Eight years ago, six men committed a crime that “shocked the conscience of the nation”. On a December night in Delhi in 2012, they assaulted a 23-year-old woman and her male companion in a brutal gangrape; the victim died of her injuries in a hospital after a few days. The “Nirbhaya” case, as it came to be known, was a line in the sand for Indian society’s thorny problem with rape and sexual violence. Four of Nirbhaya’s six killers were sentenced to death (one died while being held in custody, the other was a minor), a verdict that is yet to be carried out.
The efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent for violent crimes, like rape, is dubious. The outrage over the Nirbhaya case led to laws concerning sexual violence being changed, with harsher punishments for rapists. However, that has not yielded a perceptible decrease in the number of rape cases being reported. Some studies have even found that after the laws were made more stringent, the number of rapes leading to murders increased, as perpetrators did not wish to leave a victim alive to testify in court. But regardless of what data might tell us, the nation has been awaiting the carrying out of the death sentence of Nirbhaya’s rapists for years, hoping for justice and closure.
The execution of the four convicts was set to be carried out on 3 March, 2020. However, the date was deferred yet again – a result of the convicts’ lawyer filing staggered curative pleas before the courts and mercy petitions before the President in order to push the possibility of the execution as far as possible. The sense of frustration that greeted the news of the execution’s postponement is a bellwether for how large this case looms in India’s consciousness. There is a collective desire to see this chapter closed, as if hanging Nirbhaya’s killers will signal the end of rape cases in India.
However, if that were the case, then we wouldn’t be seeing frightening headlines about the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Assam by a group of seven minors over the weekend. This depressing news is the second such story with a minor victim to come out of Assam in recent weeks, and things around the rest of the country are hardly any better.
Last year ended on a sickening note too, as a brutal rape-murder in Hyderabad gave the country unwanted flashbacks to 2012. Elsewhere, in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao, one rape survivor struggled to get justice against her MLA rapist, even as her father was beaten to death for trying to lodge a complaint, and a truck tried to run her and her lawyer off the highway while they were on their way to court. In the same town, another victim was threatened by her rapist, who was not in police custody. Her rapist eventually attacked her and set her on fire, killing her in the process. These are just stories that have made it to the news in recent months; it’s chilling to think how many cases like this transpire and never come to light.
Hanging rapists is not a cure-all for India’s rape problem. The death penalty concerns itself with punishment, but at this juncture, prevention is even more important. That will only be achieved by confronting India’s ingrained misogyny, starting at home. By honouring the spirit of the changes made since 2012. By creating the social and legal framework where victims can be assured of support and justice, while rapists can no longer act with impunity.
Though the execution of Nirbhaya’s killers’ has been postponed, it should not be a cause for despair. That’s because hanging these men will not be the ultimate victory in the fight against rape. The road to recovery for this broken part of our society is a long one, and will continue long after this sentence is carried out – whenever that happens.
This article was originally published on Arre
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