Three years after a brutal gangrape in Delhi moved a nation, the 23-year-old woman’s mother stood up in a public forum, called her daughter by her name. She asked the people, the public that marched on Raisina Hill, lit candles in her daughter’s name at India Gate and petitioned the state to take steps to address a culture and climate of sexual violence, to remember Jyoti Singh and the anger and uprising she has come to emblemise. She also made an emotional appeal to keep incarcerated the youngest man convicted for the rape of her daughter, who, as a juvenile, is soon to be released from a reform home. From an anguished mother, this sentiment is understandable, even justified. That her pain and despair find echoes among a people benumbed by the routinisation of violence against women and embittered at the government’s inadequate and impotent efforts to punish and prevent the crime, too, is unsurprising.
But the state cannot allow one appalling case to dictate policy. The law cannot be applied selectively, and due process must be followed in the case of the juvenile convict in the December 16 case. In Parliament, BJP MP Hema Malini, among others, has asked for him to be treated and punished as an adult. Leading the charge in the campaign demanding harsher punishment for older teenagers convicted of heinous crimes is Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, who called on the Rajya Sabha to pass the revamped juvenile justice bill — already cleared by the Lok Sabha against the recommendation of its own standing committee — that would allow 16- to 18-year-olds accused in such cases to be tried as adults. This ignores a body of evidence across jurisdictions that suggests that longer and harsher sentencing for children aggravates alienation and encourages recidivism. At the same time, the new suite of laws to prevent sexual assault in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, hurriedly passed by Parliament in the aftermath of the gangrape, has not been enough to ensure speedy trials or secure convictions. The fast-track courts set up to deliver quick justice are clogged and affected by the same procedural deficiencies that stymie regular courts. Nor does the threat of capital punishment appear to have deterred rape.
Despite political parties and leaders ostensibly paying greater attention to women’s issues, police stations and courts remain hostile spaces for women. Streets in the city, often unlit, are unsafe at night, and safe public transport is still scarce. Having taken the easy legislative steps, the political class must renew its resolve, commence the hard task of finding more sensitive institutional responses to crimes against women. That would be a belated but fitting tribute to Jyoti Singh.
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