It is de rigueur now for both celebrities and civil society activists to come up with demands for all sorts of punishment for rapists as the aftermath of the recent horrific case of sexual violence visited on a five-year-old girl shows. And indeed, given the bestiality of the rapes that have come to light, such demands find resonance with the public. At the risk of going against the grain, we are not governed by public sentiment but the law. So, while the anger on the part of civil society activists and their protests are valuable in getting an apathetic administration to take action against erring officials and spurring our lawmakers on to frame more effective legislation, some of the statements made by those leading the angry crowds and by Bollywood stars are likely to damage the progress made in trying to minimise these heinous crimes.
We have superstar Akshay Kumar demanding that the rapist in the current case — it now turns out that there were two — be hanged publicly without further delay. What about the due process of law? Well, the action hero says nothing about that. Then we have civil society activists saying that the faces of the rapists must be revealed. While this sounds very tempting, this name-and-shame approach can prove to the detriment of the victim. Let us assume that the face of the accused is shown in the media.
In the identification process, it is possible for the counsel to argue that it is the fact that the face of the accused has been in the public domain that has made it that much easier to pick out someone in an identification parade. It is also quite possible that a subconscious connection is made with the accused owing to the fact that his face is already known. None of this is to belittle the activities of civil society but to suggest that a little introspection is required and the process of bringing the accused to justice must be governed by the law and not just emotion, howsoever justified. In revealing the face of the accused, there is also the risk that he could be the wrong person. He cannot be deemed guilty until proven so. If he is indeed the wrong person, then what recompense can there be for the taint?
Another film star Priyanka Chopra spoke of her horror that the victim was just a child, not even a “girl completely”. Does that make the rape of girls or grown women any less criminal? There is no doubt that there are good intentions and genuine outrage. But that should not become counter-productive.
Demanding that numerous heads roll indiscriminately also takes away from the gravity of the situation. The answers have to be found in greater vigilance, police reforms, better laws and better enforcement. Knee-jerk reactions will get some headlines and eyeballs, but the problem of perverts preying on young children and women will not go away. Both civil society activists and well-meaning celebrities need to keep their powder dry for the very long battle which lies ahead.