(Published in The Hindu, December 20, 2012)
Like so many other men and women in Delhi, my friends and I kept a quiet, helpless vigil on Tuesday night for the young 23-year-old woman in Safdarjung hospital. All day long, on TV, in private conversations, on social media, the demand for justice was voiced, with rising anger and with grief. Over the last few years, the anger over the way we treat our women in India — killed before birth, starved and neglected as babies, denied education, respect, safety, freedom, brought up to be bartered into marriage, beaten, raped, burned — has been escalating, becoming more open. Sexual violence, the safety of women on the streets and in their homes, a media focus on one horrifying gang-rape after another: all of these have become mainstream news, at least in urban India.
When I think of that young girl, fighting for her life after sustaining severe injuries when six men in Delhi raped her and assaulted her male friend, I also want justice. Like many Indians, across the board, I want those men to be jailed forever, so that they can never hurt another person again; a base but very human part of me would like them to suffer as much as they made that woman suffer.
But when the conversation moves, as it does so frequently these days, to the question of the death penalty for rapists, I find myself unable to want that kind of vengeance. There are the practical reasons: aside from reasoned opposition to capital punishment, there is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty will act as a deterrent. There is the strong possibility that it would make an already low rape conviction rate even lower, since judges would be unwilling to hand down such an extreme sentence except in the worst and most brutal cases.
Then consider this: in the two-week period before this brutal gang-rape, a number of rapes were reported from Delhi and the neighbouring State of Haryana. They included the rape of a five-year-old girl by a local temple priest, the rape of a nine-year-old by a neighbour, the rape of a 20-year-old girl who was initially too scared to report her neighbour, the rape of a 70-year-old woman in Haryana by a young relative. These incidents — women raped by neighbours, relatives, people who know them — are far more common than the gang-rapes, horrifying as those are, that draw intense media scrutiny.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau data for 2011, most rapes are not committed by strangers. “Offenders were known to the victims in as many as 22,549 (94.2 %) [of all cases reported in India in 2011],” says the NCRB report. “Parents / close family members were involved in 1.2% (267 out of 22,549 cases) of these cases, neighbours were involved in 34.7% cases (7,835 out of 22,549 cases) and relatives were involved in 6.9% (1,560 out of 22,549 cases) cases.”
These statistics have been remarkably consistent over the years: you can say with confidence that on average, 90 per cent of rape cases in India are perpetrated by people known to the victim, from their neighbourhoods — perfectly ordinary uncles and brothers and fathers. (We aren’t discussing male rape here — because there are very few statistics available for survivors of male rape. It’s one of the least discussed crimes in India.)
And there are other, more clinical questions to ask those who support the death penalty. What about custodial rapes, and rapes by serving army officers and military personnel? The soldiers accused of rape in states Such as Kashmir and Chhattisgarh — if those accusations are true, shouldn’t the death penalty apply to them as well? The eight men who raped a Dalit woman in Haryana this year in October, who took cellphone photographs as trophies: death for them, too? All of those implicated in the rapes of women from the lower castes, in every State from Haryana to Madhya Pradesh to Bihar: if we could, would we send them to the gallows along with the Delhi six?
So if you agree that the death penalty should apply to rapists, be consistent about it, and prepare for the consequences. The people you’ll be hanging, more than 90 per cent of the time, won’t be strangers, the gangs of youth whom we can safely think of as marauding outliers, the threatening outsider beyond the threshold of our homes.
Swinging from those gallows, you’ll have local shopkeepers, tutors, friends of the family. In 2011, if you’d had capital punishment for rapists, that would have been 7,835 neighbours, 1,560 distant unclejis and mamajis and 267 fathers, brothers, grandfathers and cousins on death row, plus thousands of family acquaintances and distant colleagues. And that’s without adding in the policemen, the army officers, the paramilitary troops and the odd politician playing out caste wars on the bodies of women, whom we’d discussed earlier.
It’s going to be a long queue of familiar faces, the queue of those we want to hang for the act of rape. I wish I could believe that this sort of mass public execution — if we agreed that this was the way forward — would do more than slake our collective need for vengeance.
I wish I could think that public hangings would miraculously solve the problem of violence against women, but I don’t believe in fairy tales. Hanging the neighbour will not address the clear and present need to examine how violence works inside our own homes, within our own families.
We all want justice, and we desperately want this assault on women to end. I know that I want my niece, and every young girl in India, to grow up without the fear that stalked my generation of women. I know that I want them to have the freedom and the equality that so often eluded us, one way or the other; if we had it in our homes, we lost it when we stepped out into the wider world. If we fought for better working conditions for office-goers and domestic workers, women still often went back to face cruelty and fear in their own homes, where they should have felt safe and free. I would like this generation of young women to feel more than safe; I would like them to feel that they have the right to live with freedom, and to be treated with respect wherever they might be.
On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill
On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape