By coming out with a heady combination of concrete proposals and tough actions, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has put herself in the forefront of the national debate on dealing with rape, and the issues of prevention and punishment. Harsher punishment and speedier conviction as modes of deterrence constitute the key features of her 13-point plan for ending sexual violence and securing justice for rape victims. Among the most noteworthy of her points is the decision to set up fast-track Mahila courts in each district to deal with sexual crimes against women. This, coupled with day-to-day trials, could guard against rape cases dragging on indefinitely, sapping the energy of victims, and destroying their will to fight for justice. Too often, the ordeal they undergo as they help in the investigation and participate in the trial prompts victims to give up their fight midway. Enlisting women investigators and prosecutors, as envisaged in the Chief Minister’s plan, could ease some of the psychological trauma of the victims. Ms Jayalalithaa also announced a set of procedures that would enable monitoring of rape cases by senior police officers. For seeing the cases through right until the ends of justice are met, it is important to fix responsibility at the highest levels of officialdom. Likewise, installation of CCTV cameras in public buildings, launch of a helpline for women in distress, and additional security in malls and women’s colleges are all good initiatives.
While coming up with these thoughtful measures, it is unfortunate that Ms Jayalalithaa could not resist yielding to the calls for the death penalty and chemical castration of offenders. Rape is sexual violence of the most brutal kind, and those who advocate chemical castration are obviously seeing it as an act of sex rather than as an act of violence. If a criminal is deemed so potentially violent that chemical castration is needed to prevent repeat offences, what is the guarantee that he would not resort to other forms of physical violence against women? As a deterrent too, there is no reason why it should work any better than death penalty, and there is enough evidence that death penalty hardly works as a deterrent. As for amendments to Central laws such as raising the one-time remand period from 15 days to 30 days, these need to be debated thoroughly in the context of their possible misuse by law-enforcing authorities. Also, it remains to be seen whether the inclusion of rape in the Goondas Act, which would result in preventive one-year detention without bail, survives a legal challenge since this too is fraught with the potential for misuse.