Against our collective guilt and revenge


A large proportion of the readers of this column will likely believe that Mukesh Kumar Singh, Pawan Kumar Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Kumar Singh must be hanged to death for their role in the Delhi 2012 rape case. You might feel that if ever there was a case that required the death penalty, it was. It must fill them with a sense of disgust, disgust and anger when they hear these four names or see their photos flashing across newspapers and TV screens. I am also fairly certain that when you see Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh seeking justice for the violent death of their daughter, they feel a real and deep sense of fear.

In a crumbling prison system, hangings and rapid unlawful executions, such as the rape murder in Hyderabad in 2019, provide relief and confidence. I suppose it gives us a false sense of collective control that we can respond to rampant sexual violence in our midst. We are desperately looking for ways to hide our collective guilt for living in a society where sexual violence is anchored in a variety of ways. We know deep within ourselves that the execution of Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay and Akshay will not reduce sexual violence in our society. We also know that the factors that routinely produce sexual violence are in our homes, in our workplaces, in our personal and social relationships, in the entertainment we consume, etc.

The shrill public demand to hang Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay and Akshay is about collective revenge. The crimes of that night reflect our own social failures, failures that are too intimidating to recognize. So our answer is to demonize the four convicts to make them appear so evil that they couldn't possibly be one of us. By claiming that death by hanging (or some other worse punishment) is what they "deserve", we are trying to free ourselves. None of us can grasp the grief or desperate desire for justice that Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh have had in the past seven years. However, we are manipulative as a society if we want to execute Mukesh, Pawan, Vinay and Akshay. We hide behind the unimaginable grief of the parents. Neither the state nor we as a society can try to cover our failures by appropriating their grief and making it seem as if we are committed to their cause. Crimes in society are not purely individual phenomena to which "bad" people indulge. Crime occurs when individual factors interact with different social, cultural, economic and political realities. In this reality, both crime victims and perpetrators represent state and social failure. The state appears to be in the corner of the victim, demanding the most severe punishment possible, and simply trying to avoid responsibility.

If we want to look closely, there is excellent feminist research that tells us that it is not the severity but the certainty of punishment that reduces sexual violence. What we need is better policing, public security, modern and scientific research, meaningful support and protection for victims, and a host of other measures. This requires political will, the use of resources and a change in political imagination. We have to stop finding comfort in the frenzy of blood. Perhaps it is time for an open social conversation in which we acknowledge that our response to incidents like the Delhi gait is driven by collective revenge. Using the death penalty in response to sexual violence is politically advantageous and a perfect distraction from all the difficult work that needs to be done. If we are complicit in routine sexual violence, we may need to begin the process of social transformation by recognizing that we currently appear to be only capable of revenge and very little else.

(Anup Surendranath is Executive Director, Project 39A, at the National Law University, Delhi)

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