Four men convicted of raping and killing a young woman in Delhi in December 2012 depend on a mercy petition to save them from the death sentence. Their chances of being saved from the noose by the President are bleak. Both the Delhi government and the Union home ministry have recommended that he reject the petition. This, after all, was the case that triggered widespread public anger and resulted in the law being changed in 2013 to make rape punishable by death. In all likelihood, the four men will be hanged. The members of the public who have that has demanded their execution for the last seven years will rejoice.
In a country where execution is seen as natural justice, there has been very little debate on the ethics of the death penalty, even at a time when most democracies are moving away from it. More specifically, there has been scant reflection on whether the death sentence actually deters sexual violence. National Crime Records Bureau data show a rising graph of crimes against women from 2015 to 2017. In 2018, there was a 31% rise in rapes followed by murder from the year before. It would be hard to draw definitive conclusions from the data, but even officials at the Bureau of Police Research and Development have speculated the fear of the death penalty has actually prompted rapists to kill.
Meanwhile, the entire process of bringing rapists to court, from filing the first information report to ensuring the cases go to trial, remains fraught with obstacles. In 2018, data shows that 85% of reported cases led to charges and conviction rates were a mere 27%.
There has also been no reckoning with the conditions that surround sexual violence in India – the deeply entrenched misogyny that normalises the abuse of women, the patriarchal attitudes that prevent them from speaking out. There has been no reckoning, either, with the uncomfortable fact that the majority of rapes are not random acts of violence by strangers. These crimes are committed within households and neighbourhoods, by friends and relatives.
Addressing the routinised sexual violence, ensuring that tragedies like December 2012 do not happen again means addressing a range of deep-seated problems, social and systemic. But public responses to such crimes are driven by sentiment. Much of the reporting on the December 2012 rape convictions has focused on the reactions of the murdered woman’s mother, conflating a mother’s grief with the cold, sober business of justice. Apart from the emotional response, the same patriarchal attitudes that normalise crimes against women see their bodies as vessels for a society’s honour. When these bodies are violated, they must be avenged with blood. Political leaders, picking up on these popular sentiments, have amplified the idea of execution as justice.
It led to the public celebrations that broke out after four men accused of raping a veterinarian in Hyderabad and setting her alight were shot in an alleged extra-judicial encounter. It led to demands for more such encounters, which appear to deliver ready justice without the fuss of trials that lead nowhere. Executions, whether extrajudicial or mandated by law, are unlikely to make our cities safe for a young woman taking a bus after watching a late show with her boyfriend or a vet trying to make her own way home.