We’re Celebrating the Encounter of the Accused in the Telangana Vet Case. But Will It Bring Down Rapes?

We’re Celebrating the Encounter of the Accused in the Telangana Vet Case. But Will It Bring Down Rapes?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Last week, India received an ugly reminder that sexual assault in this country is as serious a problem as it has ever been. A 26-year-old woman in Telangana’s Hyderabad was abducted and assaulted before her charred corpse was callously dumped, and the shocking, gruesome details left those hearing about it aghast. Seven years ago, in 2012, another gang rape caused national outrage. Then, as is happening now, it felt like the entire country was ablaze with a righteous anger and thirst for retribution against those who committed these crimes.

On Friday morning, almost a week after the vet’s rape and murder, we woke up to the shocking news of the encounter of the four accused. Within minutes, #JusticeforDisha started trending on social media with people applauding the police force. “I congratulate the hyderabad police and the leadership that allows the police to act like police. Let all know this is the country where good will always prevail over evil. (Disclaimer for holier than thou- police acted swiftly in self defence),” tweeted Lok Sabha MP Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. The Hyderabad cops are our new heroes, seems to be the popular sentiment drowning the voices of those calling this a breakdown of our justice system.

Today, rape and its prevalence in India is being discussed furiously in offices, living rooms, on our timelines, and even in Parliament.

On Monday, it was in the Upper House that MP Jaya Bachchan expressed the view that rapists should be lynched in public – a statement that gathered supporters on social media. It comes as no surprise that there will be support for an encounter or public lynching of rapists. People are seething, and the anger we’re feeling demands retribution. Violence naturally begets violence. And sure, an encounter or lynching might seem like one conclusive way to get rid of a rapist. But will it get rid of rape itself? That’s up for debate.

Since the horror in Hyderabad, news outlets have been working overtime to report rape cases from across the country, seeing as that’s what all of India is presently discussing, clicking on, and reading. Cases from Jharkhand (a law student was abducted and gang-raped in a brick kiln), Tamil Nadu (a teenage girl was gang-raped by six men), and Rajasthan (a 17-year-old was allegedly chained at home and raped by her father) have all received attention from the media. This barrage of reporting on rapes makes one shudder to think how many more cases are going unreported – and how they’ve been taking place quietly, in a news cycle blind spot, even when journalists and anchors aren’t paying attention.

People are seething, and the anger we’re feeling demands retribution.

The simple fact that there seems to be an almost limitless number of rape cases to report on, illustrates just how deep this problem runs in Indian society. Stringent punishments haven’t seemed to help things. After 2012’s gang rape in Delhi, there was a collective consensus among people that something needed to be done. Regardless of differences in political opinion, the one thing that citizens and public leaders of all stripes can agree on is that India’s problem with rape needs stamping out. And after 2012, stricter laws were enacted. The “rape laws” were amended to include the death penalty even for juvenile offenders, a change that was triggered by the minor convict in the case being set free while the others were sentenced to capital punishment.

Laws were made stricter, public awareness was heightened, and yet, rape wasn’t going anywhere. Even as media attention tapered off in the months after December 2012, the number of rape cases being reported in India continued to climb. In 2016, India recorded 106 rapes per day. The renewed focus on the problem since last week shows that even as we thought we were making progress, we were in fact just running on a treadmill.

At a time like this, faced with the grim reality that India is one of the world’s most unsafe countries for women, responses like Rathore’s thumbs-up to the murky encounter or Bachchan’s call for lynching come instinctively. A Member of Parliament calling for the unlawful mob killing of a person, though they may be a convicted rapist, shows how desperate we are for a solution. But the #HangTheRapist movement from 2012 and the changed laws didn’t help the victim from Hyderabad, and so many others who suffered sexual assault and worse since the changes came into effect.

It’s the rage and bloodlust we feel when we hear about these rape cases that leads to calls for death, castration, and lynching. For justice to be served, the punishment should fit the crime. But if India is to actually take effective steps at tackling its rape menace, it’s not enough to merely punish the rapist. We also need to prevent the rapes from happening in the first place.

And to prevent rapes, it’s not enough to take reactionary measures; it doesn’t matter whether they’re legal measures like death by hanging, wildly illegal, like lynching or questionable, like an encounter. There actually need to be proactive steps taken to prevent rape. That means better sex education, reliable and supportive law enforcement, higher standards of public safety, and most importantly (and also perhaps unrealistically), a correction of India’s patriarchal attitudes and skewed gender ratio. In the long run, these measures will prove more effective at preventing sexual assault than any number of public executions.

The problem is that while rape evokes a fierce, reactionary response, to solve it in any definitive way we’re going to have to take a measured approach.

Of course, this isn’t a plea for clemency. Quite the opposite. As mentioned, the punishment should certainly fit the crime. But that does not mean that the solution should also be as drastic as the problem. All these ideas of castrating rapists (chemically as well as the old-school brutal way), of lynching them, shooting them dead – they appeal to our basest nature. But as far as curbing rapes go, they are largely symbolic gestures that actually prioritise the suffering of criminals over prevention of would-be victims. It’s good for show, but not so effective in the long run. India needs to find a fix for its dismal record in women’s safety, and it won’t be found anywhere in the vicinity of a public execution. Encounters, lynching, and all the other myriad punishments we wish upon rapists are an attention-grabbing response to an attention-grabbing crime.

The problem is that while rape evokes a fierce, reactionary response, to solve it in any definitive way we’re going to have to take a measured approach. We’ve already tried the method of retributive punishment as a deterrent, and it hasn’t worked too well. Systemic changes, like better education and efficient public security, may not be as flashy as an encounter, but we won’t know if they’re more effective until we try. And that will mean paying attention to the problem of rape even after we’ve dealt with the rapist, which the other methods seem to neglect.

So go ahead. Celebrate the encounter, call for lynching, castration, hanging, or whatever other torture can be dreamed up, so that society’s conscience can be cleared over the way it let down so many women and girls in this country. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking getting rid of a rapist will make India’s rape problem go away.