We know her by many names. “Nirbhaya”, “Damini”, “Amanat” or “Nirbhaya the Fearless”, as she was dubbed by the U.S. Department of State when she posthumously received the International Women of Courage Award, 2013; or “J”, as I choose to call her. On December 16th last year, J boarded a chartered bus in New Delhi on which there were six men out to “have some fun”. They beat her and her companion, stripped them, raped her, criminally assaulted her, tossed her and her male companion off the bus and tried to drive the bus over them. J, a young physiotherapy student, succumbed to her massive injuries on December 29, 2012.
The special fast track court set up to try four of her rapists has now, nine months later, handed over a deeply problematic verdict. No doubt, these men are guilty of various crimes, but mostly they have been awarded the death penalty because J died. Because of this the charge of premeditated murder could be brought against the rapists.
Many politicians like the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj, Minister for Home Affairs Sushil Shinde, individuals and women’s rights organisations have been arguing that rape in India should be punishable by death and/or have welcomed the death penalty for these rapists. My questions here are twofold. First, can the death penalty for rapists reduce the incidence of rape, i.e., will it really act as a deterrent? We simply do not have the evidence to make this case.
Second, how can we, as a society, collectively express such deep anguish over J’s murder and rape and without blinking also support the death penalty for these men and others? I ask this second question, mostly to bring forward the argument that when these men were awarded the death penalty, there is an assumption that they were somehow ‘deviant’ in their behavior and so unfit to live in normal society. I question this assumption because rape is so frequent, so under-reported and so routinely committed by people women know and trust, that it is virtually impossible to sentence one in a small handful of men in India routinely to death for sexual crimes. Broadly speaking, capital punishment has been abolished for a variety of reasons including wrongful execution in 97 countries and only a small number of countries still hold on to it.
type=quote;; position=left;; text= Rape is so frequent, so under-reported and so routinely committed by people women know and trust, that it is virtually impossible to sentence one in a small handful of men in India routinely to death for sexual crimes.;;
In June 2012, The New York Times reported that a TrustLaw study showed that India lagged even behind Saudi Arabia in terms of its treatment of women coming in at number 19 in a list of 20 countries. 1 In 2011, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey 2 on gender attitudes in various countries including Brazil, Croatia, Chile, Mexico, Rwanda had much to reveal about how men think and what they do. Here are some of the Indian results from that study.
• 68 per cent of the Indian men surveyed (n=810) said that they agreed that women should tolerate violence to keep their families together.
• 65 per cent believed that sometimes a woman deserves to be beaten.
• 81 per cent of Indian men believed that a man’s decision in the home was final.
• 92 per cent of Indian women reported that a man was involved in their decision to induce an abortion as opposed to 59 per cent of self-reported males.
• 37per cent of men (n=929) in a separate round of the survey had physically assaulted their intimate partner at least once.
• 24 per cent had committed an act of sexual violence against someone in society and 20 per cent had committed sexual violence against their partners.
And here’s the clincher - 92 per cent of those surveyed knew of the existence of laws pertaining to violence against women. This, in spite of knowing that violence against women is illegal.
What followed on the streets of New Delhi after J’s collective rape became public, and in many other cities across India, were the largest anti-rape protests seen anywhere in the world in the last century. As thousands of women and men took to the streets demanding the death penalty for these rapists and more protection for women, some numbers began emerging about the extent of violence against Indian women in society. The world found out that “Indian male violence towards women resulting in female deaths routinely exceeded deaths exacted by other kinds of community-based violence including caste violence, communal violence and insurgent violence”. 3
Ten months later, four of the rapists have been convicted and sentenced to death. One rapist, Ram Singh, committed suicide while in prison and the youngest one was awarded a three-year sentence and remanded to a juvenile home. People who have been baying for the blood of these rapists, in particular, feel vindicated. On Twitter and Facebook women condone the sentence and some even argue that it is the easy way out for the rapists.
As an Indian woman, I am inclined to agree with much of the angry lashing out. India as a country has done little to stop violence against women. Family members, society and the state routinely excuse violent behavior by men of all kinds. Women in New Delhi often feel besieged by the collective, aggressive gazes of men around them and take precautions that impinge on their personal freedoms to avoid, as a recent Madras High Court judge, Justice Kirubakaran commented, “getting into trouble”. He later also commented “Men who may be loving towards the women in their family may not behave the same way outside their homes. Therefore, I had insisted that women should be responsible about their safety till there is a change in the society.” 4
Justice Kirubakaran, like most Indians, has clearly not looked at recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In 2012, 24,923 rape cases were reported across India. Out of these, 24,470 were rapes committed by parents/family, relatives, neighbours and other known persons. This leaves us with a total of 453 cases of stranger rape. Justice Kirubakaran is simply wrong in assuming that women are safe from sexual violence in their own homes. Unless, the NCRB has misrepresented their data (which is unlikely), we are looking at a country where women are serially raped (98 per cent of reported victims) by people they know and may trust. Even if our laws reflected the death penalty for rapists, based on the 2012 NCRB data, in 98 per cent of the reported rape cases we would, as a society, be hanging uncles, fathers, brothers, cousins and people known to us.
type=quote;; position=right;; text=Even if our laws reflected the death penalty for rapists, based on the 2012 NCRB data, in 98 per cent of the reported rape cases we would, as a society, be hanging uncles, fathers, brothers, cousins and people known to us.;;
Being raped is far beyond “getting into trouble”. This metaphor obfuscates the gravity of the crime committed against an individual woman and against her person. It places the onus of being raped on the woman, i.e., somehow it is the victim’s fault that she got raped. The phrase turns the perpetrators of rape into “troublemakers”, a word used to describe schoolboys who break windows while playing cricket, or throw water balloons at unsuspecting pedestrians.
Let us set the record straight. There is nothing innocent about a rapist. A rapist indulges in a calculated exercise of power over someone weaker, knowing fully well that he can probably get away with it, since he knows that there is a high probability that the existing legal apparatus will not be able to convict him.
What we put in place when we ask that rapists be hanged is an incentive structure for rapists to kill their victims. If the only witness to a rape is the victim herself, the best strategy for a rapist is to ensure that she doesn’t live to tell the tale. We, as a society, need to think harder about the logic of such arguments. Having said this, I do understand where this demand for vengeance comes from. In a system, where the normal course of justice does not lead to many convictions of rapists, women want justice through vengeance.
Let us consider the case of Phoolan Devi, or the Bandit Queen, as the media popularly dubbed her. In 1981, Phoolan Devi orchestrated the massacre of 22 men from the Thakur caste in the village of Behmai. This became the tipping point in her career as a dacoit. Two years later, after dodging the cops in the Chambal ravines, she surrendered before a portrait of Gandhi and a picture of Goddess Durga with 300 policemen and the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, in attendance. For her, surrendering to the police and to the legal system had little value. Phoolan Devi is an unlikely candidate to win any humanitarian awards. However, looking more deeply, she was a woman who had resolved to avenge her own rapes by men of Behmai village and former members of her gang of dacoits, who had killed her partner Vikram Mallah, before dragging her off to the village of Behmai to be locked up and raped over three weeks by several men.
What Phoolan Devi recognised was a simple basic fact that many Indian women have now known for a long time – there is little justice for a woman who is a victim of gender terrorism. In the absence of justice due to her, Phoolan Devi settled for revenge.
Phoolan Devi is not considered to be a sigil bearer for Indian women although after serving her jail term she became an elected representative winning on a Samajwadi Party ticket before being gunned down outside her official residence in July 2001. She was a known dacoit, convicted for murders, kidnapping and thievery. However, as far back as 1979, when she was beaten by the police in custody for three days in Uttar Pradesh on trumped up thieving charges, she showed little mercy towards men; having recognised and struggled with misogyny and gender terrorism even within her own gang of outlaws.
There are logics prevalent in Indian society that I find problematic. Broad societal logic argues on the one hand, that murder is a bad thing, but offers as justification, on the other hand, that it is alright to officially execute or murder some people. This same society also routinely legitimises the killing of women in the name of “honour” and is so oppressively anti-female that future women are executed at the foetal stage. The transcript of violence that undergirds much of India’s quotidian behaviour lends itself to an almost medieval idea of retribution as justice.
The current verdict of the Delhi rapists has been given, not just by a fast track court, but also by a society that can find deeply frightening rationales to justify violence against anyone on any pretext. We, as a society, have handed the death sentence to the Delhi rapists.
The anti-rape protests in New Delhi in December 2012 reflected this call to substitute vengeance for justice. Placards carried by protestors read, “hang the rapists” and “castrate the rapists”. The longstanding anger that many Indian women feel finally burst forth when women recognised that there is an absence of justice for crimes against their persons, whether they take place when strangers attack or whether they are burned in marital homes, or viciously beaten up by husbands. At least one judicial inquiry commission has stated that women ought to be allowed to kill rapists in self-defence. In 2004, 14 women stabbed Appu Yadav, a known rapist, to death in a courtroom in Nagpur, knowing he would be acquitted of repeated rapes.
type=quote;; position=left;; text=Women are increasingly recognising that gender terrorism is not going to disappear as long as existing legal traditions see victims as responsible for what happens to them and sees rapists and other sex offenders as boys that have gone astray because of western culture, certain food items, short skirts.;;
Women in India are rebels in their own right fighting for a deeply political cause – human dignity and equality. Of course, when they choose to operate beyond the bounds of law, their tactics offend our democratic and liberal sensibilities. But perhaps this is the turn the politics of Indian women is being forced to take. Women are increasingly recognising that gender terrorism is not going to disappear as long as existing legal traditions see victims as responsible for what happens to them and sees rapists and other sex offenders as boys that have gone astray because of western culture, certain food items, short skirts, etc.
However, within India the debate that needs to happen is not about whether the death penalty can reduce rape. It is about whether we as a society can change the way we think about women. That is the root of the problem. The debate is also about how Indians are so psychologically inured to all forms of violence that they do not think for a second that an eye for an eye could possibly leave the whole world blind. The debate should also be about the vacuity of much debate about gender, which end with odd programmes of gender-sensitisation where, paradoxically, instructors don’t want to use the word ‘rape’ and instead settle for ‘molestation’ and ‘outrage of modesty’.
The problem also lies with the police as first responders to incidents of rape who file faulty charge sheets that cannot be held up in court and lead to acquittals and it lies with first responders who blame the victim for being raped. The problem is compounded by mothers-in-law who will not stop demanding dowries and expensive wedding gifts from families of prospective daughters-in-law. It is exacerbated when “keepers of Indian values” harass young couples and believe that a woman who has a boyfriend is “habituated to sex” and can be raped, and, it continues every time someone advises a woman to not report that she has been raped.
1. See Katrin Bennhold’s piece, “The Best Countries to be a Woman… And the Worst”, in The New York Times , June 13, 2012. Available online at http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/13/the-best-countries-to-be-a-woman-and-the-worst/?_r=0
2. See International Men and Gender Equality Survey , 2011 report by International Center for Research on Women. Available online at http://www.icrw.org/publications/evolving-men
3. See “The Gender Terrorists”, a commentary by this author in Economic and Political Weekly , Vol - XLVIII No. 13, March 30, 2013.
4. See “Judge’s Remarks on Women Draw Flak from AIDWA”, in The Hindu, September 1, 2013. Available online at https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Madurai/judges-remarks-on-women-draw-flak-from-aidwa/article5082028.ece .