The Supreme Court today (May 5) upheld the death sentences of the four men who gangraped Jyoti Singh on-board a moving bus in New Delhi in 2012, a crime that sparked unprecedented street protests, and even prompt action from lawmakers who made the existing rape laws more stringent and renamed it "Nirbhaya" laws in memory of the 23-year-old a physiotherapy student.
As soon as the Supreme Court judges declared the gangrape a "rarest of the rare" and "barbaric" crime and announced that the four men will hang to death, there were loud cheers and applause, not only from Jyoti's parents and relatives in court, but even from reporters present inside or outside the courtroom. Even the infamous Indian "conscience" was also shaken, Justice R Banumathi said.
The last recourse of the convicts, all of whom in their 20s and belonging to the lowest strata of Delhi's urban poor, would be to seek clemency from president Pranab Mukherjee, who has, unfortunately for them, displayed a penchant for sending convicts to gallows. On his way out in July, Mukherjee recently cleared his desk, rejecting 28 of 32 mercy petitions pending in his office.
In other words, the office of the head of the state itself became, in the recent times marked by a spike in social hostility and violence, the legitimiser of an idea of justice that believes it should be retributory. Death for death.
Expressions like "rarest of the rare" are words that reveal our hypocrisy more than the gravity of a crime.
In a country like ours, where state violence, even of the sexual kind, is legitimised through its forces, police and state-patronised majoritarian militia to brutalise India's vulnerable minorities, expressions like "rarest of the rare", "barbaric" and "society's conscience" are words that reveal our hypocrisy more than the gravity of a crime.
After the December 16 gangrape, angry crowds at India Gate and other parts of the country carried banners that said, "Hang the rapists", "We want justice". A Facebook page called "Hang the Rapists" was created, and there were multiple calls for public lynching of the six men to act as deterrant against sexual crimes (chemical castration of the men was another suggestion).
While the anger towards the rapists in the Nirbhaya case is understandable, it happened in a city that records, on an average, 50 crimes against women every day, including at least four cases of rape. Across India, an average of 100 women are raped every day. And that's only the cases reported to the police.
Studies across the world have shown that the threat of death penalty is no deterrant against heinous crimes like rape or murder. The United States, for example, has one of the highest incidences of capital punishment as well as crimes against women. The Amnesty International also opposes death penalty in all circumstances, regardless of the nature of the crime. Over 140 countries have abolished capital punishment today.
In India, on the other hand, there is widespread celebration, even by the media, over the Supreme Court sending four rapist-murderers to gallows. It reveals two things: India's new-found lynch-mob mentality against the "other", and the failure of the state as the upholder of justice.
The two are complimentary. As the state panders to the majority "us" and plays to their perceived sense of victimhood and fears, lynching, killing, raping and brutalising the "other" has become the majority's idea of justice. Justice not only becomes retributory, it is instant.
That explains why while crimes against women are a norm in this country, Jyoti's brutalisers and killers deserve to be killed (or lynched) since they targeted a middle-class woman. One of theirs. The crime had turned India's rape culture on its head. The powerful rape the powerless and the vulnerable with impunity, even state sanction — not the other way.
All this raises the question: how did Nirbhaya case become a "rarest of the rare" crime?
If you look at the history of rape cases in India, the media outrage has mostly been in incidents where the survivors (or victims) belonged to the middle-class, and their perpetrators from an inferior social order.
In cases where the perpetrators are a mob, or belong to the state's security apparatus, the standards are different. Ask the marginalised — Dalit, Muslim, or tribal — women in Gujarat (2002), Muzaffarnagar (2013), Delhi (1984), or in Bastar, Kashmir or the Northeast.
The Gujarat story, for example, is also about large-scale sexual violence. The Bilkis Bano, heard only yesterday in Bombay High Court, is one. In 2002, Bilkis was 19 and pregnant when she was gangraped. Her attackers smashed the head of her three-year-old daughter in front of her eyes. Thirteen of her other family members were massacred before her eyes.
For India's judiciary, it was not a "rarest of the rare" case. And it's just one such story.
In Bastar, tribal rights activist Soni Sori was raped in police custody, and tortured with stones inserted in her vagina. In Kunan-Poshpura, 23 Kashmiri women were gangraped by Army jawans during a raid. Hundreds of women are gangraped and even killed during communal riots.
These attacks are only examples of a pervasive rape culture, where the vulnerable and marginalised women become easy targets in areas of conflict. But since the "us" is at war with "them" in those times and areas of conflict, brutalising of women is perhaps just collateral damage.
What then made Nirbhaya a "rarest of the rare" case for the Supreme Court judges?
The details of the bestiality that were painstakingly narrated, preserved, and repeated all these years in public. And received with shock, abhorrence, and even anger by "us". The distraught parents who had made justice for Jyoti their only goal in life.
What those honourable judges forgot was that Jyoti or her parents were like any other survivor of sexual violence. They also had similar details or carried the same scars.
But who talks to them or their parents?