Was December 16 Really The ‘Rarest Of The Rare’?

Posted by Sreepadmanabh M in Society, Staff Picks
May 9, 2017

What the reactions to the verdict of the December 16 gang-rape actually show, is that as a society, we have failed yet again. We have demonstrated our shallow consciousness, our goldfish-like memories, our transitory outrage and our lack of conviction and dedication to a cause.

There is no denying the fact that from the very outset, it had been a media-designed trial. Long before the actual evidence was even collected or the accused nabbed, we, the people, had already passed the verdict: Guilty, pure and simple.

And why not? Rape, after all, is a heinous crime, all the more aggravated due to the gruesome and extremely disturbing nature of this particular case. And hence, deserving the harshest punishments.

And now, I want you to answer this: Was this incident the first and most gruesome of its kind to occur in this country? And was it the last of its kind?

The answers to both are a plain and firm ‘no’. Crimes which are similar, or even greater in magnitude, are regularly perpetrated at an alarming frequency across the length and breadth of this country. You read them every day, tucked into the obscure corners of your morning paper and then you move on with a resigned sigh.

Did your blood not boil then? Did you not feel the urge to walk out onto the street and demand capital punishment for the perpetrators? Or maybe you assumed that the victims in these cases had somehow suffered a less gruesome and traumatising experience than the girl whose tragic story was incessantly flashed across your TV screen?

Let me reiterate something before we proceed: In no respect do I condone what the perpetrators in the December 16 case did. They had committed a truly heinous crime and deserved a strict punishment.

Candlelight march to mark the second anniversary of the fatal gang-rape of Jyoti Singh. (Image Credit: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Here, though, is my contention. To paraphrase Orwell, why should some crimes be more criminal than others?

The primary reason why Jyoti Singh’s case elicited such a widespread call for change and an unprecedented wave of sympathy and outrage was not so much because of the crime itself but because of the media coverage it received.

If we indeed were a society with a heightened sense of justice and fraternity, an incident like this would have never occurred in the first place. Nor would widespread broadcasting on prime-time media be required to stir people’s outrage.

It was more like a prick to our collective conscience: All of a sudden, we realised one morning that the country was plagued by rape culture and we found in this incident an outlet to express it, to showcase our outrage and sympathy for the victim.

And at the end of almost 5 years now, here is a simple question: What concrete changes have we brought about? A few pro-women laws to show our lawmakers in a progressive light, and a ‘martyr’ of sorts to stand as a symbol for all victims and survivors.

Has the ground situation changed? No. India continues to be singularly unsafe in this regard. Have crime rates dropped? Incidents of rape have hardly been toned down. We have become so desensitised by the regularity of such incidents that we simply resort to taking precautions rather than proactive actions.

Then on what grounds are we celebrating the capital punishment meted out to the perpetrators now?

Countless people claim to have been deeply affected by the December 16 case. And why not? Touching interviews with the victim’s friend were broadcast on a loop to build up a wave of public support and sympathy. Incessant coverage and reiterations of how heinous the crime was served to build up the perfect atmosphere to garner the public’s sympathy.

Did a significant portion of India’s educated middle and upper classes found out that rape existed only after the December 16 incident had occurred? Did they realise that rape is a scarring, traumatic and life-destroying event after watching the interviews? Or did they simply begin to care just then? Was that the first time the report of a gruesome rape had been carried in a newspaper and aired on TV?

Or maybe this particular incident was the one which deserved attention. After all, wasn’t Jyoti Singh the prototype of the average modern Indian woman? Young, middle-class and living a happy life? For us, this was the only real prototype of a woman who was vulnerable to attacks by misogynistic, illiterate men who were out to prey on them. That’s what we, fed on our diet of curated English news and soothed by our urban sense of entitlement, thought.

Punishment for Jyoti Singh’s tormentors became like an ideal revenge for the entire nation. And the media happily cashed in on this by fanning the flames of public outrage.

We failed to realise one fundamentally important fact: Jyoti Singh was one among millions. We forgot that as we made this out to be a standalone incident to showcase our anger. When the victim is a woman from a village, then how many of us raise our eyebrows? Why aren’t such incidents able to make 8 pm prime time news?

Our selective perceptions and our failure to visualise society as an integrated whole, choosing instead to focus only on a narrow section of the population, is the main cause for this appalling failure. This is something that continues to haunt us.

Was the verdict in Jyoti Singh’s case driven solely by a judicial rationale or by mob-mentality and public pressure to put on a decisive show of authority?

People have been saying that we must take solace in the fact that at least this verdict is a change for the better. I vehemently disagree. This is little short of a farce.

Did the Supreme Court want to make an example out of Jyoti Singh’s tormentors? If so, is this not injustice for the rape victims and survivors whose perpetrators underwent trial in the intervening period? Jyoti Singh is not the first rape victim to die as a result of the incident. Where have the other guilty men gone?

My protest is less against capital punishment, more so against our celebration of it. I find it to be misguided and vindictive. Facebook walls are filled with rants of how Jyoti Singh’s killers deserved this, how they are nothing short of ‘demons’ and so forth. Why is this rage dormant in every other case? Because they were not sensational enough to prick our conscience?

Emotions cannot be the yardstick of justice in a constitutional democracy like ours, and it’s high time we realised as much.

We have proved yet again, that a dramatic effect is all we are interested in. Symbolism is the highest faith. Sensationalism is the opium of the masses, alongside religion, of course.

We call ourselves the world’s largest democracy. However, in this country, it’s passion and mob-mentality that passes the verdict on issues of every imaginable magnitude, often with little consideration for evidence or facts.

And it’s this very trend that we must seek to nip out. This is a democracy, not mob rule. Kangaroo courts do not deliver justice.

Our aim must not be to temporarily feel vindicated or to satiate our need for revenge in isolated instances. Sweeping, far-reaching changes are what we must aim at. And such cloistered mentalities as we are currently showcasing are hardly conducive to that.

If the death penalty is the appropriate punishment, then it must be uniform. If it is life imprisonment, as it is usually, then even in this case, it must be so.

The attempt to create a distinction between the ‘more heinous’ and the ‘less heinous’ must, by no means be unduly influenced by the baying-for-blood behaviour of the public. There is nothing more fickle than a mob of passionate individuals. Striving to keep our judgments unclouded by their bias is without a doubt, of utmost importance.

On a concluding note, it would probably suffice for me to finally reiterate the point that this particular verdict and the reactions that have followed since, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Sadly, there has been little consideration for trying to create pragmatic and concrete social changes since the incident. We should also bear in mind the blinding power of public rhetoric that so often clouds our perceptions of reality and blatantly misguides our judgments.

Image Credit: Hindustan Times via Getty Images