City City Bang Bang, Columns

Has justice been done?

The law may or may not have been followed but has justice been done? Given the state of our judicial system today, is this the only way to deal effectively with a horrendous crime like rape? The killing of 4 alleged rapists-murderers in Hyderabad by means of an encounter has evoked deliriously enthusiastic reactions from a large section of people, cutting across gender, class and ideological lines. While some are appalled at what they see as a barbaric and highly dangerous way of meting out instant justice, the larger view seems to be that the accused got what they deserved thanks to the police.

At a human level, this is a reaction that is understandable.  The horrible nature of the crime and the knowledge that the case would get dragged on in court for years before any form of justice were made available does create a great sense of frustration and anger and this kind of police action can be cathartic in this context. At some level, in cases like the 2012 Delhi rape and this one, many would have fantasised about making the perpetrators suffer as much as humanly possible. The desire for retribution is an undeniable human impulse and a swift and decisive action of this kind can be emotionally satisfying for many.

But this particular incident is one tiny drop in the seething and putrid ocean of crimes against women. Going by 2017 statistics, about 90 cases of rape take place every day. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of this action would agree that the idea of staging these many encounters is untenable. So clearly, this method is not any kind of solution to the larger problem.

But will such an action, even if it happens once in a while, not act as a deterrent to would-be rapists? Will the prospect of being summarily dealt with in this fashion not strike fear in the hearts of these people and help reduce the incidence of these crimes? 

This is a real question, for this is a view held by many people who consider themselves as being reasonable and balanced. The problem with this view is that it misidentifies the key variable involved in providing effective deterrence. Emotionally, it is natural to think of the severity of punishment as being the key to reducing this problem, whereas in fact, what is really critical is the certainty that these crimes will go punished. The problem today is that there is absolutely no guarantee that the perpetrators of such crimes get any punishment whatsoever, and even in the fraction of the cases where they do, the process takes far too much time. Raising the level of punishment or resorting to extra-judicial mechanisms cannot be a substitute for the real task – to ensure the consistent delivery of justice.

The other necessary condition for solving this problem in a more real way is to take every incident of sexual harassment seriously and to see to it punishment is meted out every single time. Focusing only on the truly sensational crimes, and particularly those involve ‘people like us’ is of little use. The Hyderabad brand of justice, far from helping the cause of punishment, serves to work in exactly the opposite way. It gives us a false sense of comfort that something was done. The way in which an inept and corrupt system continues in perpetuity is by providing us with the occasional exceptional ‘solution’, which only serves to legitimise it. 

In this case, for instance, the very police that is being feted today, refused to lodge an FIR initially, and by doing so, lost a valuable opportunity to have prevented the crime itself. Also, if it’s somewhat convenient account of what happened is true, then it reveals the worst kind of unprofessional ineptitude against which severe disciplinary action should be taken. And if their story is untrue, then they are guilty of murder. 

But we know that the system doesn’t work so isn’t some action, even if extra-judicial, better than none? The problem with this argument is that it ignores the negative and downright dangerous consequences of legitimising such actions.  

In glorifying this kind of an encounter, we are emboldening the police to act in ways that have far-reaching consequences for all of us. Given the sway that politics and money has over the police force, does giving them the right to deliver this form of justice without any checks and balances feel like a smart thing to do? Do we really believe only the guilty will get punished or will this be a licence to implicate the more vulnerable sections of society while giving a free pass to the powerful? Have we not seen innumerable examples of the complicity of the police in protecting the criminal and the powerful in these kinds of cases? Both the Unnao cases are graphic reminders that the police can often be aligned with the criminals rather than the victims. 

This is also not primarily a debate between advocates of human rights and those that argue that the police did what needed to be done. It is not a debate between soft, bleeding hearts who keep whining about due process and hold candlelight marches and those that are practical, hard-headed and are willingness to do what needs to be done. This is a debate between methods that work, however difficult they might be, and those that make things worse. One can empathise, to an extent, with those that support this action, and relate to the anger and frustration that is felt but giving oxygen to this kind of action is both counter-productive and dangerous in the long run.  What is in effect being done is to give a rotten system licence to continue being rotten as long as it gives us cathartic gratification once in a while. We want an easy answer when there is none. The system needs to be pushed relentlessly to work better. There is no other way.

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