A large proportion of people reading this column will likely hold the view that Mukesh Kumar Singh, Pawan Kumar Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Kumar Singh must certainly be hanged to death for their role in the 2012 Delhi gangrape case. They might feel that if ever there was a case that called for the death penalty, this was it. It must fill them with a sense of revulsion, disgust and anger whenever they hear these four names or see their photographs flashed across newspapers and television screens. I am also quite certain that they experience a genuine and deep sense of anguish when they see Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh suffering in the pursuit of justice for their daughter’s violent death.
Located within a crumbling criminal justice system, hangings and swift illegal executions, like the one in the 2019 Hyderabad rape-murder case, provide a sense of relief and confidence. I suppose it gives us a false sense of collective control that we can respond to the rampant sexual violence in our midst. We are desperate to find ways to hide our collective guilt of living in a society where sexual violence is entrenched in myriad ways. We know deep within ourselves that executing Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay and Akshay is not going to reduce sexual violence in our society. We also know that the factors that routinely produce sexual violence lie in our homes, our workplaces, our personal and social relationships, the entertainment we consume etc. Yet, we convince ourselves that locking away or killing all perpetrators of sexual violence is what will protect us.
The shrill public demand to hang Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay and Akshay is about collective revenge. The crimes of that night hold a mirror to our own social failures, failures that are too intimidating to acknowledge. Our response, then, is to demonise the four convicts, to make them seem so evil that they could not possibly be one of us. In stating that death by hanging (or some other worse punishment) is what they ‘deserve’, we seek to absolve ourselves. None of us can fathom the sorrow or the desperate desire for justice Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh have experienced over the past seven years. However, we are being manipulative as a society when we seek to execute Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay and Akshay. In doing so, we hide behind the parents’ unimaginable grief. Neither the state nor we as a society can seek to cover our failures by appropriating their grief and making it seem like we are advocating their cause. Crime in society is not a purely individual phenomenon that ‘evil’ people indulge in; crime is produced when individual factors interact with various social, cultural, economic and political realities. In this reality, both victims of crime and perpetrators represent State and social failure. By appearing to be in the victim’s corner and demanding the harshest punishment possible, the State is taking the easy way out to avoid responsibility.
If we care to look, there exists an excellent body of feminist research that tells us that it is not severity but certainty of punishment that will reduce sexual violence. What we need is better policing, public safety, modern and scientific investigations, meaningful victim assistance and protection and a host of other measures. That requires political will, commitment of resources and a revamp of policy imagination. It requires us to abandon finding comfort in bloodlust. It is perhaps time for a frank social conversation where we acknowledge that our reaction to incidents like the Delhi gangrape is driven by collective revenge. Using the death penalty in response to sexual violence is politically convenient and a perfect distraction from all the difficult work that needs to be done. When we find ourselves being complicit in routine sexual violence, we must perhaps begin the process of social transformation by acknowledging that we currently seem to be capable of only revenge and very little else.
(Anup Surendranath is Executive Director, Project 39A, at National Law University, Delhi)