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Delhi rape leads to extreme suggestions

Publication Date : 04-01-2013


An unfortunate fallout of a ghastly crime like the gang rape of a Delhi girl last month is that the outpouring of grief and anger can arouse irrational sentiments among the sympathisers.

One evidence of the unreasonable views which were prevailing among the protesters was the demand of a young girl for dispensing with “this trial thing” and hanging the culprits straight away.

If her youth can be an excuse for this comment of an overwrought person, the same cannot be said for Anna Hazare’s call to hang all rapists in public. He made this observation before a gathering of his followers in his home town of Ralegan Siddhi where an effigy of a “criminal” was shown to be hanging.

This was not the first time that the crusader against corruption has favoured this form of punishment. After Ajmal Kasab was hanged, Anna regretted that the execution was not carried out in public-- chaurahe pe or at the crossroads so that it could attract the maximum number of viewers. The crusader is also known for his penchant for flogging drunkards.

However, in calling for public hangings, the putative “Gandhian” has ignored the reasons why public executions have been abolished all over the world.

The last public execution took place in Britain in 1868 and in the US in 1936. According to an article in History Today, “the rise of the modern state depended on people restraining the kind of vengeful and sadistic emotions which had found expression in the violence and ribaldry of crowd behaviour during public executions”.

But, there was another view, articulated by, among others, the French philosopher-historian, Michel Foucault, which said that public executions were abolished “not because they were inhumane, but because they were ineffective”. The argument was that governments became “increasingly alarmed at the behaviour of execution crowds, who treated the occasion as a kind of carnival” when people taunted the guilty and pelted “rotten fruit” at him.

It is obvious that the spectacle of public hanging can have a brutalising effect, especially on children, some of whom can take to torturing kittens and puppies and even other children.

It goes without saying that even in a time of deep sorrow, there is a need to observe restraint, especially by public figures. If Anna Hazare preferred only public hanging, film maker Ram Gopal Verma wanted Kasab to be “lynched and tortured to death instead of being just hung” although his death brought to a “happy hanging ending” the anger and “blood-thirsty craving to punish Kasab that was experienced by almost each and every Indian”. However, the news of the death came “so completely out of the blue (that it) was very akin to a sudden orgasm without having even a teeny-weeny bit of foreplay”.

A psychologist is likely to read a meaning in the reference to sex in the context of a violent and cruel death. But, Verma at least admitted that his “uncontrollable emotions” (were) “in conflict with our civil behaviour and since we belong to a democratic country with the rule of law prevailing, we will have to make do with this and light up another candle in the memory of those unfortunate victims of 26/11”.

The grudging awareness of the need for “civil behaviour” recalls the views of 19th century European sociologists who saw the end of public hangings as a “civilizing process”.

As a part of this process, the torture of the guilty before his execution was abolished in France just before the revolution. Now, not only are torture and public hangings banned, an overwhelming majority (84 per cent) of the 188 countries which have a written Constitution have also banned the death penalty.

India is not among them, but it can be said to be on the way since the Supreme Court has laid down that capital punishment will be given only in the “rarest of rare cases”. Yet, the eagerness with which the death penalty was sought by many of the protesters showed that their anguish and anger had not only blinded them to the prevailing international norms and trends, but they probably did not have any idea about the subject.

The BJP (Indian People's Party), too, demanded the death penalty. But, its case is different. As a fascistic party, it can be expected to take an extreme position on the subject to highlight its muscular, emotion-driven tactics. It also uses the topic as a political tool.

As is clear from its persistent demand for the hanging of terrorists in general and Afzul Guru in particular, who has been convicted in the 2001 attack on Parliament, it likes to portray the opponents of capital punishment as bleeding heart liberals who are soft on the “enemies” of the country.

But, while these attitudes--of Anna, Ram Gopal Verma, the protesters, the BJP--are explicable as expressions of ignorance, “uncontrollable emotions”, fury and politics, it is a pity that the hours of television debate paid little attention to the pros and cons of the death penalty and hardly any experts were invited to discuss the subject, especially when one view, expressed by the former Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan, is that the chances of a rapist killing his victim will rise if rape entails capital punishment.

The writer is a former Assistant Editor of The Statesman.


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