Disinterring a murdered Nirbhaya
Case-specific judgements do not serve as deterrent as intended in the larger scheme of things. So, what to do with rapists?
Five years ago, a little before this time, the national capital rose in fury to protest a normalised environment that allowed the gang rape and fatal assault of a certain 'Nirbhaya' in a moving bus. That was a most horrific gang rape - like all rapes. Nirbhaya morphed into a special case as it instigated public outrage to an unprecedented extent. The gory perpetration of the murderous crime that went beyond the heinousness of a rape was a highly sensationalised savagery committed by five men and an older juvenile. Apart from putting Delhi on the world map for its record of rapes, conviction of the rapists and some change in legislation ensued this historic incidence. This implies a lot of details.
There has been a significant increase in the number of reported crimes against women and girls in recent times. This raise in graph points to two things essentially: more prominently, that an understanding is fast gaining ground that violating an individual is not excusable and the shame and stigma associated with it have mitigated; and implicitly, that more and worse crimes are actually being committed than before, the reasons for which point to another set of social and socioeconomic factors. This speaks of a palpable change in the social order which although, seems to be gradually moving away from victim-shaming, has been taking a mangled form due to the extent, intensity, and pace of exposure to partial information about everything available easily. Clearly, there is an internal disruption.
Crimes against women and the vulnerable have evolved in the past few years as fast and intimidatingly as society has. Interestingly, there appears to be a balance in this disorder. The more women are breaking out of stereotypes and societal constraints, the more distress, harassment, traumatic experiences, and worse things come to light. The empowerment of women comes at the cost of patriarchy. The irony is that a semblance of this empowerment is encouraged only as long as it does not challenge patriarchy. The 'reform' following Nirbhaya revised the definition of rape and made it much more categorical but dodged the more pervasive concern about marital rape.
There is a wide range of crimes against women which are prevalent and many are normalised. Domestic violence, eve-teasing, honour-killing, child marriage, forced marriages, dowry deaths, female infanticide and sex-selective abortion are some of them. Each of these has some direct bearing on its respective social order and some are nearly institutionalised. Acid attack and rape are crimes that generally happen irrespective of any social order. It is now that the blame for the failure to protect the susceptible shifts from the society and community. It falls on the government.
The debate and demand to stop making lethal acids available easily is a solution to be implemented by the government. In case of any violation, the law will take its course. There stands a simple way out - in theory. But a similar one-size-fits-all solution to deter rape has been long elusive. Since the time of Nirbhaya, there have been four different sets of governments, Delhi state and the Centre put together. Five years and four governments later, there remains a raging debate about how to punish rapists befittingly and exemplarily.
A matter of debate ought not to be a downright solution. Pronouncing capital punishment for a crime for which society is partially and/or significantly responsible dilutes the immediate concern. For rarest of the rare crime that Nirbhaya was, capital punishment was meted out. But this was less a genuine judgement of the court and more of a response to public pressure. Other Nirbhaya-like instances that happened over the last five years did not uniformly entail the same judgement. There is little doubt that Nirbhaya and its judgement were any discouragement to potential wrong-doers. A section of people may be right in demanding death sentence for rapists as a much-needed deterrent but this is a problem that needs to be dealt with from much deeper levels. Case-specific judgements do not serve as a deterrent as intended in the larger scheme of things.
Madhya Pradesh Assembly unanimously passed a historic bill recently that awards death sentence to any rapist violating any girl of age 12 or below. The motive behind such a step was appropriately articulated by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan when said that "There are people in society who can be set right only by severe punishments. It [the legislation] will deal with them. We will also raise awareness in society against such crimes." This is a justified scenario. Brutalising children must be dealt with utmost strictness. But a greater part of the matter of punishing rapists remains unresolved. So, what to do with rapists?
Without any sympathy for the crime, it needs to be understood that criminals are as much the product and victim of society as their victims, prosecutors, and protestors. They may be retributed for their misdeeds individually but that does little to address the larger problem. Pouring in money perfunctorily into a Nirbhaya Fund and later raising questions about its use and distribution only serve to further desensitise a disappointed citizenry. Legislation is just one step towards a method of effectively dealing with the hazard of rape and rapists. A problem that engenders from the society cannot be resolved in a courtroom or Parliament. There is a long way to go. And it must begin with mending the marred social fabric.
(The author is Editorial Consultant and Senior Copy Editor with Millennium Post. The views are strictly personal.)