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6 Reasons The Death Penalty Has No Place In India

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Hang the rapist.”

These words rightfully captured the strong, visceral reaction from the public to the news of the gang-rape of a 23-year old medical student on the night of December 16, 2012. The reaction came soon after former Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde publicly favoured the death penalty in “rarest of the rare cases”. In that atmosphere, we saw laws being amended to prescribe death in cases where a rape victim died or was left in a vegetative state.

Even today, certain demonstrations marking Dec 16 put effigies in nooses. So when in February 2017, union minister Uma Bharti openly endorsed capital punishment for rapists, it didn’t come as a shock to anyone.

During a rally in Agra last month, she said: “The rapists should be hung upside down and beaten till their skin comes off…salt and chilly should be rubbed on their wounds. That is what I had got done when I was [Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh].

Many applauded Bharti for doing what a sluggish criminal justice system couldn’t. But there were many more who termed her actions as unconscionable, amounting to illegal torture.

Bharti’s comments are in no way unprecedented. India has a long and complex history with capital punishment. Since 1995, there have been four very high-profile executions. The first was a serial killer known as ‘Auto Shankar’. After him, it was Ajmal Kasab (2012), Afzal Guru (2013), and finally Yakub Memon (2015). Excepting Shankar, these were all in connection to acts the State identified as terrorism. Including Shankar, they were all also spurred on by public anger and debate.

Looking at these four alone, one might presume executions are the “rarest of the rare” punishment. But according to Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), “awarding death penalty has become routine for courts in India.”

An ACHR report by found that 1,455 death sentences had been doled out between 2001 and 2011. And in 2015, there were 320 people on death row.

But even if approval for retributive justice (over reformative justice) is widespread, even if leaders like Uma Bharti proudly endorse it, there are some very solid reasons for not endorsing capital punishment:

1: It Didn’t Work For Bharti…

Despite her impassioned proclamations, the punishments Uma Bharti admits to carrying out did not stop rape from happening. In fact, the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of rapes in during her tenure in 2003-04. It was also the same year that the state reached a record high of 6,848 molestation cases. MP, in fact, had the second highest number of crimes against women that year, with 14,547 cases registered.

2: …Because It Doesn’t Work, Period

In a 2009 study by the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 88% of criminologists surveyed in the USA said they didn’t believe that capital punishment deterred crime.

Further, the ACHR report shows that the death penalty is usually commuted to life-imprisonment. The reason? Sending someone to the gallows isn’t exactly as easy as one-two-three. This long-drawn procedure requires stronger evidence than others. As a result, perpetrators are more likely to destroy evidence.

3: Deterring Justice Rather Than Crime

A comprehensive statement by civil society members released in 2012 showed that (because of the above reason) convictions would be extremely difficult to obtain. The conviction rate for rape crimes sank from 49.25 per cent in 2012 to 29.3 per cent in 2015, and the death penalty is likely to bring it even lower, instead of checking sexual violence against women.

4: Even Judges Have Spoken Up

A few months prior to the 2012 gang-rape, 14 retired judges wrote to former President Pranab Mukherjee about the shocking “miscarriage of justice” under the death penalty laws. They cited sentences of nine persons whose crimes were not against the State, and therefore did not match the criteria for execution.

In fact, the Supreme Court had admitted on three occasions that these sentences were given ‘per incuriam’, or in ignorance of certain considerations, provisions and judgements.

Even in cases where the innocent are wrongly convicted, commuting their sentence becomes increasingly difficult in our byzantine criminal justice system. There is an urgent need for reform, and in 2015, for these and other reasons, the Law Commission of India released a 251 page report on why India should “move towards abolition of the death penalty.

5: It Is Circumvented By Privilege

There is a clear bias at work. Two years ago, researchers at National Law University Delhi compiled a socio-economic profile of prisoners on death row. It found that more than 80% had not completed school, nearly half had been working since before they were 18, and there were a disproportionate number of Dalits, Adivasis, and religious minorities on death row, strongly suggesting that those in positions of power will continue enjoying impunity in cases of violent sexual crimes.

6: Torture Is Not Justice

Today, India is one of only a handful of countries where the death penalty has not been abolished. Our company includes Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and the USA.

But the global community does not condone the measures espoused by Uma Bharti and her ilk. Way back in 1984, the United Nations passed the International Convention against Torture, to which India is a signatory. And even though we never joined 161 other countries in ratifying the convention, no one is justified in torturing another human being.

Bharti qualified her comments on torture by saying that rapists were not humans but “demons”, and undeserving of human rights. Perhaps there’s no use exposing the glaring problems behind that logic. Perhaps we should ask – what does it make us when we respond to one human rights violation with another?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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