It has been established over and over again that death penalty does not reduce crime. But once again, India finds itself baying for the blood of the three remaining men convicted for the 2012 Delhi gang-rape.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Murad. He was born in a small village to very poor parents who worked as labourers in fields. In a good month they made Rs 500. Murad saw his parents struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table for him and his siblings. When he was 11, he decided to help and told his mother, “Maa, I cannot stay here. How is this going to work? I have to help you out.” Murad left his village for the national capital to earn money and hopefully, send some back. He cleaned buses and doubled up as an assistant. On some days, it was triple duty and he was also the conductor.
On a typical day, Murad would be found hanging out the bus door, announcing the destination to attract customers. It was also a school bus. And when it picked up the children, Murad, the young conductor boy, greeted them by their names and even played with them. In the evening, he would clean the seats and wash the bus. Sometimes after dinner, he would see the older men he worked with get drunk and argue, abuse each other and even end up in fights. All of it, in front of an impressionable 11-year-old boy. They treated him well but on the bus, sometimes he was called names. People were rude.
“This is the way of the rich. They treat everyone else like this,” he was told by those who tried to console him. This was Murad’s life on any given day. He stayed on, built a life and bonded with the men he was surrounded by. When he could, he kept in touch with his parents. Until around the time he turned 15, that is.
The family assumed something untoward had happened to Murad when the police paid a visit. They informed them that Murad was alive but was arrested and given the maximum possible sentence a minor could receive in conflict with law.
What happened that night – India’s Daughter
In 2015, British documentary filmmaker Leslee Udwin released “India’s Daughter,” the story of how six men fatally assaulted and gang-raped a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a moving bus in Delhi three years earlier. She was later dubbed Nirbhaya, meaning fearless. But what drew public attention was that Udwin managed to interview the convicts and get a peek into their psyche. One of the convicts was a juvenile, meaning he was under 18 years of age.
Eleven-year-old Murad’s story could closely resemble that of the minor convicted in the Nirbhaya gang rape case, isn’t it? Hold on to that thought.
The documentary was banned in India just before it was to be aired on the country’s oldest television news channel, NDTV. In an unprecedented move the TV channel went black for the duration of the documentary (costing a fortune in ad revenue). The interviewees were fairly candid which gave the audience an insight into the lives and minds of the rapists.
Here’s how one of them described the others.
One. Spent a lot of time in the gym and often got into fights.
Two. Would get drunk and lose all sense of self-control.
The third. Owned a fruit stall.
The fourth. Occasionally helped on the bus.
And finally, the minor. He was the cleaner and bus conductor.
But the thread that binds them is, they were from the socio-economic strata where education was not a given. It was only for those who could afford it, and their families couldn’t.
In the interviews, they talked about what happened on that fateful night — December 16, 2012 and what they really intended to do. The men were all drinking and decided to go to Garstin Bastion Road, better known as G.B. road — Delhi’s very own red-light district. One of them described it as the place where people do “wrong things.”
They took the bus and a few customers on their way. Nirbhaya, or Jyoti Singh, her real name, and her male friend boarded it. The inebriated men decided to interrogate the pair. They asked Singh’s friend what he was doing out so late with a girl. All they wanted to do was teach them a lesson, one of them explained.
Apart from the convicts, their defense lawyers were also interviewed. What makes a lawyer defend the men who committed the crime that, as a judge put it, “shook the collective conscience of the country”?
But pretty soon, their comments made it very clear.
“In our society we don’t allow our girls to go out after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening,” said defense lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma.
“If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself, I would most certainly take her to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight,” said the other defense lawyer, A.P. Singh.
Law and Our Society
The weeks after Jyoti Singh’s gang-rape were incredibly tense. There were protests across the country. People were angry at what had happened, frustrated at how often it happened, outraged at the details of the assault, demanded that things change. In Delhi, where the crime took place, protestors marched on the streets, faced water cannons but kept demanding an explanation from the authorities, and solutions. They camped out with posters in the cold winter days and nights. Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi at the time, expressed sadness and helplessness. It did not work.
Here’s what is worrisome though. The frustration and fatigue made one chant louder than every other demand – death for the rapists. It has been over seven years since the incident. Death by hanging is a verdict that resonates with the public even today.
Consider the 2019 rape case in Hyderabad when the state police took matters into their own hands. The so-called shootout in which police killed the alleged criminals was met with embarrassing amounts of cheer and celebration.
Clearly, the fact that death penalty does not stop a criminal from committing the crime has failed to get through. Experts and studies have repeatedly established that it is NOT a deterrent. But the facts seem to be falling on deaf ears.
Crime does not result simply from a sinister mind. Several social and economic reasons lead an individual towards a crime. On the flip side, the victims of a crime get no help. Neither society nor the system comes to their aid, especially in cases of violent crimes against women.
It is important to introduce and perhaps normalise the concept of women out on the streets in the evening and late at night to the likes of lawyer M.L. Sharma. It is important to ask questions like who committed the crime and what led to it instead of asking what she was wearing or why she was out at the time – alone or otherwise. It is important to focus on finding the criminal rather than shaming the survivor.
Are prisons really about reform anymore?
“Crime is the outcome of a diseased mind and jail must have an environment of hospital for treatment and care,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
The idea behind putting someone in jail is certainly to punish but also to bring them towards responsibility and make them law-abiding citizens. The Model Prison Committee of 1960 (MPC), India, states that it is only through transforming an offender that we could create a society that is free of crime.
When a person is put in prison, they are denied some of the basic human rights that a vast majority of us mostly take for granted. For example, we have the right to freely move out of our houses to go get a packet of milk. When we walk, we pass by other people and sometimes stop to talk to them. If you are in jail, you cannot do the former and if you are in solitary, well, you can do neither.
The MPC states that, “as imprisonment deprives the offender of his liberty and self-determination, the prison system should not be allowed to aggravate the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.”
The Supreme Court upheld Delhi High Court’s verdict to hang the convicts of the 2012 gang-rape to death. There is no debating the heinousness of the crime and the need for a severe punishment. But how does a system ensure that this is a deterrent? What will stop the rest from turning into a menace for society?
Education, sensitisation towards others, awareness about gender equality are all concepts that would go a long way, even in prison. For now, it seems too much to ask from the Indian prison system.
And what do the statistics say? Cases of rape reported have increased since 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). While this could mean that more rape cases are being registered, it does not mean that the number of rapes has gone down. Which in turn means that capital punishment has made no dent in the number of rapes.
In an interview with Al Jazeera about the November 2019 Hyderabad rape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinary doctor, Kavitha Krishnan, Secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association, said that they asked for safer, better-lit roads and better public transport that ran 24 hours so that women could get home safer. Not the death penalty. In the last decade, hardly any work has been done on these fronts.
Delay in execution means torture
It is only natural that the drive to survive would lead a person to use all legal remedies and delay the sentence of death as much as possible, observed European Court of Human Rights in Soering v. United Kingdom.
When it comes to capital punishment, another aspect to consider is the delay in execution. After the verdict, there are appeals to higher courts and mercy petitions and more mercy petitions. While it means that the convicts get to use and exhaust all possible options to stay alive — which is what the three convicts of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape are doing — in a country like India where due process takes an enormous amount of time, it is a painfully long wait. In the harsh conditions of jail, this wait can quickly turn into torture.
Even in fast-track courts, specially established for speedy trials of rape, over 100,000 cases were pending at the end of 2016, according to NCRB.
The four convicts have been staring death in the face for six years now. They have come very close twice in the last two months. The torture of waiting extends to their families, too. The people who committed no crime, per se.
Equality before Law
There is a reason the Lady of Justice wears a blindfold. It signifies equality before law, justice without any prejudice. This means that anyone who is convicted of a crime serves the sentence and cannot be let off because of their position in society.
However, in the Unnao rape case, a Bharatiya Janata Party’s Member of Legislative Assembly, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was sentenced to life imprisonment and not death despite strong suspicions of a criminal conspiracy which led to the death of the victim’s father. And the victim was burned alive by the accused who were out on bail.
One would also like to point out that even convicts serving prison sentences are human beings. By law, all human beings are equal; then how is it that one human being can condemn another to death and be sure that it is not a mistake? The Indian judiciary has made mistakes in the past while carrying out death sentences. It has recently come to light that the police officer that Afzal Guru, prime accused in the attack on parliament in December 2001, had named in his affidavit was caught taking militants from Srinagar to Delhi. At that time, this detail was not investigated. Questions are often raised about the fairness of the trial that led to Guru’s hanging.
Now, even if it was concluded that hanging Afzal Guru was uncalled for, or that it could have been done in a better manner, for example, allowing his family one last visit, it cannot be undone. His death sentence was carried out without the knowledge of his family. Did that not shock the conscience of the country? Not even after learning that they did not have a chance to visit him one last time?
Think about this. Every time we see a child begging on the streets or when we hear of a Muslim or Dalit being lynched under the pretext of cow slaughter, does it shock the collective conscience of the country?
In that respect, the documentary “India’s Daughter” reveals a very important point. How Jyoti Singh treated a child who had snatched her purse. The child was caught by a police officer and was about to be beaten when Jyoti stopped the beating, took the child aside and got him everything he wanted. In return, all she asked for was a promise that the child would never steal again. Death penalty, with all its complications and lack of being a deterrent, is being used as a tool to appease the people or satisfy their shameful blood lust. The people who are now baying for the blood of Nirbhaya’s culprits need to stop and consider just once how she would have reacted to the situation. She believed that the “Murads” can be reformed.