ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Revenge and Retribution

Hysterical demands for summary justice presage demands for a strong ruler.

Jubilation and cries for brutal and summary justice – we heard them on the streets of New Delhi and elsewhere after the fast-track court trying the four accused of the 16 December 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman announced the death sentence. The judge said that “the collective conscience” of the nation had been shocked by the crime and that the court needed to “send a strong deterrent message”. He justified his “death for all” ruling by terming this as one of the “rarest of rare” cases. It was on the charge of murder that the death sentence was pronounced, as rape under the previous law invited a maximum of only seven years in prison. But the crowds on the streets did not care under which law the case was tried; they wanted blood for blood, death for death. Nothing else would assuage their anger, or so it appeared. Short of demanding public hangings, the noose has become the dominant symbol held up at all public demonstrations demanding “justice”. Yet now that the courtroom drama has ended, we have to ask what difference this judgment will make to the very real questions surrounding women’s safety, the violence they experience on the streets and in their homes and the functioning of the dismal criminal justice system.

While pronouncing his judgment, Justice Yogesh Khanna, who presided over the special court, held that a strong judgment would “instill confidence among women”. But will it? Can one case, and that too an exceptional one, make any difference to women who are as fearful of what will befall them in the public space as they are of turning to the justice system for redressal? Justice Khanna’s own record illustrates well the problems embedded in the system. Of the 32 rape trials that came before him between 2011 and September 2013 (before the 16 December gang rape trial judgment), he acquitted the accused in all cases. This was inevitable, given the shoddy process of investigation and gathering of evidence, and the failure of the police to protect witnesses and the victims from intimidation. In the 16 December case, a combination of public and political pressure ensured that the police could not cut corners. We must recognise that this is an exception and very far from the norm.

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