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The shame of it all

Exposing offenders to public disgrace and ridicule acts as good deterrence, writes Prasenjit Chowdhury.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2012 23:09 IST

The Income Tax department has adopted a policy of naming and shaming big-ticket tax defaulters. But despite being one of the most corrupt nations in the world or registering an alarmingly high number of deaths due to malnutrition, negative publicity hasn’t worked for India. It seems that we just don’t care.

Naming and shaming has been in vogue for ages. The disciplinary power of the stocks and pillories — medieval tools of punishment — relied heavily on the presence of a hostile crowd willing to subject transgressors to a barrage of stones, rotten vegetables, dung and verbal abuse. There, shaming a criminal was an essential part of the ‘process’.

Today, naming and shaming is again turning out to be a popular form of punishment in many parts of the world, a stake being attached to a person’s ‘reputation’. Harold Grasmick, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, suggests that the prospect of public disgrace exerts greater punishment to comply with the law than does the threat of imprisonment and other formal punishments.

Though its popularity is sure to increase cases of defamation, it is thought that the fear of public scrutiny and the gaze of society act as deterrence. Schools were the first to practise this, making, for instance, an errant student do sit-ups in full glare of other students. In fact, for ‘lesser’ crimes such as drunken driving, non-aggravated assaults, embezzlement, small-scale drug distribution, petty theft, toxic waste dumping or perjury — which ordinarily invite a short jail term — shame can be a morally appropriate punishment.

An insight into how naming and shaming is practised offers interesting sidelights. If you steal from your employer in Winsconsin, you might be ordered to wear a sandwich board proclaiming your offence. For driving under the influence in Florida or Texas, you might be required to place a conspicuous ‘DUI’ bumper sticker to your car. A Florida mother was sentenced to take out a newspaper advertisement proclaiming, ‘I purchased marijuana with my kids in the car’. The prospect that her neighbours would see the ad caused her substantial embarrassment but it was deemed less harming than the infamy of serving a jail term or loss of the custody of her child. In Limerick, Ireland, the Socialist Youth Party held a ‘Name and Shame picket’ on Cruises Street, where they publicly named the companies that allegedly paid some of the lowest wages in the city. In Cape Town, South Africa, people who waste water are named and shamed.

Alas, it does not happen in India. Ashok Mochi, accused of leading a mob of arsonists who set fire to the houses of around 40 families in Ahmedabad’s Muslim-dominated Shahpur area during the Gujarat riots in 2002, was acquitted after spending around 10 days in custody in 2007. Today, he walks about freely in the same area in Ahmedabad, though his face was emblazoned on the front pages of many major newspapers.

Compare this to how the Metropolitan Police in Britain have named and shamed rioters. They launched a new online gallery of convicted rioters and their sentences, about which one top cop said: “We have made these pictures available so that communities across London can see that those who took part in the appalling scenes which shocked us all have been brought to justice.”

The rub is: for publicity as a means of punishing criminal or anti-social behaviour to act as a deterrent — and for shame to be deemed as an effective form of punishment — it is imperative that people value their reputations for both economical and financial reasons. For all the transgressors who have been shamed as a result of unwanted publicity, there are others who enjoy the notoriety. Blacklisters are particularly immune to the civilising power of the public gaze.

And there is evidence for shame to be absent in public space. An errant cop openly takes bribes, people drive on national highways under the influence and even the so-called ‘respectable’ people blithely relieve themselves out in the open.

So far the system of fining somebody meant that offenders may buy the privilege of breaking the law. But alongside fines or a jail term, how about beginning to name and shame the corrupt officials and politicians, the mafia and their patrons, industries indulging in trade malpractices, unscrupulous promoters and land sharks, rapists and paedophiles, molesters and eve-teasers and ensuring that they do not get to cover their faces while they are on their way to the courts?

(Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based writer)

The views expressed by the author are personal