By Dhruv Arora:
“Vengeance is a monster of appetite, forever bloodthirsty and never filled”Â -Richelle E. Goodrich
The day was December 16th, the year 2012. I don’t recall what I was doing on that day, but I remember that the rest of the month lasted as an entire year. Nothing new happened, for the occurrences of the day had been seen countless times before, and would be seen repeated with increasing aggression as time would pass. A girl was raped, brutalized, and murdered by a gang of five, and it was all going to happen again. I knew I was heading outside to protest even before I finished reading the whole news. It hurt, it always did, but it seemed to me that there was certain imperviousness to the society, one that prevented the scars of such atrocities from digging too deep in our hearts. I did not know, however, that it was going to be very different this time.
We all know what happened next, with people pouring out on the streets without a care in the world for personal safety, to voice their outrage. India Gate was a sight of something no less than spectacular, and the entire situation had a certain revolutionary nostalgia to it all. People were not happy; it had hit where it would hurt. Even though rapes weren’t new, this had hit too close to home and it was clear people were not going to stand for it. The next few days saw one of the largest protests the nations had ever seen, and some with malicious intent tried their best to take over the crowds with sheer hatred and violence. They did not succeed, as people would soon reclaim their voice as they fearlessly led this call for change.
Change, that’s how it began. I wish I could tell you that everything changed that day, but that would be a lie. Everything changed for a few people, and for those few there was no going back, but a majority of the crowd settled. It got better, because never before had the issues surrounding basic safety and security been highlighted this way. The general consensus was an outcry for justice and change in mentality, the violent aspects of the protests (and the few external entities that tried to inject us with it) did not endure. Change would not come in the form of brand new laws, but instead, it came in the form of a fresh determination to follow up on the aftermath of the heinous incident. Eventually, the crowd thinned, but by the end there were still more people protesting for their right to public spaces and basic security than there had ever been before. There was a massive call for swift justice, which was given fresh direction with an overwhelmingly positive set of recommendations by an obviously progressive committee of officials, led by the late Justice J.S. Verma. Things were, as difficult as it is to say, looking up.
The next few months saw an even more thinning of the crowds, till the protests completely died down and the anticipation for a conviction took centre stage. The fast-track courts would too, take their time, amidst two massive calls from the people; one for the Death Penalty to be issued to these rapists (and subsequent heinous crimes of rape) and the other to take a better look at our system and fix it where it needs to be fixed the most. The intriguing thing amidst all of this was that both parties were demanding justice, with a highly contrasting definition of the word. It seemed, people weren’t entirely sure of what justice was, but for the first time in their lives they were very sure that they wanted it. Fast forward many months, to 13th September 2013 — the date the conviction was finally going to come. Anticipating protests, all roads around the Court in question were closed, and the sentencing was done in the middle of the day to ensure people wouldn’t be able to come out in large numbers, and the sentence was announced — all four convicted would be sentenced to death.
The pace at which the call for change and justice changed to a note of celebration for blood is deafening, to say the least. There is a palpable note of joy in the public yelling while celebrating the death of monsters, it’s almost ironic. The cry is blood for blood, and death for death. The rationale being, of course, that this particular case was one of the “rarest of rare” cases that warranted capital punishment. But as we celebrate our retribution, I’m left asking myself if retribution is justice. Have we made an impact on the epidemic of increasing rapes in this country, or have we simply quenched our thirsts for revenge? Is justice looking forward to ensure we’ve made an impact on the real problem, or looking back and feeling better about the evils in our past? Have we, in our desire to see some action being taken against the perpetrators, actually made the situation worse?
The debates have been put out, the celebrations have begun. Such a barbaric act of crime warranted punishment of the highest order, and a change of laws to accommodate our anger of the incident. The debate is, that stricter punishments (capital punishments in this case) would act as a much needed deterrent to the criminal intent, and would discourage people from engaging in the unforgivable acts of rape (a-la Saudi Arabia?) and bring down the ridiculously skyrocketing rates of sexual crimes in the country. Are we really helping matters though, if the sentence for rapes is the same as the sentence for murder? Are we discouraging sexual assault, or encouraging a very dark burn-after-brutalizing culture? We call this the rarest of rare, in the plethora of even worse cases that exist in the police books around the world, and more that aren’t even reported?
The problem with this retributive approach to justice is that the problem is completely sidelined in favour of the desire for revenge. The problem is that sexual assaults are not lust-crimes at all, but are much more deeply linked to the roots of our society and have strong ties with the culture of power and domination. Yes, these things take time to change and till then we cannot do anything, but if we lose our heads in favour of personalizing justice to fit our emotionally triggered desire for “real action”, then we are failing as a society. True, it takes time, but till then we need to work on removing our ties to violence and not engrain them into our legal definitions. The least we need to ensure is that while this slow and painful process of change takes its due course, we don’t make things worse. If we let our deep frustration, anger and the helplessness of not being able to make an immediate change in the culture of sexual crimes take control of our better judgment of being able to identify positive change; we’re going to only make matters worse.
We must not let our frustration affect our better judgment and end up employing and promoting the very culture that goes into giving birth to these sexual crimes. If we let our anger and outcry take the form of that of a moral police, claiming that rape is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a woman and her spirit is destroyed after it (as a reason for why they need to be sentenced to the highest provisions in the law), we are only going to promote the very culture we are intending to fight.
Since the time of the hearing, when I first came out with my disapproval of the sentence, I have personally received aggressively motivated borderline threatening messages suggesting I should perhaps undergo the very unfortunate occurrences of 16th December with myself or a loved one to understand the pain that is involved with such a crime, to suggesting that such a spineless stance against criminals is the reason crimes happen and my stance is what allows rapes to happen in the first place. All of these and more and they are coming from a defenders’ perspective, one with good intentions but a method that is only going to make matters worse. Unless we learn to let go of the very bricks and stones that make up our culture into one that belongs to such a deeply violent intent, we cannot hope to make the very change we started off the protests asking for in the first place. Maybe instead of looking back and healing our hurt, justice needs to look forward and make tomorrow a better place instead; and perhaps we need to ask ourselves if rehabilitation of a disturbed and mentally wounded psyche is something that needs to replace our desire for absolute and quick retribution.
In this particular case, perhaps due to the brutal and murderous nature of the crime, the sentencing may have gone this way even if a fair trial was conducted. Perhaps that was a possibility. However, not only was this done hoping it would appeal to the crowds and give them some ill-fated release, I am not sure what is more alarming — the threat that we will see this as a cure, and let this settle us down and eat away from the real problem, or the sheer joy and the tone of celebration that is ringing on social media regarding blood-for-blood. In all of this, I find myself thinking, where do we draw the line, if at all?