Death penalty for sexual assault is reportedly a celebrated position in India right now. Last week, in a case that has captured both national and international attention, a judge sentenced four men to execution for the December 2012 rape and murder of a student in Delhi. The announcement was met with cheers by hundreds of people gathered outside the court.
Considering research showing that one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in their lives, is India serious about pursuing bloody barters in still more cases? The answer is unclear, but the eye-for-an-eye sentiment that has permeated public discussion around the recently concluded case has allowed a great wrong to be addressed inadequately and perhaps unjustly. Indeed, it is unquestionable that at least three crucial learning moments are slipping through India’s fingers.
First, the public, eager to focus gory details about this particular rape and the drama of the court proceedings that followed, are losing the opportunity to discuss the case as illustrative of the lived realities of women and girls across the country. Other recent cases, even ones equally as egregious, have not received the same sort of national attention. Not the 16-year-old who sought assistance from her teachers to report repeated rapes by her high-profile father in Delhi’s satellite town of Gurgaon, nor the woman whose charred remains suggested she was burned alive after a possible rape in Sirsa, in Delhi’s neighboring state of Haryana. Fueled by calls for violent retribution and an additional clamor surrounding whether India has become dangerous for female tourists — a real, but not primary, concern — the violent rape in Delhi has been rendered into a unique spectacle rather than being used as an impetus for discussions at dinner tables, in schools, in dining halls and in community spaces about the need for zero tolerance of violence.
The loud responses have also diminished the voices of those at the helm of the gender justice movement in India — people who were paying attention to sexual violence and other human rights violations long before this case. There have been vociferous calls for the death penalty, chemical castration, and some gleeful discussions about other savage punishments for those who commit sexual crimes. None of these penalties would provide a just, sustainable or replicable solution, and some of them reinforce rape myths. (Castration, for instance, suggests that rape is all about sex.) Gender justice advocates have worked to dispel such myths and emphasize the need for more humane criminal penalties, but they have yet to receive the careful ear that they deserve.
Second, and relatedly, India is missing the opportunity to take a stand against custodial torture and to further define the contours of the amorphous rule of law. Originally, there were five adults accused in the case (in addition to one juvenile). Their lawyers reported that the accused were beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted while in jail. The coverage of these reports was scant, and the defense lawyers were deemed shameless for worrying about the treatment of the accused. In March 2013, one of the five was found dead in his jail cell, hanging — some reports said — by his own clothes, having used his disabled hand to noose himself, a couple of feet higher than his frame, while cellmates were present.