The “fearless one”, as she was memorialised in death, was just another young woman in Delhi, out with a friend in the dying days of the year, to watch a film, and then take a bus back home. For the family to whom she did not return that night, for whom December 16, 2012 brought unspeakable pain and injustice, for whom there is little reparation possible for the loss of a daughter, there is, perhaps, finally closure. More than seven years after the mortal sexual assault on the 23-year-old paramedic, four of the six men convicted for the horrific crime were hanged to death on Friday morning — after a legal process that saw them appealing against the verdict of capital punishment in the lower court, High Court, and Supreme Court. The parents of the young woman, especially her mother, have not flinched in seeking justice. Remarkably, in a society steeped in notions of patriarchal shame and honour, they pitched themselves in the public eye, in all their anger and anguish, and refused to let their daughter remain another unnamed rape victim. For them, the judicial execution of the convicted men offers a reprieve from a long nightmare.
For the rest, however, the answers are not as simple. Many political leaders have proclaimed that “justice has finally been done”. But the moral and ethical argument against capital punishment remains undimmed. Its tendency to be wielded disproportionately against the poorest and most marginalised and the lack of evidence that it acts as a deterrent against sexual crime blunt this easy, complacent idea of justice. The impatience that greeted the appeals of the convicted, as they exhausted all their legal options against their death sentence, from the public as well as the political class, reflects a longing for “quick”, populist justice that imperils the checks and balances in the legal system.
The gangrape and murder of the 23-year-old was a defining moment for Indian women and their survival in a deeply patriarchal society. For the thousands of women who turned up on Delhi’s streets on those December days to protest against the crime, it was as if they were marking their rage at a personal violation, at a long-silenced history of being reduced to shadowy citizens, policed at home and violently silenced in public. That roar of outrage was loud enough to force a government to pay heed. It also led to an examination of the many insidious ways in which patriarchy stains social life, from the language that routinely demonises women’s desires to the pernicious ways personal relationships hold them in check. It led to the setting up of the Justice Verma Committee, whose recommendations — from a repeal of AFSPA to the criminalisation of marital rape to advising against the death penalty for sexual crime — exhorted the nation to choose systemic change over vengeful laws. That road, if taken, could have led to a much-needed confrontation with hard questions which have been evaded in the spectacle of the execution. A cursory glance at data or headlines in these last seven years will reveal, India is nowhere close to preventing sexual crime against women, nor understanding what toxic breakdowns in society create men willing to violate, maim and rape.