Why the death penalty will not solve India’s rape problem, but speedy justice would go a long way

Amrit Dhillon says the Indian government’s move to introduce the death penalty for rapists of girls is a symbolic gesture with an eye on the elections rather than an effective tool to deter the crime

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 3:52pm

On Monday, India did what it does best – pass laws that fail to fix whatever crime they are meant to fix. In this case, members of parliament voted in favour of a bill introducing the death penalty for convicted rapists of girls under the age of 12.

The new law is the result of the outrage that erupted following the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in April. Since then, other horrific cases of the rape of minor children have been reported, adding to the shock and the very understandable desire for retribution. But who are the members of parliament kidding if they think this will stop girls being raped? It is purely a symbolic gesture, a gimmick. It’s easy to pass laws but much harder to apply your mind to issues that really matter.

One such matter is improving the way police investigate rape cases so that there is a higher rate of conviction than the current 25 per cent, according to 2016 figures. The methods used by the police to collect evidence are often hopeless, resulting in a weak case that fails to get a conviction. Knowing they are likely to get off is a real encouragement to rapists.

The other is overhauling the decrepit criminal justice system so that trials end quickly, giving justice to the victim and punishment to the guilty. The existing laws are sufficient to punish child rapists but because the legal system is clogged with around 30 million pending cases, it can take many years before a trail is concluded and a verdict given.

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The prolonged wait is agony for the victim. In fact, the only sensible clause in the new bill is the one that states that the trial of an accused child rapist must be concluded within two months. At present, accused rapists out on bail can lead a pretty normal life for several years while the trial drags on.

Why not ensure that existing laws are implemented effectively so that rapists are sentenced to life in jail within two months?

Why not ensure that existing laws are implemented effectively so that rapists are sentenced to life in jail within two months? That surely would be as effective a deterrent as the death sentence?

No, that’s too much like real work. Better to sign in a new law to add to all the other laws that are ignored.

In fact, since the rapist is usually known to the child (in 98 per cent of cases), the girl and her parents often come under pressure from relatives not to report the crime. They are bound to come under even greater pressure now that the rapist will face capital punishment.

Moreover, it places a terrible responsibility on the child – the knowledge that reporting and testifying will result in the death for the perpetrator, someone she probably knows. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes how she stopped speaking when she was eight years old. She had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend and had testified against him in the trial. He was convicted but released from jail. Four days later, he was murdered, probably by her uncles. Angelou was convinced that it was her “voice” that killed him, hence her silence for almost five years.

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Another regrettable aspect of the new law is that it applies only to girls aged under 12, not boys. Indian boys are also sexually assaulted and raped. It makes no sense to deny them the same justice as girls. Even worse is the possibility that the death penalty might make rapists kill their victims to avoid detection.

With a general election looming next year and against a backdrop of horrific rapes, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wants to be seen as proactive in protecting women. In passing this bill, it has proved to be no different from earlier governments and their similar reflexive actions.

The new law panders to public indignation and the desire for punishment but it is no substitute for all the other actions and reforms that would have been far more useful and effective.

 Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi