It's taken 36 SOS signals in 15 months, a letter written to the Chief Justice of India, multiple threats by political goons and a botched attempt to kill a rape victim while travelling to finally bring the Unnao rape case back to the media and political forefront. The Kathua rape and the Surat rape cases have just gotten buried under the rising pile of rape cases in India. Only 1 in 4 rape cases ends up in conviction. While the Supreme Court has approved central protection and a Rs. 25 lakh compensation to the victim's family and also directed that the CBI's probe into the case be completed within 45 days, it again brings up the argument, what is the ideal punishment for someone who commits such a heinous crime?
The first answer to that question will always invariably be the death penalty. It's a discussion that I've had numerous times with my friends and colleagues and it surely brings up arguments and opinions that strongly favour the move. "You just can't expect these guys to change their ways. They're so horribly intertwined in their minds that they are a threat to the society we live in. And if there's a threat, it only makes sense that we remove it completely." says Yash*, a 20-year-old student studying in Mumbai. "Rape is a crime that both the victim and the family have to live with forever. If one is robbed of the right to live through no fault of their own, then why is the perpetrator being given a chance to mend his ways?" was one of the arguments made by a colleague at my last workplace.
It's difficult to argue against the opinion, to be honest. Take the Unnao case for example. The victim suffered through death threats, police negligence and political intimidations, all this even after the accused was arrested and sent to jail. Even from the confines of imprisonment, attempts were made to kill the victim during the investigative process. This begs the question, does imprisonment actually serve the purpose? With the Indian constitution allowing the death penalty in the "rarest of rare" cases and amending the Prevention Of Child Sex Offences (POCSO) Act that will see the death penalty handed out to anyone convicted of raping a child under 12, it is hoped that such legislation will act as a deterrent for rape incidents. However, even the latter law has people who disagree with it. The fact is that since in 98% of the cases, the rapist is usually known to the child, sanctioning capital punishment for the rapist places a terrible responsibility on a child. The knowledge that reporting the crime and taking legal action will actually result in the death of the person you know.
For all the proponents of capital punishment for rape, there's a strong set of voices against it as well. "What's the point of the entire legal and corrective system if we just go about passing death sentences? And even in cases where capital punishment has been sanctioned, the system is too crippled to actually execute it" according to Nihaar*, a student studying law in GNLU. The narrative does have substance though. There are currently 371 prisoners on death row in India. However, only four death-row prisoners were executed in the last 13 years. Another point of view that came around during research was one that had its roots in Buddhism. You just can't take someone's life, it is barbaric to do so and is essentially a lynching by proxy. It questions the systems in place as well. If we want to just resort to the concept of an Eye for an Eye, then doesn't that negate the entire human rights movement? Human rights bodies and the United Nations for years have argued that the death sentence is inhumane and cruel and should be abolished, and it's very difficult to not see merit in that argument.
Globally, there are several left-field choices that have been suggested as punishment for rape. Germaine Greer, feminist writer and scholar even suggested that sentencing might include 200 hours of community service, or a large tattoo of the letter R (for rapist) on the offender's hand, arm or cheek. In India, the alternative is restricted to therapy and correction initiatives. If you can actually convert a rapist into a law-abiding and a model citizen, he can have a positive domino effect on the society. Instead of just banishing the rapist to solitary confinement, if counselled properly he can serve as a change-maker in the society and help in driving the conversation against rape. Justice N Kirubakaran of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court suggested castration as an additional punishment for child abusers, especially child rapists. "barbaric crimes should definitely attract a barbaric model of punishment." He said.
While there is no right answer when it comes to deciding the ideal punishment for people who rape, there can be several things that can be done better to implement the laws actually in place. 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.
While the debate on the topic is never-ending and it is very difficult to come to a unanimous conclusion, it is enriching to see that irrespective of the degree of punishment, the inherent thought is the same, that rape is a crime too heinous and everything should be done to make it a thing of the past in our society.
*Names changed on request