No case of rape after the Mathura rape case of 1983 has aroused so much outrage as the December 16 one. Thirty years ago, it was the custodial rape of a tribal woman, Mathura, that brought out thousands to demand a change in the laws relating to rapes, particularly those perpetrated by people in positions of power. The reaction to the recent Delhi rape case has been even more intense because it has become the outlet for pent-up rage against the system.
The explosion of the media, particularly social media, and the rise of the middle-class have helped galvanise a movement that has remained, so far, unorganised and non-political. The cry once again is for stricter laws and a panel has been formed to look into the issue. While strengthening of laws, particularly the enhancement of punishment to the capital sentence, may satisfy many, its efficacy in deterring crime is still being debated.
So what has been the experience of the last round of legislative reforms, particularly those relating to the enhancement of punishment for rape? In the 30 years since Mathura, the annual crime statistics at the national or state levels have shown no reprieve for the average woman. A cursory look at the Supreme Court’s (SC) judgements in the past one year shows that the legal process in rape cases have taken eight to 10 years before reaching a conclusion at the highest level.
If the purpose of punishment is deterrence, the judicial system needs to ponder on how to make punishment certain and swift rather than severe. In the trade-off between these three, swiftness of punishment is the most efficient guarantee of deterrence.
Here’s an example: in the Pushpanjali case (2012(9) SCC 705), which has taken over 17 years to decide, the SC has restored the punishment (seven years imprisonment) awarded by the trial court (that had been reduced to one year by the high court) and stated that crimes against women should be dealt with severely, sternly and sensitively. But hasn’t the severity of the punishment been blunted by the long delay in the final decision?
It is, therefore, necessary to focus on speedy prosecution and adjudication and back it with the efficiency of investigation so
that the perpetrators of such crimes are brought to book within two to three years. Fortunately, the government has now set up fast-track courts and I hope that such fast-tracking will take place all over the country and that such courts will retain their momentum. I say this because one has seen too many special tribunals fall into a routine of working that doesn’t help speed up justice down the line. In cases of crimes against women, it is equally important that the authorities should be approachable and that the police are seen as a friend.
The role of the public has rightly attracted attention in many rape cases, including the recent one. While thousands congregated to demand justice, the two victims were not helped by the public when they needed it most. This is because most people fear harassment and do not want to get involved. So we urgently require a witness protection regime as a necessary part of any improved system of criminal justice.
Poornima Advani is former chairperson, National Commission for Women and advocate in Bombay High Court
The views expressed by the author are personal