Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, climbed the scaffold on Nov. 21 last year. It was the first execution since 2004 in India, where more than 300 prisoners sit on death row as they await the day of their death by hanging.
Now, in the wake of the gang rape and murder of a woman in Delhi last month that sparked widespread protests, the debate is raging in India: Should rapists be added to those 300? Should the world’s largest democracy extend the application of the death penalty to those criminals at a time when most other nations that still use capital punishment are moving away from it?
Many Indians, as well as right-wing political parties, including the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are now calling for the death penalty for rapists. In the wake of the killing of the young woman last December, who died after being raped by a group of men on a bus, the government appointed a three-person panel to look into the possibility of enhancing the penalties for rape and introducing quicker trials for sexual crimes -- currently, the maximum sentence for rape is life in prison, under the Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860 and largely unchanged since. However, many rapes are not prosecuted in India.
The Justice Verma Committee, headed by former chief justice of India J.S. Verma, includes Leila Seth, former chief justice of the state of Himachal Pradesh, and Gopal Subramaniam, former solicitor general of India. The committee, formed on Dec. 24, received more than 6,000 emails before it held its first meeting on Dec. 26, and it continued to accept suggestions until Jan. 5.
The panel has to make recommendations to the government within 30 days of concluding its work. It is unlikely, however, that its executive, led by the center-left Congress Party, will recommend the death penalty for rapists.
“Life Imprisonment Is More Severe”
A draft proposal submitted by the Congress Party last week recommended life imprisonment and the creation of dedicated fast-track courts with a deadline of three months for judging sexual assaults, despite support for hanging rapists from the party’s women's organization.
India’s Law Minister, Ashwani Kumar, voiced on Thursday his support for life in prison over the death penalty: “A lot of experts and jurists have told me that life imprisonment is more severe than the death penalty for rapists,” he said.
Political factions echoing that view include the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which has said that the maximum punishment in cases of aggravated sexual assault and rape must be rigorous life imprisonment until death.
Members of the Student Bar Association of the National Law School of India University, who submitted their recommendations to the Verma committee, were of the opinion that the death penalty was a “knee-jerk reaction” that would be counterproductive. “Imposing the death penalty will ensure sympathy for the ... accused and a fall in conviction rate. Even when condemned to the death row, only a small percentage actually makes it to the executioner’s block,” the association said in a report submitted to the committee.
The report added that chemical castration, another proposal being floated, was “inappropriate as it misunderstands the nature of rape as a crime,” and that rape was “not just about [the] uncontrolled manifestation of sexual urges.”
But there is no lack of support for hanging rapists.
Guillotine, Castration, And Branding
Among the mainstream parties, the BJP is particularly pro-hanging. Party chief Nitin Gadkari sent a set of recommendations to the committee calling for death for those convicted of gang rape, abduction and rape, and custodial rape. The party also called for amending the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 to lower the age limit for being prosecuted as a criminal in rape cases to 16 years old from the present 18. The definition of rape must be changed to include forms of assault that do not include penetration, the party said.
Centre Right India, a news and opinion outlet, suggested that the death penalty could be considered as a deterrent, “at least in cases of gang rapes, custodial rapes, rapes by public servants, rape by medical professionals, rape of the mentally or physically challenged, rape of Dalit women [members of the lowest caste in Hinduism], and rapes during riots, with there being no recourse to a clemency petition.”
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said in December that she personally favored capital punishment for rapists. Though she has declined to disclose her government’s formal recommendations to the committee, Indian media has reported -- citing Delhi government sources -- that the administration was in favor of the death penalty in gang-rape cases.
Even those positions aren’t as brutal as the 11 suggestions from Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a hardline Islamic organization headquartered in New Delhi. The group wants public hangings of rape convicts, abolition of co-education, a “sober and dignified” dress code for women in educational institutions, and the criminalization of sex outside marriage, including live-in relationships.
Such harsh views are not limited to the ultra-religious. The Punjab-based Doctors Federation of India and the Apna Bharat Aap Sanwaro, an association of doctors, professionals, intellectuals and social activists, suggested measures including the amputation of sex organs and limbs.
They said the punishment for all gang rapes and brutal rapes should be the “engraving of the word 'rapist' on the forehead of a confirmed rapist, guillotine amputation of the penis and surgical castration, amputation of both upper limbs at the above-elbow level and amputation of the right leg.” Not tough enough? They added that rape convicts should be left “on the road, to be hated and abused by the people.” And that should happen to men even younger than 16 -- they feel the age for criminal prosecution of accused rapists should be 14, “as a 14-year-old man is mature enough to conduct an act like rape.”
The castration movement has adherents even among those who don’t want to see convicted rapists hang or lie on the street without limbs. In a petition, SafeNation4Women, a Chennai-based women’s forum, urged the committee to allow first-time rapists to voluntarily undergo chemical castration periodically in return for reduced sentences. For repeat offenders, chemical castration must be made compulsory, the petition said.
The committee’s final recommendations aren’t likely to include any of those suggestions, which a majority of public opinion would find barbaric in a country that has followed the worldwide trend toward a more restrictive application of state-sanctioned killing.
It’s far more possible that, along with speedier punishment, the committee will adopt some of the positions suggested by organizations such as World Vision India, a Christian humanitarian group. In an open letter to the committee, it suggested guidelines that include setting up a public sex offender database, increased censoring of media that portray women negatively, banning movies that involve rape and molestation of women, sex education in schools, and gender sensitivity lessons for boys. Granted, those things alone may not solve the problem of rape in India. But they could go a long way toward changing the climate that has long made rape a serious risk that Indian women must live with.