The politics of rape and punishment

The sloganeering is all about ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘harshest punishment’. But action on women’s safety comes a distant second to using our bodies as patriarchal battleground and for political leverage

A protest in New
Delhi against the
ongoing ethnic
violence in Manipur (Photo: Vipin/ National Herald)
A protest in New Delhi against the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur (Photo: Vipin/ National Herald)

Rashme Sehgal

As more horror stories emerge from Manipur, the reactions of the political class are predictable. Biren Singh, the state’s chief minister who brazenly presided over murder and mayhem, has finally said that the rapists who publicly paraded two naked Kuki women and gang-raped one of them must be hanged to death.

Singh is not the first chief minister of a BJP-ruled state to issue such a call. The chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are known to cry ‘hang the rapists’ as the most exemplary deterrent for other potential rapists. Calling for action is one thing. Taking action quite another.

Two years ago, when the 19-year-old Dalit girl Manisha Valmiki was gang-raped by four upper-caste men in Hathras, the UP police had initially refused to even register a case of gang rape, and chose instead to downplay the incident, insisting it was ‘a small dispute’ arising out of an old enmity.

A very similar spin was given to the May 4 incident. The Manipur police filed a ‘Zero FIR’ on May 18, two weeks after the incident. A Zero FIR can be filed in any police station but investigation only begins after it is transferred to the police station with jurisdiction over the case, which then converts it into a regular FIR. The number of accused in this Zero FIR were around ‘800 to 1000’. Is it even likely that a complicit police force would round up and interrogate a thousand men?

Senior sources in the home ministry point out that the details of this particular incident were given to the ministry in early May, but the government deliberately ignored it. It was only when the video went public that prime minister Modi made his first and only public—albeit brief—reference to this horrific incident.

Human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar, who has been closely following events in Manipur, emphasised that “these two women were handed over to the mob by the police.” Those cops, Haksar said, “must be identified and punished since state complicity has been a feature in this violence.” She went on to add, “This was not an isolated case… as many as ten other such cases of sexual assault and violence having been reported and 6,000 separate FIRs having been filed”—on which no action has been taken.

Former DIG police V.N. Rai believes the concept of impartial policing has come to an end. “The police have not been allowed to emerge as an autonomous organisation and so they are forced to follow the diktats of their political masters,” he said.

In the Hathras case, it was only when public pressure intensified and the Dalit politician Chandrashekhar Azad insisted that Manisha Valmiki be treated in Delhi and not Aligarh that she was brought to Safdarjung Hospital, where she died two weeks later. It was under pressure that Yogi Adityanath finally pronounced that those who commit such crimes must be brought to book and hanged to death.

But, as expected, three of the four men in the Hathras gang-rape case walked scot-free after a special court acquitted them of all charges in March this year. The rape and murder charge against principal accused Sandeep Sisodia was converted to culpable homicide not amounting to murder and he was given a life sentence. So much for Yogi’s statement that the accused be hanged to death.

Madhya Pradesh heads the list of crimes against women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), on average, Indian women are being subjected to 86 rapes every day. In 2021, Rajasthan registered the highest number of rapes at 6337, followed by Madhya Pradesh at 2496 and Uttar Pradesh at 2845 while Delhi recorded 1250 cases.

No chief minister seems to have mastered the art of doublespeak better than Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan. In 2018, to deflect the growing flak from Opposition parties, Chouhan made a pitch for the capital punishment of rapists. He even succeeded in pushing through a ‘death penalty law’ for those found guilty of raping girls below the age of 12 years.

A special court set up under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act dished out 21 death sentences in 2018 and five in 2019. Another 168 rapists were served life imprisonment in 2018. But these verdicts by the special court do not translate into the death penalty.

As per data on the death penalty collected by the National Law University in Delhi, since 1947, 720 prisoners have been executed in India. Half of those hanged were from Uttar Pradesh, followed by Haryana with 90 and Madhya Pradesh with 73 executions..

Between 2000 and 2014, the trial courts sentenced 1,810 people to death but more than half of these cases were commuted to life imprisonment and about a quarter (443) were acquitted by the Supreme Court and high courts.

The trials conducted by the POSCO court in Madhya Pradesh were so short that they seemed no more than dispensers of summary justice, with the accused belonging to extremely poor socio-economic backgrounds sometimes being unable to even muster up a defence lawyer.

One of the shortest trials was that of Rajkumar, an autorickshaw driver who was accused of raping a four-year-old girl on July 4 2019. The chargesheet was filed on July 20 in a special court under POCSO. The verdict was given on July 27.

It turns out that since neither Rajkumar nor his family could afford a lawyer, he was provided one from the Madhya Pradesh State Legal Services Authority. The lawyer assigned to him was B.M. Rathore, who revealed that, because of the speed with which the trial was conducted, he did not even have the time to speak to the accused.

DG Rajendra Kumar who was then heading the special court had brushed away the criticism that the accused were often not provided with lawyers. He clarified to this reporter, “Lawyers have been made available to all the accused. It is not correct to say that they did not have lawyers. These are heinous crimes and deserve the strictest punishment”.

Senior advocate Rebecca John has also expressed concern at the string of judgments that were issued by the lower courts in Madhya Pradesh. “Women’s safety should be a priority for any government, but this is hardly the way to show they mean business. These verdicts are nothing but an abdication of the principles of natural justice. Every individual has the right to a fair trial. Unfortunately, a lynch mob mentality seems to have taken over which has created an atmosphere of extreme prejudice,” she said.

Dr Vibhuti Patel, who heads the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences openly decries this trend. In sharp criticism of the chief ministers, Patel said, “Their statements are opportunistic and extremely dishonest and have been spoken without any sense of responsibility. They will arrest one or two of the poorest or most marginalised and then proceed to hang them.

"By doing so, they do not solve the problem. Rather than allowing any meaningful development to take place, they are simply washing their hands off this problem.”

In the political storm created by Delhi’s Nirbhaya case, there were open calls for hanging the rapists. In 2020, when the death sentence for four men was delayed, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said, “It saddens me that convicts in Nirbhaya case are escaping death sentence by using legal loopholes. They should be immediately hanged.”

While no one can underplay these heinous crimes, Dr Ranjana Kumari, who heads the Centre for Social Research, asserts that politicians cannot be allowed to get away by making statements that play to the gallery.

The death sentence is considered the rarest of rare punishments. Between 2004 and 2018, only four death sentences were served. Among these, three were terrorists while the fourth was Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who had reportedly raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl. Conviction rates for rape cases are low, with only 26.5 per cent of rapists convicted in 2021 and a pendency of over 90 per cent in recent years.

As Haksar put it, “rape is looked upon as a way to humiliate a community by showing how they could not protect their [own] women from assault by men from a politically more powerful community. This is precisely what the Meitei mob was doing—humiliating the Kuki community by showing [who] had power over their women.”

All the grandiose statements by our politicians on strict action and punishment of rapists is a mere smokescreen for their deliberate ineptitude—and use, if not abuse, of women’s bodies.

And so, while the powerful play politics, the rapes rage on.

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