Getting away with rape and murder

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?

Mumbai protests against the gang-rape. Pic courtesy: The New Indian Express

Mumbai protests against the gang-rape. Pic courtesy: The New Indian Express

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.


6 thoughts on “Getting away with rape and murder

  1. Very well argued, Lekhni, and I agree with everything you have written. Also, as a society, how do we teach basic decency and that such behavior is just plain wrong? I have no answers but it is so distressing and disturbing to read about these horrible events.

  2. I don’t know if there are quick and easy solutions to the ‘rape crisis’, which is not really new, but only now getting massive publicity in the media.
    I think the problem has always existed over the years, centuries even (vide my blog post at
    From my readings about the animal world, I see a consistent pattern matching the gang-rape behavior across a variety of higher vertebrate species. I’m not saying the behavior is to be condoned just because it may be ‘natural’. But how does one get from ‘uncontrolled beast-like behavior’ to civilized behavior in a rational society?
    I like your idea of severe and immediate consequences. Today’s Indian news report of life imprisonment awarded within a relatively short period after the crime in a Bangalore University case is encouraging.
    I hope that the Indian justice system continues to handle these cases on high priority and with give harsh punishments. It will hopefully give pause to any considering opportunistic rape in the future.

    • I agree that media attention has increased in recent times, which hopefully means a less tolerant attitude towards crimes against women. Usually in our culture, everything from domestic violence to dowry deaths to female infanticide would be treated with unusual (and unnecessary) tolerance.

      I also agree that rape may well be common among animals. But then, so is murder – think warring gorilla clans or lions defending their territory. In the animal world, there may be some element of necessity/ survival instinct, but mostly, rape and murder have always been about the strong asserting their power and dominance over the weak or vulnerable. Even murder can sometimes be in self-defense, but I have never heard of a rape being in self-defense.

      To my mind, harsh and immediate punishment is the only way to handle these crimes. Shaming the rapist publicly helps too, especially in changing the public attitude from apathy / tolerance.

  3. I stumbled upon some good writing on this blog, so I felt like responding. I think your post on Indian male matrimonial photos deserves a prize. It is funny (and depressing), as it mercilessly exposes the typical single Indian male’s insecurities and lack of awareness of the female psyche. The typical single Indian female is equally ignorant of the opposite sex, so I am tempted to write someday a rejoinder about female profiles on Indian matrimonial sites that are amusing! I happen to be male and single.

    Now to your post…

    The Indian criminal justice system is not known for its alacrity, so most criminals go unpunished whether it is rape, murder or theft. India has one of the lowest rates of conviction/incarceration in the world. Still by world standards, India’s murder and rape rates are rather low. The United States has a high rate of conviction for violent crime and yet crime remains rather high. What is bringing crime slightly down in the US over the past decade is demographic change (abortion and birth control access for low-income women who would have given birth to criminals), not better policing.

    If the causes of rape are not addressed, deterrence won’t help, you will continue to have rapes and convictions. I think rape is not a crime of opportunity, a more serious version of stealing copier paper from the workplace.

    Most societies solve severe problems by neglect and replacing them with others as time passes. However, knowing the cause can sometimes help. Allow me to point to two somewhat subtle triggers which are relevant. The clues are in the historical timing and “class” of the people involved.

    Everyone knows this, but it is worth admitting that the background to the crimes is the ever-present patriarchal attitude of South Asian society (shared by men and women). However, it is not enough to explain the problem. Women are seen as a male charge to be transferred from the father to the husband and then to the eldest son. If one assesses it fairly and carefully, this is tyrannical and constricting to both women and men born into it. To view it as a female problem will ensure that we never solve it. Few can throw off the giant wheels of history that barrel down the tracks of time to shape much of their identities; the Indian male or female in their gender roles are no exception.

    Now, for the recent spate of rape cases reported in the media, there is a clear trend that very few have noted. All of these rapes have been by “low class” men against “upper class” women (be they Indians or foreigners). People used to rape within their class or lower. The rage of the “low class” against the haves in India is largely impotent even though class humiliation is a daily occurrence. The patriarchal attitude makes any humiliation coming from the “upper class” women doubly insulting. Getting to the women “owned” by the “upper class” men is partly class payback.

    Why are you seeing these rapes now? Why not in 1985? Indian media (also cinema), probably the worst amongst non-state-owned ones, has been projecting the emancipated “Indian woman” as this sexy siren who is easy. The media also projects a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and luxury that emphasizes the class divide like never before, creating many more “losers” who know better than their previous generations, that they are indeed “losers”.

    If rapes were merely due to patriarchal attitudes you should also see middle class office-going men raping women. You don’t because they have something to lose that they look forward to. Also, they think they have a stake in the “ownership” of women. In the poor in India you have a section of society that is slowly realizing it has nothing to lose in a game heavily stacked up against them.

    In fact there is also a marked increase in other violent crime in India, rising inequality will push it up further and so will the low female/male ratio that reduces access to “ownable” women. Most of these high profile cases have been solved and the culprits have been/will be punished severely. Despite that, the despondency that potential rapists feel in their lives will win over any deterrence effects from better conviction rates. Raping a woman, especially across the class divide, comes from a deep inferiority complex and loathing, not a notion of male superiority. Hope (even illusory) is the best antidote to crime.

    On a related note, many Indian women have stopped feeling like the property of anyone, but their self-ownership remains to be widely recognized or understood. “Ownership” by someone in the past used to be a protective force (everyone had women they “owned” and so helped keep everyone “pure”) and that is now disappearing. Incidentally, men are also not free agents in Indian society, their identities are also circumscribed with ownership by others in their families. Nobody is self-owned in India, unless they set out to do so. Indian families are unraveling in their stranglehold over the self due to a variety of forces, but the individual is yet to gain identity in this melee. Hence, the random arbiters of Indian culture who step in to police and thereby “own” “wayward” young men and women who are dating and kissing in public.

    It is my claim that patriarchy and gender discrimination are just backgrounds to the proximate causes here, rising inequality and despondency in the face of sky-high expectations, class tension and a
    media bent on cheap titillation.

    Sorry for being so long winded. My apologies. I should have written up a better argued longer essay on this to publish somewhere, rather than crowd your comment section. Regardless, I thank your post for getting me thinking and giving a new name for India, “The ownership society”.

    • First off, don’t apologize. I love long comments on my blog, the longer the better. As I was reading your comment, I really wanted to ask you if you had a blog – if you could write this well in a mere comment, your blog posts must be even more interesting.

      Coming to the comment itself, I’d like to say two things – one, yes, reported rate of rape may be lower, but we know that most rapes go unreported. So who knows what the real rate is? Two, while the reported/ high-profile rapes may be those of supposedly upper-class women (though I’m not sure the Delhi victim can be described as upper class), this could very well be because the rapes of poor women would largely go unreported. It does not help, either, that a lot of rapes are perpetrated by people known to the victim. Poor women would be at even more of a disadvantage here.

      But with those caveats, I agree with you on the patriarchal attitude being a contributing factor, on the role of movies, rising unemployment etc. Also don’t forget the increasing decline in the sex ratio. That means more and more poor, unemployed men cannot hope to find wives, and at some level that may matter too.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and do keep visiting.

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