Hand on heart, how many of you cheered, or at least felt a bit relieved when you woke up to news of the death of Ram Singh, one of the principal accused in the Delhi December 16 gang-rape case? On Twitter, with few exceptions, there were whoops of joy. One Bollywood choreographer tweeted: “Hope the others follow him 2.” Someone else suggested we were better off having saved ourselves a bit of the hangman’s rope.
To be sure, I didn’t shed a tear for the bus driver. The crime that he, four other adults and one juvenile are accused of is beyond the pale of human behaviour. It’s a crime that has led to the death of a promising woman and the loss of hope for her entire family.
And, yet, I was shocked when I heard the news that morning.
Part of the shock had to do with the obvious police lapse, admitted to by home minister Sushilkumar Shinde. How does an under-trial — reported to have been on suicide watch — kill himself inside a 12 feet by 12 feet cell that he shared with other inmates? And how many police goof-ups are we going to see in this case alone? Already we’ve seen the first disastrous lapse when the police chose to ignore a carpenter’s complaint that he had been robbed on the same bus earlier that evening when the rape took place.
It’s been three months since we started the dialogue on the need for better policing, including police reform. We seem to have made no headway in that conversation. While some point to the need for prison reform, there is a need to set right a system where undertrials can kill themselves, or get killed, in custody. News of the ‘suicide’ of a woman undertrial a day later at Tihar only underlines a rotten system. You can bring in all the tough laws you want, but nothing changes unless effective policing is first put in place.
This past week has seen a great deal of nationalist anguish over Italy’s refusal to send back to India two marines accused in the death of fishermen. This violates a commitment made by the Italians to our Supreme Court. The subtext is not just Italy’s chicanery but its disrespect to the one institution that Indians still repose their trust in. How could they mislead the highest court of our country? Do they think we are some banana republic?
And yet, if we’re not a banana republic then how do we explain the death of an undertrial which robs us of the chance to establish due process? Despite increasing demands for vigilante-style justice, and increasing frustration with our excruciatingly slow justice system, we do have a legal process. It’s a process that allows even a proven enemy of the State, Ajmal Kasab, the right to defence and a fair trial. Like most Indians, I am proud to be a citizen of a country that follows this process — no matter how imperfect, slow or frustrating. Ram Singh’s death effectively means that his guilt — or innocence — will never be established by the courts.
Those who are cheering should remember one thing. The student’s family has maintained that what it wants more than bravery awards is justice. Ram Singh’s death robs the family of its chance for that justice.
The December gang rape is a tipping point that led to unprecedented protest and the demand for an end to sexual violence. It has led to the framing of new laws, currently under discussion. It has led to calls for accountability from our criminal justice system.
The death of one of the accused in this case is a setback that signals, once again, the failure of the system. Justice must be done. But it must be done in a manner that respects everything we stand for, including our judicial system. The world is watching as we navigate this trial. It could prove to be a litmus test for the idea of India in ways we’ve not yet anticipated.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal