Retributive justice doesn’t solve rape ‘culture’

For representational purposes (Express Illustrations)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations)

In the early hours of December 6, four men accused in the brutal Hyderabad gangrape-murder case were allegedly taken to the crime spot by officers from the Telangana Police to ‘recreate’ the crime. The four were subsequently shot dead by police after they allegedly tried to escape. As more details of the incident came to light, it became clear that the encounter can effectively be construed as being extra-judicial and extra-constitutional.

This ‘encounter’ is an opportunity for us to dwell on the larger issue of reactionary responses to cases of violence against women, and how we need to rethink the ideas of ‘justice’ itself. In the aftermath of the Hyderabad gangrape-murder, popular opinion veered towards retributive justice, with even prominent lawmakers expressing the need for violent revenge against the alleged accused. The contemporary demand for justice from a large number of people, who are expressing opinions both online and offline, resembles the fervour that is reminiscent of popular spectator sports. It is not justice that is being demanded, but violent vengeance that matches the crime.

An effective justice system, however, centres around deterrence and not retribution. Killing the rapist doesn’t kill the problem of rape. Political opportunism can often seem like progressive ideas of justice, but it is irresponsible and ineffective. In the Hyderabad case, as in the case of the Unnao rape-murder, the core issues remain — the blatant streak of violence against women, the impunity with which rapists continue to commit crimes against women, and the rocky road towards true justice for the victims and survivors. Ideas of justice that centre vengeance and spectacles of bloody violence, in fact, only reinforce the toxic ideas that make rapes and gender-based violence possible in the first place.

Portrayal of crimes like rape and femicide in the media also relies on sensationalism, a not-so-small factor that feeds the prevalent ideas of retributive justice. The language used often zeroes in on insignificant details of the person who is the victim or the survivor, redirecting the focus from the heinousness of the crime itself and the pointed responsibility of the criminal(s) involved. These details also often risk the safety, privacy and dignity of the aggrieved families. The lack of ethical reporting in the Hyderabad case was glaring — the victim’s face and details of her personal life were made available for easy access and found great amplification on social media sites. Verbiage such as beti (daughter) to represent the victim, and darinda (monster) to represent the rapist further deepen the black-and-whiteness of such cases that is pervasive. By attaching a family epithet to a rape victim or survivor, we set out to communicate that rape doesn’t exist within families, or that rape is unthinkable against family members. Statistics will prove that the home remains one of the most dangerous places for women, and that violence against women are often perpetrated by persons known to her. To tag a rapist a monster is to cut them off from the hordes of supposedly good men who do not rape. This absolves us all from the responsibility of building a rape-free society and pegs the blame on just a few criminals.

Violence against women in India has become a matter of national emergency. It demands not ad-hoc and impulsive sentimentality, but a concerted and comprehensive overhaul of the justice system, along with a larger introspection by all of us on how we contribute to a society where rapes happen so wantonly and rapists escape so easily. Capital punishment doesn’t address ‘rape culture’. This form of ‘punishment’ does not address re-traumatisation of rape survivors at police stations in the form of moral policing and slut-shaming, it does not solve everyday sexism and misogyny, and it doesn’t look at the problematic portrayals of women in popular cinema which often normalise violence against them.
Building a truly just India is a collective responsibility.
(With inputs from Vimochana)

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