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Of crime, and capital punishment
The debate on whether capital punishment is humane, necessary or even a deterrent at all will remain both relevant and alive.
But there is no doubt that the brutal Nirbhaya gang-rape-cum-murder case fell squarely into the “rarest of the rare”, a condition needed to be satisfied for according the death penalty, according to the Supreme Court (Bachan v/s State of Punjab). What happened to the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern on a moving bus on a dark December night in 2012 shocked the collective conscience of the nation. The Nirbhaya incident became emblematic of the violence perpetrated against women and highlighted the need for tougher laws to deal with crimes against them.
It took seven years to bring the case to closure, which ended with the hanging of the four young men who brutally tortured, raped and killed her. While this may seem a long time, bear in mind that the last hanging took place in 2013, that of Yakub Memon, a whole 10 years after he was sentenced in the Mumbai blasts case. As expected, the lawyers of the young men, did their best to prevent the extreme sentence from being carried out, but from the very beginning, it was clear that in the face of a determined government and judiciary, they could at best only delay it.
It was the Nirbhaya case that was responsible for sweeping changes in the law on rape, with the UPA government ushering in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. The very definition of what constituted rape was widened considerably and punishment enhanced. At the same time, the law laid down a slew of ‘new’ offences against women, such as the use of criminal force, unwelcome physical contact, voyeurism and stalking. The Act increased the punishment for gang-rape to 20 years imprisonment from the prevailing 10.
Another horrific rape that sparked nationwide outrage, that of a minor in Kathua, resulted in another amendment in 2018 which, among other things, specified capital punishment as a possible punishment for the rape of a girl under 12 years. There is no doubt that we need strict laws on crimes against women; such cases need to be fast-tracked as well. At the same time, it is worth keeping in mind that there is a wealth of empirical evidence to show that tough laws, including that of capital punishment, do not deter crime on their own. They need to go hand in hand with other steps, including better policing, quicker justice delivery, and social and economic measures that are aimed at preventing crime.