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Old crimes deserve new punishment

We are a medieval nation with medieval male conduct, archaic laws, a pretence of democracy touted so pompously by our mandarins, political leaders and cultural czars. Let’s look at penalties that will deter all sexual crimes. Sanjoy Hazarika writes.

india Updated: May 16, 2013 23:12 IST
Sanjoy Hazarika,medieval nation,sexual crimes

We are a medieval nation with medieval male conduct, archaic laws, a pretence of democracy touted so pompously by our mandarins, political leaders and cultural czars. We are a living sham and shame of our much professed but unpractised culture, barring what appears on stage and in film.

The accounts, which have appeared in the media and are in the public domain, say that the man who has implicated another in the violence on a five-year-old child, who has also confessed that he was from Muzaffarpur district in Bihar; that he was married a year back; that he lived alone in Delhi near the victim’s family and had a property dispute with his father.

Protests alone aren’t going to change things. Legislators can legislate and judges may pontificate but the major changes we want won’t happen unless we are able to get into the mind of the killer and rapist. For this issue is at the heart of the crime. Lakhs of migrants from across the country come and live in one-room hutments and hovels, rooms and clusters of neighbourhoods across our metros. They are not accused of such criminal conduct although some may be involved. Criminality knows no class, state or national borders and some of the middle class and rich also conduct themselves with similar brutality.

Our police laws and powers of enforcement are antiquated. Efforts at police reform to enable the force to function independent of political interference have failed.

So in a medieval nation, governed by medieval conduct, where medieval men commit medieval crimes, steeped in bigotry and criminality, how can we ensure that the punishment fits the crime? Can anyone bring back childhood to those who have been destroyed? To the anti-capital punishment lobby — and I respect them, those of fame and those without, I ask: if this had happened to your loved one, how would you react? Would you truly remain as ‘objective’ as you claim you be?

For the threat is not from without as it is from the insidious within. If the government can fast forward ‘justice’ for a Kasab and send a Guru to the gallows, why hesitate at hanging a child rapist? Our societal fault lines encourage brutality, whether enshrined in law like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or outside of the law. Couples who elope get beaten to death because one of them happens to be of the ‘wrong’ caste and women are still burned for not bringing enough dowry. These ‘daily’, ‘normal’ crimes are barely shocking any longer.

Social changes are slow and painful. But there are some ways of prodding them forward. During the Boston Police’s handling of the gun-slinging Chechens, the following incident was captured on camera: a blurry sequence was broadcast which showed a man, who had been stripped, being bundled into a police car, which raced away. Although then a ‘person of interest’, he was later released. Why can’t the police here be empowered to do the same: strip a male, who is accused of rape, and take him to the police station? I’m not getting into chemical castration and all that. Many have told me that if the punishment is to fit the crime, especially in cases of brutal rape and torture of a child, the accused should be swiftly executed. Why not a referendum on penalties for rape and torture, especially of children? Is there a political party, which dares to put this on its 2014 election agenda?

Ah, I can hear the cries of outrage among human rights wallahs (of whom I am part, having been campaigning for the repeal of the AFSPA for years apart from other issues): ‘you have no respect for the law’, ‘this will be abused’, ‘innocents would be framed’, ‘this is an outrageous proposal to violate the rights of the accused’ and more.

By all means, let’s set up special courts manned by special judges; but finish the hearings in 30 days. Publicise the cases and visit them regularly through the media to ensure that we do not forget. Our sensationalist visual media would love to be timekeepers for the nation. So let them play a useful role, for a change. We need to go beyond talking about rights. Let’s look at penalties that will deter. After all, can ‘modern’ punishments work for medieval crimes in a medieval nation?

Sanjoy Hazarika is Founder-Director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 16, 2013 23:09 IST