If there is one message in the Mumbai Sessions Court’s judgment in the Shakti Mills gang rape cases, it is that the pervasive cynicism about the country’s criminal justice system, especially in rendering justice to victims of sexual violence, may not always be justified. The verdict of Judge Shalini S. Phansalkar-Joshi, sentencing four convicts to life terms for the gang rape of a telephone operator in the abandoned mill compound eight months ago, is noteworthy for meting out speedy justice as well as for imposing the maximum punishment available in law under the recently amended and strengthened penal provisions. There was much shock and anger when a photo-journalist was sexually assaulted by a group of youngsters, including a juvenile, on August 22 last year. The fact that she went to the police immediately encouraged another woman, the telephone operator, to come forward and disclose that she too had been gang-raped some weeks earlier at the same spot. A key response of the government after the Delhi gang rape of December 2012 was to amend the penal provisions relating to sexual violence. The Shakti Mills episode provided an opportunity to the judiciary to make use of the provision for enhanced punishment. It is significant that the judge has sentenced the four convicts under Section 376D, which deals with gang rape, to the maximum punishment of imprisonment for the remainder of their natural life. The sentence in the second incident involving the photo-journalist has been deferred after the prosecutor, invoking Section 376E, which provides for the death penalty for repeat offenders, demanded capital punishment. Three of the convicts participated in both the crimes, but it is debatable whether there is any case for awarding death, when life-long incarceration, which comes with the possibility of repentance and introspection, can serve the ends of justice.
There were moments in the last year or so when many believed that the national outcry since December 2012 may have been in vain, as sexual crimes continued to be reported, and no part of the country seemed safe for women. Yet, even if the larger malaise of sexual violence against women appears entrenched in society, it is of some comfort to know that there is no question of impunity. There is a fair degree of certitude now that timely complaints and disclosures would help the police to undertake a proper investigation, while public opinion and activism keep the issue alive so that the case is not derailed at the trial stage. As the Shakti Mills trials demonstrate, the way forward is in fostering trust in the system of criminal administration by efficient investigation and speedy trials.