“Your f*cking political games... sick bastards... I’m sorry about the language but read it for yourselves and see what world we live in… You call these men..? F*cking castrate them so they can never hurt another child or woman and live as a branded rapist in shame…”
This was actor Varalaxmi Sarathkumar reacting to the gruesome details presented in the police chargesheet in the kidnapping, confinement, gang rape and subsequent brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, near Jammu. Her emotions were and continue to be echoed by many across the country. “Cut their balls", “put a bullet in their heads”, “torture them”, “hang them”, “make them face the firing squad” and many more "requests" of similar nature have been made my thousands on social media.
Calls for retribution such as these are both expected and understandable given how the case and its chilling details have managed to hold the collective imagination of Indians hostage; details like how a policeman — one of the rapists — wanted to rape her "one last time" before killing her, how her rapists strangled her, and just to make sure she was dead, hit her head twice against a stone.
Details like how this ungodly act was committed in a bid to punish the Bakarwal Muslim community — a mostly-Sunni nomadic tribe based in the Pir Panjal and Himalayan mountains of South Asia — and scare them away from Rasana village. And the fact that lawyers of the state called a strike in defence of the accused and how the Kathua Bar Association had last week prevented members of the state police from filing a chargesheet in the matter in front of the chief judicial magistrate. How members of both BJP and Congress protested the arrest of the accused under the banner of Hindu Ekta Manch.
Those shocked, aggrieved, horrified, exasperated and enraged by the turn of events would obviously need to vent — and that comes in the primal form of retribution. The desire for revenge stems from disenchantment in law enforcement and due process. The bloodlust is only fuelled further by the collective anger.
Back in 2015, Justice N Kirubakaran of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court made headlines when he pronounced that “blood curdling, horrific, sadistic, terrifying, shocking, cruel and brutal gang rapes of toddlers in New Delhi, in October 2015, would definitely justify this court to suggest castration as an additional punishment for child abusers, especially child rapists" in a case where a UK national was accused of sexually abusing a boy.
“The suggestion to castrate may look barbaric. But barbaric criminals needed barbaric punishment. The very thought of punishment should deter the criminal from committing the offence,” the judge had observed.
But is castrating or brutally killing or torturing the rapists a solution?
One, the idea of castration as punishment is not just barbaric but also very primitive: an eye for an eye. Two, it is decidely ineffective. Even if administered legally, chemical castrations are not for life, that is there is no guarantee that a man will forever be sexually dysfunctional or that he won't again commit rape despite chemical castration — either surgically removing a man's testicles or treating him with drugs.
There are many reasons for this. For one, castrations, conducted chemically or surgically, do not mean the removal of the offender’s penis. Additionally, castration lowers one’s libido by lowering the levels of testosterone. This may be countered by taking testosterone supplements. In fact, castration does not eradicate sexual arousal or function. It doesn't obliterate arousal, drive or the ability to perform a sex act. But more importantly, rape and sexual assault are often also the result of mental disorders and personality traits, neither of which are impacted by castrations: a man who rapes for sadistic pleasure or to establish control may find a way to do so even without functional genitals.
Castration, as a general law for child abuse, child sexual assault and child rape is also ineffective on another count — it does not account for women abusers. The demand for castration as punishment also comes from a narrow view of rape that limits it to forced penetration or sodomy.
But barring the actual problems that surround this “solution”, the demand for castration, lynching, torture or death as punishment itself is problematic, especially in this case. The demand comes with the taint of vengeance, not justice. And that is what prevents people from being able to see its myopic scope.
Castration, torture, death penalty may sound great in punitive form, but they are certainly no deterrents to sexual assault and rape. Rape is also a cultural problem that cannot be solved merely by instilling fear. After all, if the fear of death sentences could deter murder, the world should have been rid of that crime decades, perhaps, centuries ago.
Speaking on death penalty for rapists, Swagata Raha, a legal consultant with the Centre for Child and the Law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, said: “The death penalty is a low-hanging fruit to go after perpetrators. The laws are getting more penal but where are the fundamental changes to strengthen the system? Will justice be done by hanging a few people? Enough studies show that it is not a deterrent. Where are the structures and changes at the systemic level?”
The bigger issues — rampant misogyny, a culture of rape and patriarchal constructs — are often overlooked. That rapes and child abuse can be put to an end through gender sensitisation is largely ignored by Indians on most days. But every so often, when cases like the one in Kathua emerge, a sudden need to instil fear in rapists and potential rapists through punishments like castration, torture and death is often condoned by the same crowd that perpetuates rape culture through victim shaming and refusing to believe victims.
In the Kathua rape case, another aspect has to be factored in. It was a crime motivated by bigotry; bigotry that has been normalised in India today by a large section of the Hindutva-Right. Cruel punishments will not change that mindset, especially when the nation has already witnessed the depravity of the groups in the form of support for the rape accused.
Citing examples of China (death sentence or castration), Saudi Arabia (beheading), North Korea (death by firing squad) or Afghanistan, Egypt or Iran (firing squad or hanging) to make a case for harsh punishment does not quite do the trick either.
All one has to do is check the prevalence of civil liberties in either country to realise why such punishments exist.
It is easy to quench one’s bloodlust by asking for such brutalities. It may provide instant gratification. To some, perhaps even to the family of the eight-year-old girl, it may come as closure.
Yet, it fails to tackle the bigger problem: a culture that sees it fit to gang-rape and murder a child to remove a community from the lands it considers "its own".