It seems one cannot open an Indian newspaper without reading about at least one rape happening somewhere every day. This time it is a gang rape of a journalist in Mumbai. The bastion of the last city supposedly safe for women has also fallen. Mumbai continues to be much safer for women than many other Indian cities, but this incident just goes to show that there is no Indian city or town that is absolutely safe for women, never mind whether they are accompanied by a male, whether is day or night or what they are wearing. One can cite every possible reason ranging from cultural to social to economic factors for the frequency of rape and crimes against women in India, but the reasons themselves are not important. After all, newborn babies are killed every day in India just because they are female. That is really all it takes – if you are female in India, that is apparently justification enough for someone to commit any crime against you.
The more important question is not why someone commits these crimes, but (i) why is there nothing to deter them from doing so ? and (ii) does learning about the crime and aftermath deter others from committing similar crimes ?
It is also very clear that most crimes committed against women are not committed in the heat of the moment in anger, but have some degree of premeditation involved. Take a look at the latest Mumbai gang-rape. The perpetrators had time to call all their friends on their cellphones and ask them to join in? They decided to take pictures of the victim to blackmail her into silence? Obviously, this is a classic instance of a case where the men found a woman in a vulnerable position (in a near-deserted place, with only one male for support) and decided to take advantage of her vulnerability. They decided to do this because they believed that there would be no consequences to their action.
That is key here, and in all crimes against women – the perception that there would be no consequences. Perception is what is important here. Why do people kill newborn female babies? Obviously, those babies cannot defend themselves, and the killers think they can get away with it because they believe no one else is going to defend those babies – not society, and not the law. What would happen if baby killers believed their families would be ostracized by society? That no one would give them jobs, or they would never be able to get their sons married? What would happen if they were convinced they would definitely go to jail for life?
Now, I am not going to get into why people believe they can get away with such horrific crimes. There could be multiple reasons, but again, the more important question – especially from the authorities’ point of view, is how they are going to change this perception.
If people start believing that there is (i) zero chance of getting away with a crime,
(ii) that they will definitely be caught and punished very quickly , and that
(iii) the punishment will be severe,
they will surely hesitate the next time they want to take advantage of a vulnerable female. But all three of these things need to happen.
Educating people is not the answer. Unless someone is mentally ill, he/ she knows it is wrong to kill a baby, or rape a woman. It does not matter what excuse they give for their actions, or how they try to justify it. They know they have committed a crime; they just believe they can escape punishment. There is also no question of forgiveness for such crimes. That would again only reinforce the perception that they can get away unpunished.
So how do the authorities change this perception? Bringing the rapists in high-profile cases to a quick justice is the first step, sure. It is also the easier part. The harder part is consistently going after every person accused of rape or infanticide and bringing them to justice quickly. Having a zero tolerance policy for crimes against women and consistently enforcing it. Another thing that would help is publishing statistics – number of cases registered, number of cases solved, time taken to bring the accused to court, time taken in court etc. If the reality is better than the perception, then people will surely, if slowly, change their perception.
But what should be the punishment? I still believe that Capital punishment for rape is not the answer, mostly because I am afraid that rapists would then proceed to murder the victim in an attempt to hide their traces. After all, if one can be hanged for the rape as well as the murder, then there is a strong incentive to make sure the victim cannot file an FIR or testify against the rapist. (In the Mumbai case too, the accused tried to silence the victim, only they used blackmail).
But one cannot deny that a strong punishment acts as a deterrent, especially in premeditated crimes. Would the rapists in this latest Mumbai gang-rape case have so readily called their friends (as if to a party) if they believed they would all surely go to jail for life? Or ten or twenty years? Under the new Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, a rapist can get at least 7 years in prison. It is not that the punishment is not enough of a deterrent. It is that the rapists believe, for whatever reason, that they will not be caught and/ or they will not get punished. Perhaps it has to do with the really, really low rate of conviction of rape accused – the Supreme Court says 90% of rape accused go free. One can have certain death as the punishment for rape, but if people think that it won’t apply to them, they have no reason to change their behavior.
It is heartening to note that all five accused in the Mumbai case have been arrested. That is definitely a good beginning. But what happens from here on is very important – the speed at which they are tried, and if found guilty, punished.
But at the end of the day, you don’t want people to think that marching in the streets is the only way to stop rapes and for rape victims to get justice. It definitely helps if newspapers publicize every crime against women, so public attention is drawn to how frequently this happens. But the authorities should treat every case equally well, whether in the news or not.
Only then will people change their perception and behavior, and only then will rapes and crimes against women reduce. Until then, we can actually expect to see an increase in news of rapes (as newspapers publicize them more) before we start to see a decline.