In 1988, Paramount Pictures released a powerful, moving courtroom drama based on the trial, held five years earlier, for the brutal gang rape of an American woman, Cheryl Araujo. “The first scream was for help. The second is for justice,” went the movie’s tagline. That call for justice was never fully answered in Araujo’s case, since most of the six men initially charged with raping her were either acquitted or served just a few years in prison. But the sheer savagery of the act jolted the United States at a time the country was getting wealthier, and its elites showed little interest in attending to the proliferation of sexual violence, especially among the underclass and the marginalised in society. For people in India, the 2012 Delhi gang rape case has served this purpose, while sparing us the travesty of justice that was the Araujo trial. There is no question we have come a full circle since the gruesome act of rape and murder in December last year shook us to the bone: justice has been done, with all the accused, including the juvenile offender, having been found guilty before a court of law after expeditious trial. In the interim, the laws dealing with sexual crimes have been strengthened, and we have had, and continue to have, a robust national conversation on ways to tackle India’s alarming rates of rape and sexual assault. But amid these progressive efforts, the Sessions Court’s decision to hang all four adult accused to death marks a step back — since it will have the effect of substituting the need for greater social, legal and even political efforts to tackle the epidemic of crimes against women with the false comfort of retribution.

The feeble link between the death penalty and its purported aim of deterrence should serve caution to the many among us who have welcomed the Sessions Court sentence with comfort, even alacrity. Handing down death to the Delhi gang rape accused is not likely to reduce the incidence of sexual crimes in India. In meting out the hangman’s justice — as opposed to putting the four away for life — the Sessions Court has regrettably missed an opportunity to turn the discourse away from retributive punishment to constructive dialogue on policing and legal reforms. How are we going to convince ourselves that this was a criminal act among the “rarest of the rare” when several instances of rape and murder of varying brutality have been reported since December 2012? To hang rapists and suggest they are “exceptional” anti-social elements goes against every effort to spread the message that rape is only too commonplace in India. Tough as it may be to find a solution to this grave problem, death to sexual offenders is not the answer. Appellate courts must now swiftly intervene, reverse the trial court’s judgment and sentence all four convicts in the case to an actual lifetime in prison.

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