One of the most gruesome, horrific instances of gang-rape which took place in December 2012 continues to remain fresh in everyone’s minds to this day.
The nation woke up to the chilling news that a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern, who was returning home with a male friend after watching a movie, was brutally gang-raped and assaulted by six men on a moving bus in Delhi.
The men on the bus beat both of them up with an iron rod and dragged the victim to the back of the bus, where each of them took turns raping her. One of them, a juvenile, used the same iron rod and damaged her internal organs severely.
One of the men later confessed to have seen a “rope-like” substance being pulled out of the victim, which turned out to be her intestines.
The two of them were then thrown out of the bus, naked, on to the side of the road. When the victim was admitted to the Safdarjung Hospital, the entire nation waited with bated breath and prayed for her recovery.
However, the victim, who suffered serious injuries to her abdomen, intestines, and genitals, passed away a fortnight later in Singapore.
The death of the victim, who is referred to as ‘Nirbhaya’ (‘Fearless’), sparked outrage amongst people, who were shaken by the sheer brutality of the incident.
Protests erupted across the country, with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand justice for Nirbhaya. What was staggering was the amount of women protesters who came out and spoke up against gender inequality, which was never before seen in the history of India.
Political leaders demanded that ‘severe punishment’ be handed out to the culprits, with some of them seeking a death sentence for those responsible.
Four of the convicts were given death sentence a year later. The juvenile, who was just a few months short of turning 18 when the incident took place, was sentenced to three years reformation at a community home.
However, the prevailing situation, with the convicts yet to be hanged five years later, has pointed out the flaws in our judicial system, with the convicts using loopholes in the legal procedure to postpone their deaths.
Another major flaw that needs attention here is the lack of severe punishment for the juvenile, who got away with just a three-year term since he was a minor.
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Regardless, Nirbhaya’s death did bring about a series of measures intended to reduce crimes against women and quicker delivery of justice. This included the setting up of numerous fast track courts to hear rape cases.
The ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ was set up by the government to be used for implementing measures to ensure women’s safety. The funds would go for the setting up of a helpline and a one-step centre for women’s grievances, among other steps.
However, there is a catch in this too. Corruption.
According to a report submitted at the Parliament by Women and Child Development minister Smriti Irani in November 2019, out of the 2,050 crore allotted by their ministry for women safety schemes, barely 20 per cent was utilised by states.
Furthermore, as part of the measures, amendments were also made to the Criminal Law Act, which also came to be known as the ‘Nirbhaya Act’.
However, if the data given by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2017 are any indication, the measures taken after Nirbhaya’s death have not been effective enough to reduce crimes against women.
In fact, crimes against women have increased over the years.
What should be done to bring down the crime rate?
Next comes the question of whether a death sentence is enough to instil fear in people and ensure that there is a decline in crime.
Activist and lawyer Sudha Ramalingam says, “Death sentences will never be a remedy for crimes since there are no proven statistics that death sentences have brought down the rate of crime.”
“Besides, more than one person is responsible when it comes to crimes like these. The environment the convict grows up in, the kind of people he’s around – these social factors influence a person’s thoughts too,” she said.
The activist’s opinion resonates with the questions that were raised on gender inequality and where women stood in Indian society, after the incident with Nirbhaya.
The proceedings on that fateful night had occurred because of an escalation in an argument between the duo and the men on the bus. The latter claimed they had resorted to what they did in order to “teach the two of them a lesson”.
On the other hand, advocate Jaishankar from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala believes that death by hanging, rather than any painless method of execution, may instil fear in people. “When we kill a criminal instantly using other methods like lethal injections, the convict dies without any pain.”
“People need to hesitate to commit a crime. They have to fear painful, slow deaths,” he said.
While there is an ongoing debate on one side questioning the righteousness of a death sentence, there is another side claiming that the death sentence for these four convicts in itself has been highly politicised.
The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) accused the Delhi government and the Centre of being engaged in “objectionable politics” over the execution of these four convicts.
Timeline of Nirbhaya case
Timeline of Nirbhaya case
“Historically, hangings have served political goals of ruling regimes in sensitive times, and the executions of Ajmal Kasab, Afzal Guru, and Yakub Memon illustrate this need especially since they happened after a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty,” the statement claimed.
It also said that any order for execution should have been kept for later, after the Delhi polls, which might’ve prevented the politicisation of the issue. “With the impending Delhi Elections and the political environment described above, which the Courts are surely not oblivious of, it is only proper that, if not commutation, any order for execution should have been kept in abeyance till at least the end of polling.”
Activist Sudha Ramalingam took up another angle of politicisation and said, “If you notice, it’s only the poor and the downtrodden who are subjected to such severe punishments. How can we say that our criminal procedure is completely fair? Our justice system isn’t foolproof.”
Coming back to the four convicts, will their execution deter future criminals? Will it make people take sexual assault more seriously? Will it change the way people in society react towards rape and prevent victim-blaming? Will it restore people’s faith in the justice system and help more people speak up against sexual assault?