Why I Didn’t Sign the Petition to Commute “Nirbhaya” Rapists’ Death Sentence to Life Imprisonment

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Why I Didn’t Sign the Petition to Commute “Nirbhaya” Rapists’ Death Sentence to Life Imprisonment

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Over the last few months, I’ve received impassioned invitations to scrawl my name on signature drives requesting the powers that be to commute Jyoti Singh’s rapists’ death sentence to life imprisonment. It makes sense why I’d received them: I’m firmly of the opinion that one of the most important markers of being in a civilised society is its unwillingness to avenge crimes — even the ones that make you want to curl up in a foetal position and cry, like the infamous “Nirbhaya” rape case did — by taking lives. Not even in the rarest of rare cases, which is the legal yardstick followed by Indian judges currently, albeit with subjective interpretations of what constitutes “rare”.I wanted to sign those petitions, I did. But I couldn’t even get myself to click on them.

It’s likely that if I had, I’d agree with all the arguments made by the folks appealing to our humanity. I’ve read the research — death row inmates in India spend anywhere between five years to close to two decades in jail, first awaiting sentencing, then caught up in the lengthy, cumbersome, appeals process. Then, the United Nations has repeatedly asserted that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent for violent crimes. It’s unimaginably cruel that the law that literally empowers judges to take a life is subjective, not watertight. Data proves that it’s usually the poorest and most marginalised convicts who fall through the cracks in our legal system, due to lack of proper representation and general apathy.

And finally the most horrifying numbers of all: despite the rarest of rare doctrine, judges in lower Indian courts seem to be handing out death sentences with alarming ease. According to a report, by the Centre on the Death Penalty, between 2000 and 2014, a shocking 1,810 people were awarded the death sentence by trial courts. We don’t hear about them because most eventually end up taken off death row by higher courts, on appeal. Almost a quarter of death row convicts — 443 of the condemned 1,810 — have gone on to be acquitted by the Supreme Court in later years.

Imagine spending years with the noose hanging inches away from your head while being innocent.

If you can’t muster compassion for the guilty on death row, at least imagine the horror of being sentenced to die for a crime you didn’t even commit. Imagine spending years with the noose hanging inches away from your head while being innocent. Imagine years of being treated like scum, like the very worst that society has to offer before somehow, miraculously — and it is miraculous if it happens — your innocence is proven. Can you imagine a worse travesty of justice? The fact that seven years after his hanging, we’re now questioning the validity of the very crime and the botched up investigations that allowed us to legally take Afzal Guru’s life, is a sharp reminder of how susceptible to manipulation and failure our current system is.

I know all this, as a journalist, I’ve known all this for years. And yet, I couldn’t sign that petition.

If there ever was a case that was tailored to strengthen the position of those rooting for capital punishments for exceptionally cruel crimes, it would be the Delhi gang rape. I still remember the day I first read the details of the unparalleled brutality that her six rapists subjected her young body to. I remember the helplessness and rage I felt on learning that her most savage rapist would face only three years in a reform facility because he was six months shy of adulthood. I remember the vicious satisfaction I felt when one of the six committed suicide in jail, even before the case went to trial, and the complete lack of compassion in my heart when the remaining four were sentenced to death by hanging by a fast-track court.

Every time I have considered adding my name to the list of people trying to make India’s legal system more humane, I am haunted by images of Jyoti’s intestines spilling out of her bodies as the six monsters inserted rusted metal rods in her vagina while raping her. Images of her body being handed back to her parents for the last rites. It sickens me to my very soul. Every tear that Jyoti Singh’s stricken mother sheds on camera, wondering how anyone could wish for anything other than death for the men who did what they did to her daughter, feels like a body blow to my rational side. Because for all my allegiance to facts, compassion, and liberal values, truth be told, I wanted the remaining four demons to suffer, to fear, to go through the same unendurable mental anguish that Jyoti must have experienced. And then to stretch the torture out for months and years, and finally culminate in death. As someone who experienced sexual violence at a young age, I wanted her rapists to die.

Every time I think of Jyoti, I think of her lying on the side of the road, bloody and battered. It makes a chill go down my spine.

Which is why, maybe the law should not give me or anyone the option to have our bloodlust satisfied; not even in the rarest of rare circumstances, like Jyoti Singh’s rape-murder was; not even if those circumstances present themselves only four times in 20 years. It’s not about one or two or four lives, it’s what taking them away represents — that we, as a society, would rather get the instant adrenaline rush from watching cruel and unusual punishment being carried out for unusually cruel crimes than do the messy work of fixing what’s broken in our society.

It’s easy to be swept away in the tidal wave of collective emotion. There’s a sense of solace in ensuring that at least four of the many monsters among us are gone. It restores some semblance of the illusion of safety we lose when crimes like these become public knowledge. It keeps us from dying a thousand deaths every time the women in our lives are out at “unsafe” hours, or in “unsafe” areas. If we can single out some hours, some areas, and some people as “unsafe”, we can allow the rest to be deemed safe. We wanted to kill the Nirbhaya four so we can continue living.

Fine, if that is so important for justice to be served. They are now executed. Let’s consider that step one. What’s step two, three, and four? Do we have a plan in place for how there’s never another Nirbhaya on our watch?

Every time I think of Jyoti Singh, I think of her lying on the side of the road, bloody and battered. It makes a chill go down my spine. But you know what also makes my blood run cold? The fact that the question of, “Why was she out alone with a boy late in the night?” actually demanded a public answer in the aftermath of her rape, death, and trial. The fact that one of the lawyers who defended the rapists claimed, in a televised interview, that if his daughter or sister were to “lose her face and character by doing such things (being friends with a man)”, he would set her on fire. And the fact that I’ve heard variations of this sentiment professed more times than I can count. What’s our plan to beat the conditioning and thought process that makes men look at women as sponges meant to absorb their rage and lust? What’s our plan to employ a police force that doesn’t hold these exact terrifying views as well, and ensuring that victims of sexual violence are not fearful of being revictimised and violated by the very people that are meant to help and protect them? 

I’m waiting for steps two, three, and four, because without them, step one is a futile, empty gesture. And yet, I still didn’t sign the petition.

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