The Reason Why a Death Sentence Won't End Gang Rape in India


On Friday, when the fast-track court appointed to investigate the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old in December in Delhi delivered death sentences to all four suspects convicted of the crime, there was jubilation not only outside the court but also in homes and neighborhoods and the Twittersphere. Rhetoric of "They deserved nothing less" could be heard loud and clear, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that such rhetoric was a factor in deciding the sentencing.

Awarding the death sentence, the judge argued that the crime passed the litmus test of "the rarest of rare." And it did indeed in many ways — it was rare for the brutality of the crime, it was rarer for the ensuing protests which led to an international discussion over violence against women, and it was probably rarest for sparking a change in India's imperial-era laws around sexual harassment and rape. Why exactly this case prompted such a reaction when, sadly, there is no dearth of brutal cases of sexual crimes against women in India is a relevant question and one which has multiple and complex answers.

This "rarest of rare" cases is thought to be a turning point in Indian attitudes towards sexual violence, as it has opened up a dialogue and prompted people to speak out. But the fact that we haven’t seen similar outrage over rapes of Dailt women, custodial rapes, or state-sponsored rapes in Gujarat, Manipur, and Kashmir shows the limitations of the Delhi case's impact. Sexual abuse and rapes inside the home still go largely unreported and Indian lawmakers refused to make marital rape illegal when amending rape laws following the Delhi gang rape. The sense of "change" in India since last December is belied by the righteousness the defense lawyer in the gang-rape case felt in saying that he would burn his daughter alive if she were going around with boys in the night.

Perhaps what’s most unfortunate is that this case is being treated as the rarest of rare, as a case that merits the state meeting the cost of the victim’s treatment in Singapore, as a case that calls for a decision in a fast-track court. By treating the case in such an elevated manner, the state has cleverly copped out of having to provide the most effective medical care, the most efficient police investigation, and the quickest judicial process in all rape cases.

What is fortunate, however, is the coming together of voices — voices of feminists, activists, academics, survivors, and "ordinary" Indians frustrated with the apathy of the state. These citizens are channeling their anger in the form of protests demanding not only an abstract change in attitudes, but also practical changes such as better policing, safer public transport, a judicial system that does not violate the victim, and so on.

Though the Delhi case in and of itself did not make India the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, the protests following it contributed to bringing the discussion on rapes and sexual crimes in India into the international limelight. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been all good — on the international platform, there have been misguided (and somewhat racist) discussions on "India’s woman problem," the centrality of Indian "culture" in the perpetuation of misogyny in the country, Indian men’s anger and self-control issues, and so on. It doesn’t need to be added that such discussions do little to acknowledge and address the global problem of sexual violence.

As much as I’d like to believe that the Delhi gang-rape case has changed much in India, I wouldn’t go any further than saying that it is a milestone in the long campaign to challenge the state’s complacency towards women and sexual violence. It has pushed through some quick reforms in law that feminists had been demanding for some time now. It has brought to a head the struggle for safe public (and private) spaces for women in India. And it has opened up dialogue on sexual violence, though constrained, in mainstream Indian media. But the jubilation over the death sentences delivered last week suggest there is a still a long way to go from the narrative of getting revenge on rape, to that of reforming attitudes and confronting patriarchy. One can only hope that the dialogue, both in India and internationally, continues unabated instead of fizzling out as the media gets bored of one scandal and moves to the next.