The cases that caught public imagination, be it Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lal or Nirbhaya, involved urban, educated men and women, which helped build a connect with the victim. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The cases that caught public imagination, be it Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lal or Nirbhaya, involved urban, educated men and women, which helped build a connect with the victim. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The tragedy of public outrage over heinous crimes

If it could work as well for the Dalit girl who was raped twice by the same men as it did for Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lal and Nitish Katara, it could bring about a far bigger change

Between 1996 and 2002, three heinous crimes took place all of which resulted in the death of the victim, jolted Indian society and by extension the legal system.

These were the Priyadarshini Mattoo case (1996), the Jessica Lal case (1999) and the Nitish Katara case (2002).

Santosh Singh, the accused in the Mattoo case, was the son of a former Indian Police Service officer.

Both Lal and Katara were murdered in cold blood by the sons of local politicians.

The nature of the crime in all three differed.

Mattoo was raped and murdered; Lal was shot at a party for refusing to serve a drink; and Katara was killed for his relationship with the sister of the accused.

But the common thread in all three murders that the perpetrators were sons of influential/powerful men, who thought they would get away with the crime.

And, for a while there, it did seem as if they would.

Both Singh and Manu Sharma, the main accused in the Jessica Lal case, were initially acquitted by the trial court.

Vikas Yadav and Sukhdev Pehelwan, the main accused in the Nitish Katara case, however have been consistently found guilty.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court confirmed the prison sentence of Yadav for 25 years while Pehelwan was sentenced for 20 years.

The brazenness of the crime and the perpetrators, coupled with their powerful backgrounds and the initial shoddy investigation, riled the Indian public in a way that hadn’t been seen in years.

There were protest marches and candle-light vigils. Yet, the widespread outrage over these cases seemed like just a practice run for what has since then come to be known as the December 16 protests.

In 2012 on that day, a young student of physiotherapy was brutally raped by six men in a moving bus. As the details of the gruesome rape and murder became public over the course of the next few days, it set in motion a movement that changed not just laws but also the conversation about gender and sexual crimes in India.

The December 16 protests also sent a message to the ruling class that the people were very angry and not willing to accept apathy, be it legal or political.

The above mentioned four cases are a top of the mind recall when one talks about anger on the streets.

But one should keep in mind that this was also the time when electronic media in India was coming of age and there was wall-to-wall reporting of the cases.

Prior to these, there were other cases that stirred similar emotional reactions. These was the Mathura rape case, which triggered protests that became the fulcrum of the feminist movement in India and changed the law vis a vis rape cases.

The famous Nanavati trial eventually led to the abolition of the jury system in India.

Public outrage is, however, tricky in that one cannot predict which way it will end up impacting legal proceedings.

“With 24/7 media today, it is easy to gauge the public mood. And while certain type of crimes do attract outrage, it should not translate into lynch mobs," says senior advocate Rebecca John.

Public outrage is all about anger and empathy and while John says she empathizes with people, she has also seen the reverse side of it. John was counsel for the Talwars, famously accused of killing their own daughter Arushi, at one point of time and says, “gossip and innuendo took over the narrative completely."

Another case in point is how the juvenile in the December 16 rape case was initially declared to be the “most brutal" by media reports based on hearsay and very little concrete evidence.

This leads to the fear of miscarriage of justice because no matter how heinous the crime, everyone deserves a fair trial.

And even though the legal system is supposed to be immune to what the public opinion is, it works better in theory than in practice.

“Judges are trained to block out the noise and focus on the case and the evidence and the arguments before them. The atmosphere in court is very different from what one might imagine through the media and when it comes to writing (a verdict), you have to focus on the facts. So judges can and do block out the noise to a large extent but they are after all only human," says Mihira Sood, a Supreme Court lawyer who is currently pursuing a PhD at the LSE.

Sood was also involved with the Justice Verma Committee that recommended amendments to the criminal law following the December 16 rape case.

Interestingly, the committee had to listen to the recommendations of the public when coming up with the report and as such had to objectively consider what people were asking for.

Public outrage can have a negative impact especially in terrorist cases where it can actually lead to denial of bail or conviction on flimsy grounds. “In terror attacks in crowded places or religious sites like Akshardham (temple in Gujarat), the police produces someone and the courts are under immense pressure.

Public protests can give licence to the police to frame people…there will be no judicial scrutiny of the evidence or of their action. The public wants a scapegoat and will accept anyone the police offers up," believes Yug Mohit Chaudhry, a human rights activist and Mumbai-based lawyer who fights against the death penalty. He was one of the lawyers involved in the Yakub Memon mercy petitions.

What causes a particular case to strike a chord with the public and something else to just fall by the wayside?

One can argue that it is a class factor. All the cases that caught public imagination, be it Mattoo, Lal or even Nirbhaya, involved urban, educated young men and women which immediately helped build a connection with the victim.

But Sood cautions against simplifying the reasons.

“It is too complex to pin down one factor. There can be a class or community affinity…but it’s usually a combination of factors."

These can include everything from technology, social media and media coverage to of course even the location of the crime.

A case in Mumbai or Delhi or even Kolkata will end up getting more media coverage than one that takes place in a small town.

And therein lies the tragedy of public outrage.

If it could work as well for the Dalit girl who was raped twice by the same men as it did for Mattoo, Lal and Katara, then it could bring about a far bigger change.

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