The death penalty for rape is ineffectual

Columnist  | Ashley Tellis

Opinion, Columnists

Latika Vashist has argued compellingly for the need for forgiveness in these pages.

Mukesh Singh and the others have had no counselling, no working with facing what they did and Asha Devi only wants them dead.

In the small window between the mercy petition and the seemingly inevitable moment of the hanging of the rapists for which everyone from Arvind Kejriwal to Asha Devi (the victim’s mother) cannot seem to wait, in this nation of bayers for blood, perhaps it is too much to ask ourselves to reflect a little.

Even if you are not convinced by the sheer ineffectuality of the death penalty in stopping structural crimes like rape (despite the overwhelming evidence) or are controlled by the inability to think at all, and, therefore, rely, like my ex-neighbour does, on YouTube videos that tell her that the juvenile, who, she insists, was the most brutal of the rapists (never mind the absurdity of setting up such a scale) is enjoying life in a hotel in South India and will commit rape again and even if you, like she, forgets her religion (she’s Christian) and says it is okay to kill them because they killed the victim, perhaps you could ask of yourself some of the questions I asked her.

She has been a victim of domestic violence for decades. I asked her why she did not hit her husband back as she believes in tit for tat justice. Perhaps you could ask yourself whether you would accept being done to you what you routinely do to others, from everyday to egregious forms of violence? Is justice doing to others what has been done to you or vice versa? So do you need to become a rapist if you have been raped or someone you love has been raped?

Latika Vashist has argued compellingly for the need for forgiveness in these pages. But she moves too quickly from the moment where the mothers met in court to the law’s inability to deal with it. I think we should return to that moment and stay with it.

Rebecca Godfrey in her book Under The Bridge tracks the story of the murder of Reena Virk, a young teenaged girl in Canada’s British Columbia, at the hands of a gang, but, more importantly, the path toward restorative justice for one of the murderers, Warren Glowatski, with the parents of the victim.

The mother of the victim, Suman Virk, unlike Asha Devi, faced at least one murderer of her daughter and worked toward his restoration. The second murderer, a woman, Kelly Ellard, refused that process, refused to take responsibility and is still in jail.

Canada, like Britain, has a system where a team (of doctors, psychologists, social workers) works with people who have committed crimes, especially as young people (Kelly was 14 when she murdered Virk). Kelly has shown great improvement over the years. She may well reach a stage where she understands the gravity of what she has done and takes responsibility for it.

So the second question I asked my neighbour (and would like to ask Mr Kejriwal) is what is the better outcome? A man on parole who has confronted his crime, taken responsibility and worked with his victim’s family to restore himself and them or a woman who does not take responsibility and denies her crime? Or is a dead body the best?

Mukesh Singh and the others have had no counselling, no working with facing what they did and Asha Devi only wants them dead. Singh’s mother only wants him alive. Both women are locked in their respective positions: one nurturing revenge, like a holy plant; the other holding on to the idea of her son’s life and nothing else.

This is a failure of much more than the legal system. This is a failure of a system that has no respect for psychologists, for social workers, for the need to work with pain, suffering and difficulty with empathy and a restorative impulse. Both the rapists and both mothers needed counselling over the years. No one provided it.

No one says this is easy. Suman Virk, for all her compassion with Warren, found it difficult to accept how the Parole Board treated Kelly. She thought they were giving her too much of a good time (Kelly was allowed a conjugal visit with her boyfriend; she subsequently had a child in jail and was allowed more and more outside visits on parole). So, my third question to my neighbour was: why does her husband show no remorse? Why has he never apologised? Why did he hit her again recently?

We saw people berating Mukesh Singh for showing no remorse in Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter. This showed no actual sense of his locked-down, doctored (by right-wing lawyers whom we saw in the film) and damaged responses, his silence as the list of the victim’s injuries were read out to him. No, my neighbour said, her husband did have remorse. He has changed for the better, stopped drinking. “You have no idea how he was,” she said.

Do we allow for the fact of people changing? Do we allow for human development?

Which led me to my last question. Did not people pity her for her alcoholic husband? Dub her South Indian? Dismiss her problems as endemic to Christians? So why was she repeating these othering moves with the rapists?

It is easy to think the worst about people we do not know. People from another class, caste, religion, gender, social background. However, the framework of masculinity that the rapists share is not very different from Indian hegemonic masculinity across class, caste, religion and region. To shove it on to the bodies of these working class, lower caste men is convenient. To want them dead is a way to flush down what is uncomfortable knowledge about ourselves.

Hanging them is not just a way to eradicate them, it is a way to eradicate our complicity in their crime through screaming for another crime. Or asking for it placidly and unthinkingly as Arvind Kejriwal did.