job is to challenge that stereotype, and not to perpetuate it, especially given the nature of Indian political class.
Civil society groups have circulated a list of elected politicians and party candidates who face criminal charges, including rape and violence against women. Such candidates should be disqualified. But politicians alone aren’t the problem: we know how intimidating and humiliating the experience of registering a rape complaint is for women, including an intrusive physical examination. Single women may be sexually active and it is only their business. The job of the police is to register each complaint and then investigate, and not try to broker marriage between the assailant and victim, as has happened in some cases. There should be well-lit rooms offering privacy when complaints can be lodged in the presence of a woman police officer. A professional trained in handling such trauma needs to be there. Incentives need to change, so that a police station that registers a rise in rape complaints is not penalized for more honest reporting.
Then there are judges: again, we now know judges who think their role is to counsel women and return to abusive husbands even if they rape them. Even within a marriage the woman can say no, and judges should know that. If it means retraining judges, so be it. Their role is not to uphold traditional family values, whatever that means, but to uphold the Constitution which guarantees fundamental rights, including equal protection under law.
India’s woman problem begins with the way boys and girls are brought up, and how values are taught and reinforced at home and schools. The state must rewrite textbooks, and change the way teachers are taught, so that stereotypes are broken.
Signing that e-petition, clicking like on Facebook, or retweeting an article won’t change anything. Significant investment in law enforcement, sounder laws, hiring more judges, and changing our textbooks are some necessary steps ahead—not punishment for instant gratification. If this isn’t the fundamental civilizational challenge for India, what is?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-