This article was published in Kvinner Sammen Magazine. It can be found here:
The highly publicised Delhi gang rape case came to an end with five of the six perpetrators receiving capital punishment. The decision has been opposed by many feminists in the country. Instead of being a step forward for women’s rights, the decision brought to light the defective legal system in India, they claim.
On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old Jyoti Singh was brutally gangraped in Delhi, India. She died from the injuries thirteen days later. The crime enraged the masses. Discussions about crimes against women and women’s lack of freedom and safety ensued. A long overdue matter of women’s rights had been brought into the realm of public discussion.
Prior to succumbing to injuries, Jyoti made a statement calling for death penalty. The Indian media portrayed her as «Nirbhaya,» or «fearless,» and a «daughter of the nation». Popular opinion leaned towards capital punishment.
By the time the Delhi police captured the six perpetrators, the capital and other urban areas of India were witnessing protests demanding death for the rapists and greater safety for women. A judiciary notorious for its sluggishness promised a speedy trial by setting up a fast-track court. All eyes were on the case.
Feminism and capital punishment
The Supreme Court of India reserves capital punishment for the ‘rarest of rare cases’, under a rule made in 1983. In his acceptance of guilt, one of the accused in the Delhi case, Pawan Gupta, said that he deserved to die. Another one, Mukesh Singh, had to be kept under solitary confinement to prevent attacks by other inmates. Yet another one, Ram Singh, was found hanging in his prison cell.
However, many of the voices of feminism in the nation opposed the idea of capital punishment. Renowned feminists like Sampat Pal, leader of the Gulabi Gang and legal scholar Flavia Agnes too, spoke up against the death penalty.
«Radical Feminists believe in death penalty as form of punishment to offenders of brutal abuse. For them, rape is the highest form of gender-based cruelty and sexual crime. This form of feminism advocates drastic measures as a solution to control such atrocities indicating social abhorrence and masculine chaos. The Liberal feminist viewpoint gives priority to social reformation and does not address issues of men’s criminality hazarding women’s security,» says Dr Anita Dash, Professor of Sociology at Ravenshaw University in Odisha, India. She opines that even though death penalty is an extreme form of punishment, it will deter such cases of extreme violence and rape.
The decision by an inconsistent judiciary cannot deter rapists by being selective about the perpetrators it chooses to punish. Many critics believed that the death penalty was a decision made to calm the public fury. Feminist poet and writer Meena Kandasamy says, «In the case of rape, I think the law manages to target and punish only a few criminals. If the rape is conducted by the Indian Army in say Kashmir or Manipur, or by the paramilitary forces of India in Central India, or by upper caste Hindus in any of the tens of millions of Indian villages, the rapists are rarely brought to book, seldom punished. So, lopsided punishment is also problematic, because elite sections and the armed forces think they can get away with rape, whereas others cannot. »
In 2012 alone, 24923 cases of rape were registered throughout India. Yet only 4821 of the suspected offenders were convicted.
The social impact
The Delhi gangrape case was not just another gangrape. It was also a cruel and brutal attempt to murder. The fact that the victim was accompanied by a male companion and not dressed ‘provocatively’ made it more acceptable in the mind of society to demand severe retribution.
Even so, the defendant’s lawyer, Manohar Lal Sharma, attacked the victim’s character in defence of his clients. Asaram Bapu, a spiritual leader and public personality made a statement placing the blame on the girl, saying the perpetrators would have spared her if she had called them ‘bhaiya‘ (meaning ‘brother’ in Hindi), and begged them to stop. Such twisted justifications of the crime naturally received flak from the media and general public. Consequently, the case became a landmark one, as it now encompassed the fight against abuse and repressive social attitudes faced by women in India.
Commenting on the outcome of the case, filmmaker Nishtha Jain known for producing the documentary Gulabi Gang, expressed, «the judgement in the Delhi rape case was the cathartic ending that the masses wanted to this sordid saga. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t the perfect ending because of the mild sentence given to the juvenile offender. But for now the media and public will rest till the next high profile rape case. Meanwhile gender violence continues unabated. We lost a good opportunity to start the real discussion around gender violence. »
The court decision made after the nine-month long trial not only serves justice to Nirbhaya’s family, but sets a precedent for future cases as well. Despite the fact that the convicts plan to appeal to a higher court, the sentence was portrayed as a victory for the uprising that took place in support of women’s rights.
According to the Supreme Court of India, approximately 90 percent of reported rape cases end in acquittal. Among the lower castes or classes, very few rapes are ever reported, as victims who do file a report often have to face ill treatment by the police and they risk being shunned by the society or village.
A 15-year-old dalit schoolgirl who was gangraped in August 2013 filed a complaint with the police. Subsequently, she was pressured to withdraw the complaint and leave her village. The Delhi case verdict may give the illusion of a stern action against rape, but its repercussions might not be felt in rural India, where nearly 70 percent of the population resides.
As Kandasamy explains, «for such a patriarchal, narrow-minded judiciary to come up with something so radical is one thing. But at the same time, we must not cheer for the death penalty like medieval barbarians. We must also understand that it is the intense media scrutiny that ensured justice in the Delhi rape case. »