Will the Threat of the Death Penalty Make Indian Women and Children Safer?

Social Commentary

Will the Threat of the Death Penalty Make Indian Women and Children Safer?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Like most people, I first learned about the 2012 Delhi gang rape through the morning newspaper. Reading about the sexual assault and the gruesome, brutal violence visited upon the victim was gut-wrenching. Like most men around me, I felt a wave of shame wash over me, on behalf of my gender. Then that wave receded, and was replaced by a simmering anger, that sparked and flared up with each conversation. It was a national outrage and India was ablaze with the same anger – an anger toward the men who had treated the victim as less than human. They had to be stopped.

#HangTheRapist. In that moment in 2012, at the point the levee of national apathy toward gender violence finally broke, #HangTheRapist was our rallying cry. It felt cathartic to join the chorus of voices that were clamouring for the culprits to be killed. Exterminating the men who brought about such horror would feel like victory. Not just death, I recall enthusiastically participating in many conversations that proposed even more barbaric punishments, from castration to dismemberment to torture. It would only be just, after what they did. An eye for an eye.

In its 2013 judgement, where the rapists were given the death penalty, the Delhi High Court said the rape sent a “tsunami of shock” through society. This tsunami had a positive side, as the outcry over the incident spilled over to include the question of how women faced an oppressive environment every single day. It prompted the parliament to broaden the definition of sexual violence and amend the law prescribing harsher punishments for crimes against women. In the trial that followed, society’s “collective conscience” was invoked, the Delhi rapists were sentenced to death, and it felt like a great victory had been achieved.

If only we knew then, how far from the truth that was. Today, as the Lok Sabha passes a bill providing death penalty to those convicted of raping children under 12, it serves as a reminder that rape and sexual violence have not been eradicated, no matter how good it felt to hear Nirbhaya’s rapists would pay the ultimate price. If anything, requiring a bill to implement a stricter law than the one already in place might point to things having gotten worse.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy was not as optimistic as the rest of the country on the Delhi verdict. “We don’t have comprehensive, long-term studies that measure the effect of higher sentences on the rate of sexual violence – but evidence from India and other countries shows that the death penalty is no deterrent to violent crime,” she said.

And she is right. In the five-and-a-half years since the gang rape, crimes against women have reduced neither in frequency or severity. Ranging in scale from uncomfortable leers while taking public transport, to the shocking public molestation captured on CCTV in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve, all the way to the sickening nightmare that unfolded in Kathua, which led to the bill that was passed today, women and children face an existence fraught with violence in this land.

The question we should be asking is, is the death penalty for a convict a ruse for us to actually escape our responsibilities as a society?

Capital punishment and movements like #HangTheRapist might feel like a salve for the wounds, might satisfy our “collective conscience” but do they really serve a purpose beyond slaking our primitive desire for revenge?

This is not to say that the Delhi rapists or those who prey on children don’t deserve death, or that the Lok Sabha has erred in their judgement. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that decision, myself included. But I’m only human. The question still remains: When these men finally hang, what will we have achieved?

Because despite the swift verdict, despite the new, stricter laws, the rapes didn’t stop. If the death penalty was meant to act as a deterrent, it has failed at that task. All that will be accomplished by the state-sponsored execution of these men is that a vengeful society will get a chance to extract revenge. Our thirst for blood will have been quenched, but women will be no safer in this country after the noose snaps tight, than they were before it did.

While the nation’s courts are qualified to rule on whether a crime is heinous enough to deserve the death penalty, we the people are not. Our bloodthirstiness trumps our reason every time. It’s why I thought hanging the rapists could have been the solution to this country’s problems with women. It’s also why there was a huge public outcry when the same court that has decided to execute four men for this horrendous rape, let one minor co-accused walk free after serving three years – the maximum sentence possible for a juvenile offender. The public reaction to that was outrage over the court allowing him to slip the noose, and it led to changes in the juvenile justice law, as an assurance to the people that they would not be denied their due dose of death in the future.

The question we should be asking is, is the death penalty for a convict a ruse for us to actually escape our responsibilities as a society? Because hanging one man – or three – is way easier than actual self-examination. I’ll leave aside the ethical and moral implications of the death penalty for another day, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that by excising these men from this world, we’ve ensured the safety of Indian women everywhere. We’ve actually done the opposite: By putting the spotlight on these men as anomalies, as the tumours of our society, we’ve taken the focus away from the hundreds of other men who brutalise other women, other children. The truth is that sexual violence and predators are not the anomaly – they are an everyday reality.

Almost six years ago, I picked up a newspaper and read about the rape and murder of a young woman my age, and her death filled me with sadness for what it told me about the lack of humanity in my countrymen. Never did I think, all this time later, news of the culprits’ deaths would have the same effect on me.