4 Nirbhaya Rapists Hanged to Death Today. It Won’t Change Anything.
At 5:40 a.m. on March 20, four men convicted in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case were hanged to death in Tihar Jail. Outside, in the early hours of Friday morning, hundreds of people gathered in celebration, waving the Indian flag, chanting “Long live Nirbhaya!” and distributing sweets, The Week reported. And thus ended an almost seven-year-long ordeal that rocked the foundation of Indian society and prompted the Indian criminal justice system to rethink how it deals with sexual violence.
Today, Indians everywhere are celebrating the deliverance of justice — except it’s not justice, not to the 23-year-old woman who came to be called Nirbhaya and not to any other sexual assault victims or survivors in the country. It’s revenge, masquerading as justice, wielded by the country’s institutions as a political tool to appease anti-rape bloodlust and get away with not addressing the underlying monster that is rape culture.
Rape culture shows us that 90% of rapists are known to their victims, but rape cases that become high-profile in the media and incite bloodlust among the public rarely betray this pattern. We get enraged over the exceptions, in which almost always a lower-class man bears the full, unadulterated wrath of the criminal justice system in the form of the death penalty. This while thousands of others from more privileged backgrounds pay their way out of being answerable to the law. As Amnesty International states, the death penalty “is often used against the most vulnerable in society, including the poor, ethnic and religious minorities, and people with mental disabilities.”
This is not to advocate for a more standardized implementation of the death penalty, but to shed light upon the hypocrisy of the practice itself. Because if the death penalty were really about tackling the country’s absurdly high rate of sexual violence and serve as a deterrent for violent crimes against women, then the numbers would have reflected it. Instead, data shows crimes against women have increased from 2017 to 2018 (the latest crime data available in India), with more than 33,000 rape cases registered with the police in 2018, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Moreover, experts suggest the imposition of the death penalty may have simply changed the nature of crimes committed against women, not decreased their number; rapists are increasingly killing their victims, in addition to raping them, the rationale being, “if committing the crime of rape can lead to capital punishment when murder doesn’t, then rapists will be encouraged to kill their victims, so as to destroy the evidence of the crime with the harsher penalty,” The Swaddle’s Pallavi Prasad writes.
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And so, we’re left not only with an increasing number of cases of sexual violence against women, but we’re also stuck with a system that can neither prevent it — nor provide justice. Between 2017 and 2018, the NCRB report states only 27.2% of rape cases in India led to a conviction; in the rest, the rapist either got away scot-free or the case is still ricocheting in the judiciary from hearing to hearing, increasing the mental health toll on the survivor and/or the victim’s family. Enter the death penalty, to take away focus from the irresponsible ineptitude of the justice system — as long as a high-profile case like Nirbhaya’s culminates in a well-publicized hanging, the rest of the thousands of cases can still trudge along without accountability, or the thing we care most about: justice.
Time and again, criminologists have proven the death penalty does not work in deterring crime. Instead, “it violates the most fundamental human right – the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” Amnesty International states. Especially with a faulty justice system like ours, no criminal deserves to be served a verdict steeped in such permanence, and no judicial body is worthy of delivering that verdict — the Supreme Court has itself admitted in the past to wrongly sentencing 15 people to death in 15 years. There’s no undoing this severe degree of punishment.
The 2012 Delhi gang rape case made our criminal justice system more punitive than it was before. The Nirbhaya case incited rape law reform that included the death penalty for repeat rape offenders — and it is at the culmination of the legal case, seven years later, that we need to realize this was a missed opportunity to tackle underlying social, economic, and cultural reasons why India’s women are not safe. Today, we need to use the nation’s increasingly frequent “shocked conscience” to talk about the real reason India has a rape problem — rape culture, not rapists.