It’s becoming increasingly difficult in our country to freely hold an unusual opinion. This week’s brouhaha over an actor’s comments about the Delhi rape is the latest example.

A PTI news report came out last week, which quoted Indian actor Rahul Bose making some rather outlandish comments. Apparently, Bose is of the opinion that we must give the notorious December 16th rapists a chance to reform themselves.

The article appeared on several news websites, most carrying the same headline: “Delhi gang-rape accused must be given chance to reform: Rahul Bose”. Some indulged in clear editorializing with the headline “Rahul Bose speaks in favour of Delhi gangrape accused”

The lead paragraph stated, “Actor activist Rahul Bose on Friday came out in favour of giving the perpetrators of last year's Delhi gang rape a chance to reform…”

Much of the remaining article consisted of his actual quotes, but by then the average sensitive reader is blinded by the preposterousness conveyed in the headline and the lead.

Before you knew it, the comments section was filled with indignant retorts; each more incensed than the one below it. Sample these (reproduced just as):

u want afzal gurus n kassabs to hang so u can celebrate their deaths,but these evil doers u want them to reform?...

If his wife get raped then he will know the pain what the innocent girl gobe through, these type of idiots we have to shoot them for making this kind of ridiculous, disgusting statements…

Let his grandmother, mother or his sisters get raped and then he should talk like this...

Bose, presumably in response to the wave of hostility, resorted to Twitter to shed some light on his message, and posted a series of tweets that attempted to do so:

All criminals should be sentenced according to the law, but while serving time I believe if any of them show deep, genuine remorse they should be given a chance to reform in jail. Rapists included. But if the perpetrator shows no remorse, then neither should we. And for all those asking how I would feel if a person dear to me was raped, the answer is : very sad, even angry. But if, over time, the perpetrator showed, deep, genuine remorse while in jail, I would find it in my heart to forgive him. As a civilization that's the only way to evolve to a better, more peaceful place. Hate begets hate. Love, forgiveness even, stops that cycle.

Not surprisingly, this was enough for some news sites to generate a “follow-up” article with equally provocative headlines like “Rahul Bose won't apologise for his reform comments”.

This episode raises a number of points to ponder about:

Why are we so easily provoked?

With the internet, come the trolls. Trolls tend to be particularly graphic with their abuse, and writers often have to learn to take it in his or her stride. Not all dissent is trolling. When you disagree with someone who says rapists should be given a given a chance to reform, you can either counter the person with a coherent argument (dissent), or curse the person’s mother, sister, wife and daughter (trolling). In this case, there was a disturbing amount of trolling on Twitter and in the comment section of news websites.

These people who wished that Rahul Bose’s wife would get raped so he “understands the pain”, are they not assaulted by the multiple levels on which their words make no sense?

Firstly, when a woman is sexually abused, it is not her husband or her father that feels the pain, it is the woman herself. What was the need to bring the female relatives of Rahul Bose into the picture?

Secondly, don’t they see the hypocrisy in standing up for one rape victim by wishing for the rape of another? Doesn’t this make them as bad as the rapists, or at least as bad as they claim Rahul Bose is? Surely there’s a better way to get their point across.

The point is not whether Bose is right or wrong. The point is that there seems to be no space for an alternative opinion in our society. When 1 million people agree on something (rapists deserve no goodwill) and 1 person disagrees (rapists should be given the chance to reform), the apparent tendency is for the 1 million to pounce on this wayward one until he or she is forced to shut up. This insecurity of the majority is baffling. It’s as if they consider their common belief so fragile that it cannot endure the weight of debate.

We see this happen over and over again. At the Jaipur Litfest, when Ashis Nandy made a statement about SC/ST populations being prone to corruption, instead of waiting to confirm if he was being ironic, or putting Mr. Nandy in his place with well-thought out arguments, detractors chose the easy way out and tried to get him arrested.

The validity of Bose’s comments

At first glance, which is suspect is all a vast majority invested in the article, it seemed like Rahul Bose’s statement could be dismissed off as a deliberate controversy generator. But perhaps it was the fact that he was one of the few Bollywood actors that usually could be taken seriously outside of movies that struck an odd chord with some.

Bose’s comments were actually directed at all criminals, not in particular the perpetrators of the Delhi gangrape, as suggested by the news reports. In his opinion, criminals, whether rapists or otherwise, who show genuine remorse should be given a chance to reform in jail. It may be a wildly utopian notion to imagine victims of heinous crimes ever attain the kind of closure that will allow them to forgive their attackers, but as long as Rahul Bose is not imposing his belief on others, he should be allowed to have his.

It could be interesting to go off on a tangent and ponder about the concept of forgiveness. Should there be a blanket ban on forgiving all criminals? Or are some crimes less forgivable than others?

However, I think that it’s too soon to start worrying ourselves with what to do with convicts of sex crimes when our system can barely manage to take them off the streets in the first place (the National Crime Records Bureau puts the conviction rate for rapes in India at about 26%). We haven’t yet reached a stage where we have the luxury of arguing about criminal remorse; right now the priority should be to bring some sort of justice to the thousands of rape victims in our country. Since we are doing a shoddy job of ensuring that the rape survivor herself is able to rehabilitate her life, it is absurd to expect a public discourse on prisoner rehabilitation.

Journalistic responsibility

Also worth discussing is the role of the media. Though it is not common practice for newspapers/ websites to spend too much time enhancing an agency story (like PTI), it may be prudent for them to begin exercising a little more care in news selection and editing. If a story like this one (which was not of as much new value as it was provocative) has been selected, then it may be wise to present it as unsensationally as possible. It was quite clear that this piece of news was designed to incite more than to inform the public.

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )