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October 14, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Rape Is Murder

Last week Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani called for the death penalty for rapists. Advani's motives were slightly suspect. Four nuns had been raped in Madhya Pradesh and assorted members of the Sangh Parivar had danced a delighted little jig. One of them, B L Sharma 'Prem' had even suggested that this was a natural consequence of the resentment against Christians in India. It was necessary, therefore, for Advani to distance the government from the jubilation of some of its supporters. The call for the death penalty was part of this effort -- not only did Advani disapprove of the rapists, he wanted us to know, but he also wanted them dead.

Political motives apart, when the home minister of India makes a statement of this nature, we are entitled to regard it as an expression of his government's policy. Presumably the Central government will amend the Indian Penal Code to extend the death penalty from "the rarest of the rare" cases of murder to cases of brutal and premeditated rape.

How you respond to this depends, I suspect, on your views on the death penalty itself. Liberals like me have our doubts about capital punishment. We incline to the traditional liberal view that all punishment works only as a deterrent. The vast majority of murders are committed in the heat of passion, at a time when murderers are too frenzied to worry about the consequences of their actions. Moreover, experience has shown that in developed countries where capital punishment has been abolished, the murder rate has actually gone down. In the United States, some states have the death penalty and others don't. If capital punishment is a deterrent, then those states with a death penalty should have a lower murder rate. In fact, in most cases, the murder rate is higher in such states.

I am familiar with these liberal views because I have subscribed to them for as long as I can remember. But I am conscious of always being in the minority in India where most people -- including those that we would otherwise consider liberal -- believe that there is no substitute for hanging. And frankly, over the last few years as I have watched the growing incidence of contract killing and gang warfare in India, I have begun to question my own opposition to the death penalty.

But as far as the law is concerned, the position is simple enough: it provides for death by hanging in cases where premeditated murder has been proved. If you wish to extend this principle to rape then you have to prove that it is as heinous a crime as murder. In terms of logic, this would be enough but I suspect that you would also need to demonstrate that capital punishment would send out the right signals to potential rapists, if you are to convince the thinking classes of the need to amend the law.

In recent months there has been an extensive -- and extremely tiresome - debate over rape in the pages of the English press. It was sparked off by Fay Weldon's celebrated comment that rape was not so bad; that a woman could recover and lead a normal life. Weldon was punched on by assorted feminists who made the usual points: rape-is-not-about-sex-it-is-about-power; women-feel-violated; rape-is-sexual-politics etc.

Without wishing to bore you with the details of the debate, I will only make the point that it took place within a specific English context. It was conducted within a society where casual sex is much more common than in India, where society does not look down on the victims of rape and where rapists tend to be solo psychopaths rather than gangs of men seeking to make a point about domination.

The Indian context is very different. A significant proportion of rapes in India are committed by those who are socially advantaged against those who can't fight back. The victims tend to be women from backward classes and other poor women who have no alternative but to tolerate the assault. It is not uncommon for landlords, when they torch a poor village, to kill the men and rape the women. Clearly, as far as the perpetrators are concerned, murder and rape are on par; the only difference is that by raping the woman you derive some perverse benefit from your crime.

Whereas in the West society is generally sympathetic towards victims of rape, in India we tend to treat perpetrator and victim on par. From the police to courts to the neighbours, the attitude is roughly the same: even if she didn't ask for it, she is now damaged goods, too dirty to take her place in decent society. Small wonder then that even middle class women who could easily go to the police prefer to keep quiet.

It is almost impossible to recover and lead a normal life after you have been raped in India. First of all, you probably can't talk about it. Secondly, in many cases, even when you do complain, no action is taken against the rapist. Thirdly, you are finished on the arranged marriage market and if you're already married, your husband acts as though you are now shop soiled. And finally, far from being counselled to cope with the trauma of rape, you face a new trauma: society's hostility.

In the circumstances, I find it hard to dispute that rape is as bad as murder. In murder, the victims are destroyed but at least he or she is dead. In rape, the victim is destroyed and left alive to face the consequences of the destruction every single day. Some would argue that rape is in fact worse than murder. Any society that thinks that it is right to hang people for murder must also then consider it justified to hang them for rape.

But would the death penalty be a deterrent to potential rapists? I must confess I don't know. As we have seen, there are doubts over whether the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, let alone anything else. But what nobody can dispute is this: we need to change society's attitude towards rape. We need to make it clear that rape is one of the most heinous crimes one human being can perpetrate on another. We need to put an end to the mentality which says that rape is just part of the fun that a man can have with woman and that, once it is done, the woman is spoiled forever while the man is a macho stud.

So far, neither the police nor the courts have done anything to change the way in which society regards rape. If, however, we made rape a capital offence and put it on par with murder, we would send out a new signal: rape is not just dirty, it is evil. By itself, the death penalty may not achieve that much. The old problems - women being reluctant to report rapes, police refusing to record them etc -- would remain. But at least we would have begun to change the mentality of Indian society. By imposing the greatest punishment that any legal system can impose on a criminal, we will have made it clear that rapists can expect no mercy and no tolerance from our society.

It is not my case that this is anywhere near enough. Rape is not just a criminal problem; it is a social problem. Even if you deter some potential rapists, you still have to cope with society's attitude to rape victims. And the death penalty by itself cannot do that. What it can do however is signal the start of the process of changing attitudes. Even if it isn't enough, it is a beginning.

But of course, it won't happen. Advani has made his point. Nobody blames the government for the rapes of the nuns. The BJP has cleverly distanced itself from the lunatic fringe of the Sangh Parivar. The debate over the death penalty of rapists has been stillborn; one remark by the home minister, two days of headlines and then silence.

All this is particularly tragic. Even if you don't support the death penalty, the debate would have served a purpose because it would have made us examine our attitude to rape and society's callousness towards the raped. But then, which politician has time for victims who do not constitute voting blocs? Sadly, rape victims belong in that category.

Vir Sanghvi

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