Monday’s verdict in the rape and murder of a minor in Kathua proves that even the poorest of the poor can hope for justice, if all the concerned parties—the police, government authorities, media and the courts—do their jobs with honesty and sincerity. The sheer brutality and the communal overtones ensured that the crime grabbed global headlines, denting India’s image abroad. While passing the verdict, the judge of the fast-track court in Pathankot may have hoped that the judgment will act as a deterrent. But that, sadly, is likely to remain just a hope. According to the NCRB report of 2016, the latest in the series, nearly 40 per cent of the victims of sexual assault are minors. The most number of rape cases in which minors were victims were reported in Madhya Pradesh (2,467), Maharashtra (2,292), Uttar Pradesh (2,115), Odisha (1,258) and Tamil Nadu (1,169).
But more than the statistics, what is of greater concern is that the government seems to think that just passing stringent laws will deter crimes against minor girls. It was for this purpose that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) was enacted in 2012. Before POCSO, the accused in sexual assault cases of minors were booked under Sections 375 and 376 of the Indian Penal Code. The Act was brought into place in the hope that it would arrest the increasing cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children. But successive NCRB reports after 2012 clearly show that has not been the case.
Then last year, the government brought in a law that makes sexual assault of girls below the age of 12 punishable by death. All political parties gave it fulsome support even though experts have pointed out that mere laws are not enough to stop Kathua-like crimes. Even the Justice J S Verma Committee, formed after the infamous Nirbhaya case, had said that death penalty for rape would be regressive and might not have the desired effect. The need of the hour is to prevent crimes through a change of societal mindset and better policing.