A Death in Singapore
Posted on 1-January-2013
Every year, in the night of 31st December, as I do not personally join in the revelries to ring in the Christian new year, I think of those celebrating and indulge my taste for melancholy, at times curmudgeonly, reflections. The flavour of New Year's eve in Delhi and in much of India this year is one of mourning. There have been competitive announcements by political parties and their leaders, by different organisations, by private clubs and perhaps by other citizens' groups of the cancellation of their new year celebrations--as if, had it not been for these announcements, an ordinary observer would even have stopped to wonder whether those making these announcements celebrated the arrival of the new year and in what manner. He would instead wonder if those making these announcements felt in any real way the pain of losing the person whose death they said they were mourning. In fact the proclaimed mourning on the part at least of politicians and political parties reeks; it is nothing more than posturing, an organised political circus. Much as I would have liked to think of something else, I am unable to avoid thinking of the object of all this lachrymation: the death on 29th December in a Singapore hospital of a 23 year old Indian woman. She has now been named by some as the daughter of India and braveheart by some others--in the tropical climate of India words proliferate as much as all forms of life!
The young woman who died in Singapore had been gang raped in a moving bus she and her male companion had boarded late in the evening of 16th December in South Delhi. She, suffering from severe wounds, and her companion, who had been beaten up, had been thrown out of the bus. Till the 27th of December, doctors at a major hospital in Delhi grappled with her multiple injuries and ensuing complications. During the first few days, for the government, for the media and for people at large, the incident was just another among many similar ones that are reported every few days from different parts of the country. But by the ensuing weekend, people, many of them young, started coming out on the streets, expressing their anger, demanding action. No important leader in government spoke in response to the protests. The Prime Minister refused to meet them and also, as is his wont on such occasions, became invisible. The Interior Minister met a small group and said something meaningless. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, who holds in her hand all the strings of power, let it be known through her spin doctors that she had written letters to the Interior Minister and the Chief Minister of Delhi asking for stern action. When the protesters marched towards Raisina Hill, the area that houses the President of India and the Ministries of Defence, External Affairs, the Prime Minister's Office, the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry, they were forcefully stopped and that day and the next violence was used against them at nearby India Gate. The entire area was soon fortified; impediments of all kinds were placed so that people could not come to it. Yet the protests did not cease and, except for a small number of ugly incidents remained peaceful. There were similar protests elsewhere in the country. Predictably, opposition politicians, made statements critical of the government. Around Christmas time the government seems to have woken up--it is not clear that the government has woken up to the fact that the protests, sparked off by the rape incident, were an expression of anger at its incompetence, corruption and indifference to people's grievances--and then it went into overdrive. The Prime Minister made a brief appeal for calm. A Commission was appointed to make recommendations within thirty days about changes in the law on rape and another to enquire into allegations of police brutality.
On 27th December the government took the controversial decision to send the young woman to a hospital in Singapore. Two days later, when she died, statements, some tearful, started being made by anyone and everyone from the President of India downwards about how brave the woman was and how her death should be a reminder to everyone of women's dignity, of how hateful sexual offences against women were and how we must ensure that such incidents did not happen again. A chartered aircraft, along with a doctor and a policeman was sent to Singapore to bring back the woman's body and when it arrived in Delhi, the Prime Minister and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi were at the airport in person to receive it, on a chilly morning at about three. She was quickly cremated, almost before daybreak, away from public eye. All this leaves a number of inconvenient questions. It is moot whether on 27th of December the government did not already know that chances of the woman's survival were minimal and would rather she died in Singapore than in Delhi. An even more inconvenient question is whether the government will give the same facilities to every rape victim that it did to this person. It is quite obvious that the powers that be, adept as they think they are at manipulations and at spin, have over the last one week been primarily concerned with preventing further outbursts of public anger. Real, meaningful action to prevent recurrence of such crimes requires long term sustained effort which may even be beyond the current crop of India's politicians to make.
This has been open season for discussions in newspaper columns, on television talk shows, in seminar rooms, in salons, in public parks and in political speeches, of rape, its causes and of ways to prevent it. Everyone has his own legal or sociological theory. Some say rapists should be hung. Others recommend castration. Most ask for fast track courts. Those with a taste for sociological explanations or for criminal psychology point at various aspects of Indian culture, above all patriarchy, and say that unless the root causes are dealt with, the evil will not go away. Yet others point at the tension that exists between those who enjoy the fruits of India's new, urban consumer culture and the deprived youth, newly arrived from the countryside, struggling to find their feet in the cities. All the points being made about prevalence of rape in India due to different aspects of Indian culture may be, indeed are, wholly or partially true. Yet, there are three problems with explanations based on culture. Culture, its growth and changes in it are autonomous phenomena that do not easily yield to control by the state or by groups. These cannot be designed. For this reason changes in a society's culture are slow and can be achieved only partially through a long period of education. Overemphasising cultural explanations for criminal behaviour can become an excuse for not taking immediate, concrete steps to prevent or deter crime. Even in the best regulated society endowed with ideal cultural norms--whatever they be--there will be criminals.
While a state cannot by fiat change a society's cultural norms, it can force people to change their public behaviour and it can keep crime under control. For that to happen it has to have clear and unambiguous laws which it applies rigorously, ceaselessly and invariantly--rigorous, ceaseless and invariant application of the law is necessary for earning the citizens' respect for the law. Two examples may be useful. In the heart of Manhattan there is a large mosque where devout Muslims go and pray. From the minarets of the mosque there is never heard the voice of a muezzin and no group ever asks that the muezzin's call to prayer be allowed to be broadcast over loudspeakers, as is done in other parts of the world. In Singapore no one litters the streets. In India broadcasting the muezzin's call from mosques or devotional songs from Hindu temples over loudspeakers and littering the streets are part of the general ambience, though there are laws on the statute books for preventing both. Permissive attitudes towards lawbreaking--in a society like that of India with still strong family, caste and regional loyalties, the desire to seek special dispensations for kin is always great--are widely prevalent and destructive of the citizens' respect for the law. Only the state can put a stop to such permissiveness. On the specific issue of rape, two examples may be useful. Several decades ago, a woman trainee at Lal Bahadur Academy at Mussoorie, where new recruits to India's higher bureaucracy are trained, accused a fellow male trainee of trying to rape her. The Director of the Academy made a proper enquiry, found the accusation to be true and expelled the male trainee. The expelled trainee approached a senior Bihar politician, a member of his own caste, who in his turn approached the Prime Minister of India. The male trainee was reinstated and the Director of the Academy took the honourable course of resigning his job. Would that the Bihar politician or the Prime Minister had refused to intervene in the matter. A little more than a decade and a half ago, the son of a senior police official was accused of the rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo, a student of Delhi University. The trial court after many years of hearing acquitted the man. When in 2006, a trial court acquitted all the accused in the case of the murder of Jessica Lal, a serveuse at a bar in Delhi, there was a public outcry. Anger among the people was palpable because the main accused was the son of a politician from the ruling party. As a result, the High court of Delhi took up the case and eventually, Mukul Sharma, the main accused was sentenced to life in jail. Soon thereafter the Priyadarshini Mattoo case was revived and the accused, Santosh Singh was sentenced also to life in prison. In both these cases fathers of the accused had obviously manipulated the system while no one either in the police or in the criminal justice set up said no to them. It is only public protest that forced the system to respond in these cases as it has woken the governmental establishment up in the case of the December 2012 gang rape.
Rape is a serious crime like murder, arson, armed robbery, wanton killing whether in rage or as an act of terrorism and large scale defalcation of public money. To prevent all these there are laws, the police, or other agencies in the case of economic crimes, and the law courts. Compared to other countries India is inadequately policed. Such policemen as there are are poorly motivated, have been corrupted through years of misuse by local grandees, politicians and others, for their personal ends, being allowed in return to freely collect bribes, or they have been demoralised by interference by their superiors in the proper performance of their duties. One result is that the policeman tends to look at the common citizen with contempt. Refusal to listen to the complaint of common citizens or their rough treatment at police stations are widely reported. Such manpower as is available for ordinary, unglamorous but absolutely necessary patrolling of the policeman's beat is further depleted by diversion for attending to the various security needs of an unending list of important people in Delhi or in state capitals and by diversion for performing domestic chores at the houses of senior police officials. As a result the police seems to be absent in many areas and if a criminal knows that there is no policeman around he will commit a crime--rape, murder or burglary. Then investigations are either sloppy or manipulated. At trial courts, it is common for lawyers to coach witnesses, manipulate evidence and indulge in a thousand and one stratagems to prolong trial. Assuming that all the judges in lower judiciary are incorruptible--a large assumption to make even in the case of higher judiciary--the chances of conviction of criminals are low; the chances of quick convictions are extremely low. All this persuades the criminal that he can go unpunished after committing a crime, move around like a respectable member of society and even get elected to parliament. In the case of rapes, defence lawyers routinely seek to question the character of the rape victim--as if the rape of a prostitute is any more permissible than the rape of a virgin--and judges routinely allow such questioning. Policemen in charge of police stations tend not to take complaints of rape seriously.
In the wake of the December gang rape of Delhi, there has been a great deal of talk about changing the existing laws on rape to make them more stringent and also to set up fast track courts. None of these expedients can make a difference. Laws, no matter how strong, will remain useless unless they are enforced and if for all kinds of crimes fast track courts have to be set up, the question then will arise about the work to be done by non-fast track courts. The question also will arise whether all the courts should not be made fast track. Besides, the emphasis has to on preventing not only rape but all crimes, in fact all law breaking whether minor or major. It cannot be very difficult to change procedures so that in any given case there is a limit placed on the number of postponements a party can seek as also on the number of times a party can go in appeal to higher courts. Similarly if higher courts resorted to the practice of summarily dismissing appeals and petitions without hearing, they would end up lessening their burden. There are people well qualified to suggest practical, meaningful steps for ensuring speedy justice. Likewise there are numerous unimplemented recommendations about improving the functioning of the police. The task of improving law enforcement in India is enormous but a beginning has to be made somewhere and has to be pursued quietly, persistently and with determination. In the present climate where those who rule are more concerned with manipulating the system for personal gain or for self-perpetuation in power than with good governance, there is little chance that such an improvement will come about.Those accused of the gang rape on 16th December will in all probability get punished. Other criminals will roam free, some getting punished because despite its weaknesses the system still functions and some others getting punished when there is a public protest. After all time is seamless and the difference between 31st December and 1st January is only notional. There is no reason to think that 2013 will be any different from 2012. Soon the gang rape of December will have been forgotten about, reports by the two committees will have been submitted and India's government and politicians will resume doing what they do in the same manner as they have done in the past.