A Strong Law is Not Enough

We are a country with insufficient policing. A strong law, by itself, achieves nothing. Who will bring criminals to justice?

Yet again, we have reached the peak of our outrage. In Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, a 17-year-old has been raped, allegedly, by a BJP MLA and his accomplices. Her father was threatened to withdraw the case, then picked up by the police and thrashed before he passed away in hospital. In Kathua, Jammu & Kashmir, an 8-year-old from the Bakerwal community has been held captive, sedated, gang-raped and murdered. The accused in the case include police officers. The Hindu Ekta Manch, in the state, held rallies in support of the accused. Two BJP state ministers joined in.

In terms of the Government’s response to the issue we have had words from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too little too late, the arrest of the MLA in Uttar Pradesh, the sacking of the two ministers who joined the rallies in Jammu & Kashmir and a rejig of the Jammu & Kashmir cabinet.

In terms of systemic responses we have had an ordinance passed which extends the punishment for rape to imprisonment for life in some cases and death in others. It also contains provisions for speeding up the investigation and trial process for rape cases.

While the ordinance has been welcomed by many, there have also been questions raised about whether an arbitrary alteration of law, without a reform of the system that implements it, will effect any real change.

This is an old debate, with precedent and statistics available on either side. But, in the Indian context, let us examine it through the prism of a timeline for our previous peaks of outrage. There have been quite a few in the past years.

You see, a crime which already has life imprisonment or death as possible punishments is murder. And many of our previous peaks of outrage have involved cases of murder. Let us see what has come of those cases and other cases like them. Let us enquire as to what deterrence imprisonment for life, and the death sentence, actually amount to.

Circa 2015. MM Kalburgi is murdered, approximately six months after Govind Pansare. Mohammad Akhlaq gets lynched in Dadri. An ‘Award Wapasi’ protest ensues that begins with writers but is then joined by members of the film community, academia and other Indians as well.

2016. Dalit boys are thrashed in Una by Gau Rakshaks.

2017. A number of lynchings in the country.

The PM has spoken, belatedly, after each of these moments in time. His remaining silent, then ‘breaking his silence’ after such incidents, has acquired the nature of a pattern over the years.

A cursory Google search reveals the latest news on these and similar cases. The Dadri accused were out on bail two years after the act (some got jobs at Dadri’s NTPC plant), and the trial, according to this report from a month ago, was yet to begin. Who killed MM Kalburgi is still a mystery. (The Congress Government in Karnataka is equally to blame for this shocking lack of progress; the NIA has expressed to the Supreme Court that it cannot probe his murder.) Reports of lynchings, meanwhile, persist in the news. One says a Dalit youth was killed for owning a horse, in Bhavnagar. The six people Pehlu Khan (he was lynched last year) named as his attackers in a dying declaration have been absolved of their guilt, says this report. One glimmer of respite may be the fast track conviction of 11 people (including a BJP leader) who killed Alimuddin Ansari in Jharkhand last year. But keep watching this space, for an ex MLA has been on dharna, insisting the victims died in police custody.  Also, it seems, elsewhere in Jharkhand, gau rakshaks accused of murder are being protected by the police themselves.

Hence, the belief that the law can be strengthened by increasing the punishment for breaking it – without actually reforming the process by which one is expected to implement it – is a blatant oversight. We are a country with insufficient policing. The growth and modernisation of our police force has for long been stunted by an Act which dates back to 1861. State legislations are now replacing this dinosaur, but we still have a long way to go. In rural and urban areas, the police is grossly under-staffed. Look at vacancies for police jobs at any time and you will realise there is an ever yawning gap between what is required, and what is available. Also, women comprise just about 7.28 percent of the force, not the kind of number that would make you confident about the force being more empathetic towards crimes against women.

But, most importantly, an enforceable system of accountability for the police is crying out loud to be set up, with no takers. A key flaw in process, highlighted by the heinous crimes committed in both Unnao and Kathua, has been the overwhelming impunity enjoyed by not just officers of the state but also members of the political class. What does the recent ordinance have to say about this? Nothing, sadly.

A stringent law, in a rotting system, simply makes itself more oppressive. The threat of severe sentencing provides incentive to the guilty to commit further crimes get away. A speedy process, without a state machinery to ensure its fairness, means more innocents will be caught in the net.

In addition, let’s not forget that the acts of rape and murder in Kathua as well as the shielding of the accused were bolstered by communal hatred, pure and simple, and the politics that is weaved skilfully around such hatreds. One face of this hatred is the Hindu Ekta Manch. But there are other faces, less visible, which come to the fore with news of how snapshots of a fake story in the Dainik Jagran, saying that the Kathua victim was not actually raped, went viral on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook even after the story itself was taken down. Like icebergs whose tips seldom indicate the actual damage they can cause, such networks, while not being above the law, lie well below its line of vision.

These are the undercurrents that breed the attitudes which back lynchings and murder. And rape. A death sentence or life imprisonment doesn’t deter them. They are well removed from the purview of an ordinance.

About the author

Rishi Majumder

Rishi Majumder is a journalist and Associate Partner at the new media company Oijo. He is working on a book on Syama Prasad Mookerjee.