How long does the Indian justice system take to hang rape culprits to death? According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it takes just between three and 30 days.
At a rally in Surat, Gujarat, months before the 2019 general election, Modi claimed that these days, convicted rapists are “hanged within 3 days, 7 days, 11 days and a month”, according to ANI.
Predictably, Modi’s claim invited immediate ridicule on social media, with Twitter users challenging him to cite an example of a rape case that was solved in such a short time. There is, of course, no such example – filing chargesheets in rape cases itself often takes months, even when cases are fast-tracked. However, it is worth listing the many reasons why Modi’s statement is riddled with problems.
No one hanged for 15 years
To begin with, the Prime Minister’s claim that rapists are being hanged within days is completely unfounded. India has not executed a rape convict since 2004, when Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl.
In April 2018, the government introduced the provision of capital punishment for the rape of girls below 12 years, following which nine people have been sentenced to death, but their sentences have not yet been executed. In fact, in any case of capital punishment, convicts are allowed a chance to file mercy petitions with the Supreme Court and the President – a process that can take months or years.
No official data
The National Crime Records Bureau, which maintains official records of crimes across the country, has not released its annual crime report since 2016.
In 2016, NCRB recorded a total of 55,071 rape cases, of which more than 16,000 were pending from the previous year. Chargesheets were filed in 33,628 of the total rape cases, and a total of 16,678 cases were still pending at the end of 2016 – a pendency rate of 30%. Conviction rates, meanwhile, were as low as 25%.
In the absence of NCRB data for 2017 and 2018, it is impossible for Modi to make any official claim about how quickly rape cases are being resolved today. And even if rape statistics were available for the past two years, it is unlikely that the situation would have improved as drastically as Modi suggested in his statement.
In fact, the government’s own guidelines for how long a rape trial should take allow more time than Modi’s boast of between 3 days to a month. In April 2018, the central government cleared an ordinance that set a two-month time limit for completing investigations in a rape case, and another two months for completing the trial.
How fast-track courts really work
There has been a push for fast-track courts for speeding up justice in rape trials ever since the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. But these special courts have not proved to be the magic solution for rape that they were imagined to be.
India would need at least 1,800 fast-track courts to hear the backlog of pending rape cases, but up till the beginning of last year, there were just 722 such courts across the country. It was not until November 2018 that the central government approved the establishment of 1,023 fast-track special courts to hear pending cases of rape and child sexual abuse.
It is too soon to know how effectively these new fast-track courts will work, but so far, the speedy functioning of fast-track courts has been hindered by several factors, including a dearth of judges, lack of administrative and infrastructural support, and often the same hostility and insensitivity that make regular court trials a traumatic ordeal for rape survivors.
While fast-track courts need more resources to function effectively, delays in rape cases often begin well before they reach the trial stage. Police are known to take weeks – sometimes months – to file chargesheets in rape cases, and there are just a few cases in which chargesheets have been filed more promptly. For instance, in 2013, the Rajasthan police took just one week to file a chargesheet in the case of a 13-year-old girl’s gang rape, and police officials claimed with pride that it was the first time they had been able to act so swiftly.