India is a scary place for women. All women have known this forever. And every time there’s a brutal rape and murder, and a young life is snuffed out, the masses of Indian men suddenly wake up to it. We want JUSTICE, they scream – when really, all they want is to put the blame on a bunch of individuals, kill those individuals, and forget about everything immediately. Some media houses egg them on because who wants to do the job of actually thinking about changing systems, right? And following the gangrape and murder of a young veterinarian in the outskirts of Hyderabad, we’re now seeing the rise of the emotional but bloodthirsty politician, giving dangerous ‘suggestions’ like lynching and castrating.
In Rajya Sabha on Monday, our Members of Parliament all spoke at length condemning the rape and murder of the veterinarian. And in an absolutely scary move, we saw a politician demand “lynching” as a form of justice. Jaya Bachchan, an MP representing Samajwadi Party from Uttar Pradesh, and also a Bollywood actor, made a shocking suggestion: “In some countries, when such things happen, the public delivers justice. This is my suggestion – I know it’s a little harsh – I think these kind of people (rapists) should be brought out in public and lynched properly.”
No, Jaya Bachchan. It’s not ‘a little harsh’ – it’s an absolutely ridiculous and reckless suggestion that is completely unbecoming of a leader. India is a democracy, not a mobocracy. We have a system of justice in place, and the state’s job is to ensure that law and order is maintained. We have seen lynchings in this country in recent years because of the visceral hate that is being spread all around, either in the name of religion or in the name of “safety” of women and children from kidnappers. And guess what happens when you endorse mobocracy? Innocent lives are lost – often, the lives of homeless people, Dalits, minorities, transgender women on the streets, migrant workers, and in general people caught in the middle of a mindless mob.
Democracy, not mobocracy
And the public – the Indian citizen – is left with the blood of innocents on her hands.
I know what you’re going to say – yes you, the angry Indian man or woman. Rapists are not ‘innocent’. No one is disagreeing with that. But we have systems of justice – courts and prisons and reform systems – to deal with the guilty. We, the citizens of this country, need to demand that these systems work properly – and fast – and ensure that the guilty are punished, and punished on time. We need to speak up to ensure that conviction rates in rape cases go up, that all cases of sexual harassment are taken seriously by the police, that women are not put through hell in courts and are treated with dignity.
Consider for instance the case of the Malayalam actor who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted – and the assault was allegedly masterminded by another actor, Dileep. The incident happened in February of 2017. It’s December 2019, and the trial is dragging on. The survivor – a woman who has more privilege than an average Indian woman because of her popularity – is still being put through indignities by the system. And the outragers among us have moved on – without any justice being achieved.
We, the citizens, have not done enough to demand a speedy trial, and a definitive conviction.
Instead, if we work to enable the bloodlust of a few, we will devolve into a depraved and lawless society where violence is the norm. Rape and sexual crimes are violence against individuals – and we cannot be countering that with more violence. More violence is not the answer to reducing violence in our society.
Rape is not about the penis
And that applies to ‘creative’ punishments like castration, which have been suggested by scores of people over the years, and once again came to the fore in Rajya Sabha on Monday, from Member of Parliament P Wilson representing the DMK from Tamil Nadu. “The culprits, besides being imposed with punishments available under any other provisions of law, should be either chemically or surgically castrated for heinous rape. Otherwise, they are released from prison in a few years into the community. Sir, both chemical and surgical castration undoubtedly would prevent the culprit from committing sexual assault again.”
No, P Wilson, it would not ‘undoubtedly prevent’ sexual crimes by the person again. Sexual violence is not committed by genitals – they’re committed by people. People who are violent, people who want to cause pain, people who want to violate another human being. It has nothing to do with ‘potency’ or ‘erection’ of a penis. To put it crudely, if a man wants to rape a woman and he can’t ‘get it up’ – that doesn’t make the sexual assault any less violative or frightening.
Wilson further suggested mandatory death penalty for rapists – enough has been written about whether death penalty actually acts as a deterrent for crime (answer: no, it doesn’t) and we will not delve further into it here.
Justice, not blind faith
The third ‘demand’ that is now being raised is that there should be no way for rape accused to appeal. Vice President and Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu said on Monday that the country needs to rethink mercy petitions, which he claimed are a byproduct of a bygone era. “What is required is not a new Bill. What is required is political will. Administrative skill. And then change of mindset. And then go for the kill of the social evil. In that direction we must all move, the entire country,” he declared.
The legal system exists with multiple avenues for appeal because everyone – everyone – can make mistakes. Even if you and I are sure that someone is a rapist, is guilty of the crime they are accused of, our ‘belief’ may not always be true. There are two examples for why reviews and appeals are important: First, is the Ayesha Meera rape and murder case in Andhra Pradesh, where the wrong man was jailed for years on end, and the people who were actually guilty were let free. Satyam Babu, a disabled man, would still be suffering in prison for a crime he did not commit if the legal systems did not work with appeals – and there wouldn’t be another investigation to find the guilty.
The second example is the rapes and deaths of two minor sisters in Walayar. The police botched up the case, they let the accused go, the court acquitted them. If there was no system of appeal, the parents of those two little girls would not be able to demand justice in a higher court. The government wouldn’t be able to push for re-investigation in the case.
Rapists need to be punished
A popular television show, Lucifer, is a supernatural buddy-cop thriller – and it deals with the concept of hell. In the minds of the showrunners, hell is where you relive your guilt, over and over again in an endless loop.
The men who gangraped and murdered the veterinarian in Hyderabad need to be punished. In the metaphorical sense, if they need to be put through hell, it should be the hell of their own making – the hell of their own guilt plaguing them over and over and over again. I’m not going into whether death penalty is right or wrong here – but in my mind, the right punishment for a person who is above reform, is for them to feel their guilt and feel the pain of that guilt. It’s not about lynching or castration or any other physical pain – it is about realising the enormity of their crime and living with it.
Rapists and murderers and people who lynch others need to be punished – swiftly, and surely. We need the conviction rates in our courts to go up, we need our policing to be more sensitive, we need systems that ask all of us to be better human beings. The day our politicians realise this and work towards this, they will become leaders who can inspire.
Until then, they’re just a chorus of violent voices adding to the cacophony – and definitely not my allies in the fight against gender-based violence.
Ragamalika Karthikeyan is an editor with The News Minute. She writes about gender, violence, and the law. Views expressed are the author's own.