What Our Celebration of the Encounter of the Telangana Rape and Murder Accused Says about Us

What Our Celebration of the Encounter of the Telangana Rape and Murder Accused Says about Us

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Once upon a time, 3,000 years ago, there was an ancient Egyptian city. There was none like it in the whole wide world. The Greeks called it Rhinocolura. It was the city of people with strange faces – not one among them had a nose. All of them were criminals. Rhinocolura was their eternal prison.

An ancient Egyptian king had created this city as a punishment for thieves. They were condemned to live here, at the edge of the desert, after their noses were cut off. They were meant to never re-enter society. Even if one managed to escape and found a way into society, the severed nose would prove him a criminal. Their heaven and hell were both within the walls of Rhinocolura.

As we grapple with the encounter of the four accused in the rape and murder of the 26-year-old veterinarian from Telangana – and the brutality of their crime itself – this method of retribution seems tempting. We woke up to the shocker as we came to terms with the news of a 23-year-old gang-rape survivor being stabbed multiple times, doused in petrol and set ablaze by five men, in Uttar Pradesh. Among the attackers were two of her rapists and their fathers. Having suffered 90 per cent burns this victim from Unnao has landed in a Delhi hospital for better treatment. She shares more than one similarity with the other 19-year-old survivor, also from Unnao, who accused former BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar and is recovering in another hospital in the Capital. The latter was travelling in a car when a truck with a blackened number plate rammed into it, killing two of her aunts.

As I witness this carousel of rape roll on, day after day, like everyone else I too am caught between two instincts. I want to celebrate the Hyderabad police, and join the chorus baying for the blood of rapists, in Parliament and on social media. But I also want to mull over the process of justice itself.

A Rhinocolura beckons, where life was brutal, water was to be found only in polluted wells and humanity was non-existent. Handpicking rapists, making examples of them, and relegating them to a squalorous corner of the world often seems justifiable, especially in an atmosphere where you are bombarded with news of one sexual assault after another.

A Rhinocolura beckons, where life was brutal, water was to be found only in polluted wells and humanity was non-existent.

The ancient Hindu text “Yājñavalkya Smṛti”, a part of the Dharmasastra, dating back to the Gupta period (3rd and 5th centuries) instructs the ruler on rape: “If a man rapes a woman, his penis and scrotum should be cut off and thrown in the south west quarter.” (Funny that Jaya Bachchan echoed the same sentiment in Parliament.) There are as many as nine squirm-worthy forms of deathly punishments for criminal behaviour. Like the Brazen Bull – where the criminal was placed inside a hollow bronze object shaped like a bull. Once shut in, fire was lit under the belly of the Brazen Bull, turning it into an oven that roasted the victim within. When we call for lynching and public castration of sexual assault convicts, we know our current sensibilities aren’t too different from ancient ones.

In the days to come, the Hyderabad “encounter” is bound to be dissected and examined – maybe even propagated. As a nation we are again poised to go into another tizzy of “what is to be the right retribution”.

But amid all the calls for justice owing to our collective anger, we need to understand that in the world that we now occupy, there seems to be a thin line between civilised society and lawlessness. And the Telangana encounter or at least our reaction to it seems to have erased that line. What we are now celebrating is nothing but a breakdown of the justice system. The victim seems to have become an afterthought.

A mob mentality that could be used as a tool to propagate the fear of immediate retribution might have a lot going for it today. But in the long run, we all know it will backfire and lead to anarchy. Those gaining from it then are going to be the same criminals you want to see punished today.

The old-world ways of public punishment were more about the crowds gathered around those pedestals of justice, but mankind has evolved since then. Yes, we have to teach by example but by keeping our humanity intact.

That said, as the wheels of justice turn and churn, it would be wise to make a show of it. To not have cases shut in courtrooms and ledgers. To not be governed by speculations. Make the process of justice coherent, just, quick, and accessible to the lowest common denominator.

But in the long run, we all know that mob mentality will backfire and lead to anarchy.

After the 2012 Delhi gang rape, four of the accused were sentenced to death. In July 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty. But the death sentence has not yet been executed. The same is the case with the Nithari case. Even though, the mercy plea  of serial killer Surinder Koli was rejected in 2014, almost five years on he continues to be behind bars. Justice, in such cases, though served, seems elusive.

While we are disseminating our collective energies for causes ranging from save trees, forests, lakes, the world, and the cow, what we need to save foremost is our humanity and compassion. If for the next decade, or even for the next five years, we only throw ourselves into preventing, educating, and legally punishing crimes of rape and molestation, we might just set ourselves right as a nation.

Because logically, if a nation doesn’t act in the interest of its women, children, and the ones being victimised, could it really care about anything else?