The public has largely welcomed the cabinet’s approval for an ordinance that seeks to award death penalty to those convicted of raping children below 12 years. The depiction of such a law would give, perhaps some of us who believe in an ‘eye for an eye’, a sense of satisfaction and that this is what justice looks like. It could also, however, give a false sense of assurance that the government has done its job once there is a law in place; this is precisely what we need to guard against. Well, amid the outcry over the latest sexual assaults to shock the country, Prime Minister Modi introduced the death penalty for rapists of girls under 12 years old. Modi convened an emergency cabinet meeting to approve an executive order or ordinance that will amend India’s criminal law. The order will also force police to complete rape investigations within two months and extend maximum sentences for the rape of girls under 16.
Modi had come under pressure after two high-profile cases where senior officials in his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were accused of rape or of trying to prevent police investigations. In January, Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old girl from Kathua in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, was abducted, drugged and raped in a small Hindu temple. After five days, the girl, who was a member of a nomadic Muslim tribe, was killed with a rock. When police officers tried to arrest the temple custodian, Sanji Ram and seven other men, they were confronted by a group of protesters orchestrated by BJP officers and a state minister.
Last week Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a BJP member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly was arrested after he and his brother were accused of raping a 15-year-old girl. The family tried to register a case with police for months without success. Later, the girl tried to burn herself alive outside the Chief Minister’s residence. The next day, her father died in police custody.
Modi coined Beti Bachao (save daughter) campaign but too little had been done to protect women and change attitudes after the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012. When BJP was in opposition, same Modi who was then the CM of Gujarat, attacked UPA government’s failure on creating deterrence in rapists and protect girls. After coming to power, he went silent on every burning issue.
The chairwoman of the Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, went on a hunger strike 10 days ago, saying that she would fast until the death penalty was introduced. Oddly, BJP female supporters condemned and attacked her because her agitation was exposing BJP’s tall claims.
The decision taken by Modi’s cabinet was criticised by the opponents of the death penalty, which is already in force for other offences. The Indian penal code, colonial-era legislation adopted after independence, allows the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, terrorism, and treason, as well as a rape that leaves the victim in a persistent vegetative state. Since 2003, there have been three executions and 371 prisoners are on death row. Studies have shown that child victims know most culprits. Introducing death penalty in such circumstances will only silence and further endanger children. The slow pace of justice is a significant obstacle in India’s attempt to deal with sexual assaults. Modi’s executive order calls for the mandatory completion of rape investigations within two months and for trials to last a maximum of the same period.
India launched fast-track courts after Singh’s murder in 2012, but they are struggling to cope with the volume of cases. There were 40,000 rapes reported in 2016, with children making up 40 per cent of victims. The National Crime Records Bureau said in the same year, only 28.2 per cent of the child sexual abuse cases brought to trial, had resulted in convictions. It is common for court cases to last years or even decades – the longest civil case began in 1878 and is yet to be settled – because of a serious shortage of judges. More than 1.6 million criminal cases have been pending for more than 10 years. Around half the 18.9 million cases heard in India’s district courts have been ongoing for more than two years.
One young woman spent 11 years bringing her attackers to justice after she was dragged into a car by a group of men at the age of 13 while walking home from her housemaid’s job in Lucknow. She went through six trials and endured more than 36 court appearances. A number of studies suggest that often the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to certain crimes. What is worrying is the prospect that when the punishment for rape and murder is the same, a rapist would not want the victim to survive to be able to testify against him and this may lead to an increase in instances of rape-murder. Once a death sentence is awarded in such cases and confirmed by the High Courts and Supreme Court, they should be precluded from mercy petitions to the President. Law should also bar remissions, early releases on grounds of good behaviour in prison, popular leaders’ birth and death anniversaries and commutations. Is this like giving an option to the rapist which age category to be selected before raping someone? The maximum punishment of life in jail or death penalty should be given to all rapists equally. The victim is suffering the pain of what she faced for the rest of her life, no matter what her age is while getting raped. So, why not the rapist suffer for the rest of his life for what he did? Is the government afraid of bringing in maximum punishment for the rapist? Every devil should think 10 times at least before he put his eyes on any lady hereafter. Approving an ordinance, making an act, even enforcing the same is one thing and preventing the act altogether is another. It is agreed that these kinds of horrendous acts must be taking place elsewhere in the most developed nations… but we cannot sit silent by merely comparing those or taking statistics for that matter… the way we have been able to eradicate endemic diseases.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act already has a provision under which, if an FIR in case of rape of a child is not registered by the local police station, the police personnel faces imprisonment for up to six months. In the case of a minor allegedly raped by a legislator in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao, an FIR was not registered for several months. Thus, the existence of a law is not and should not be enough to pacify our anger against rape. These heart-breaking stories of violence demand a change that is more immediate and widespread, not the focusing of all our energies in the aftermath of rape incidents. It is time we must get out of the ivory towers where we live and curse ‘the monsters’ who are guilty of child rape; the monsters are among us. We need much more than the death penalty, we need to ask who and what perpetuates the rape culture, we need to rethink our education system, and our sexist customs and traditions.
(Any suggestions, comments or dispute with regards to this article send us on [email protected])