Monday, December 24, 2012

The madness that passes as protest

Looking at the front page photograph of a huge mass of humanity, mostly male, pressing against police barricades at Raisina Hill, I can’t help but wonder how many women protesters were groped and mauled in the melee that is being created over the Delhi gang-rape incident. The crowd did not look like it was made up exclusively of socially aware, conscientious, ethical young men and women. On the contrary, it looked like the usual mishmash of opportunists, bystanders, watchers, and thrill seekers, augmented by a bunch of “swept by emotion and caught up in the flow” kind of crowd.

This has been the character of almost all the recent “citizens’ movements” from Anna’s crowds to Ramdev’s pressure cooker brigade, to this one. This is just another exercise in catharsis and guilt assuaging by the middle class Indian. We know we are largely to blame for the perpetuation of these social evils, and we feel vaguely bad about the fact, and these “MOVEMENTS” give us the perfect opportunity to feel like we are making a huge difference, which in turn relieves our guilty consciences. And yes, there are the usual numbers of opportunists, from pickpockets to those seeking cheap thrills from pinching bottoms. And this became super evident with the violent turn the protests took. As long as the actual protestors were conducting matters, everything was fine, and even when the police – unprovoked – opened up with water cannons and tear gas, the protestors did not retaliate, and stopped each other from reacting. However, pretty soon the more unsavoury parts of the mob took over and full scale rioting began, with its usual side effects, the looting, the mayhem.

While it feels great, and makes us all glowy and warm to think of how the “average Indian” (whoever that might be) takes so much interest in righting wrongs, demanding justice, and making his/her voice heard. But is that what’s really going on? And are we asking for the right things with this voice? Seems not, from where I stand. First of all, we have seen this farce before. The sudden upsurge of anger, the marching on the streets, the chanting, the slogans, and then the dissipating numbers, the disappearing crowds, until the whole things fizzles out. Seems to me like the same pantomime is being played out all over again. A couple of days, and then everything will be back to the usual grind, everything forgotten.

As for the demands, they are fairly ridiculous, and proof of how emotions, not thought, are calling the shots here. Demanding the death penalty for a crime where the maximum allowed penalty by law is seven years in jail, just shows the total absence of any understanding of how crimes are punished. There is NO WAY that a court can LEGALLY award more than the maximum penalty allowed, no matter how loud such a demand might be from a bloodthirsty public. Even if the law is amended, as certain groups and factions are demanding, it would still not apply to this case, which was registered when the old law was in effect. Also, let us not forget the hugely complicated and politically fraught process that needs to be gone through before the law can be changed. It isn’t happening for so many MORE basic things, it is highly unlikely it will happen here, and screaming is not going to make it so.

Anyway… to any rational person the answer to the problem is NOT awarding the death penalty in the “rarest of rare” rape cases, but to properly enforce the current punishments. After all, as the Apex court is already realizing, the “rarest of rare” definition leaves the decision TOTALLY up to the presiding judge, with all his/her prejudices and mental blocks. It is already being applied to randomly in cases of murder, how much worse will it be when you bring in a highly contentious and inhibition arousing matter like rape? Also, such a provision increases the tendency to let most of the offenders go free. “If it wasn’t bad enough to deserve the maximum, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all” is the usual rationale. It has been seen in effect for so long in rape cases which have managed to get to court, for years. Even with a seven year maximum, without any need to prove that it is “rarest of rare”, hardly anyone gets any sentence, with the few who do hardly ever going to jail for more than a year or two.

It is not likely that the judges who won’t even send rapists to jail will suddenly start hanging them, left right and center. An effective deterrent is never one that is heavy but never applied, it is one that may be lighter, but is applied efficiently. If the police register the cases without refusing to, if they stop further humiliating the victim with sneers and lewd comments, if the investigating agencies actually begin to investigate the cases lodged, instead of just making token efforts as a show or completely shelving it, if the cases are tried fast, and effectively, and if EVERY single rapist goes to jail for seven years, pretty soon no one will dare commit the crime. No one wants to lose seven years of their life. Forget the social environment we create that promotes rape, forget families that teach NOTHING of value to their sons, forget the whole socio-economic-political roots of the problem. Simply making it difficult to legally get away with rape will bring the numbers down. As of now, a rapist knows as a certainly that he will probably never be arrested. If he is arrested, he wont be prosecuted. If he is….by some strange and horrible chance… actually prosecuted, he won’t go to jail at all. If, horror of horrors, he IS sent t jail, which is a one in a 10,000 kind of probability, it will be a virtual holiday at a lightly guarded, easy going, jail, for MAYBE a couple of years.

Given this situation, it is actually surprising that more women are not raped everyday, as they are molested. After all, the punishment for both is the same… NOTHING. Just streamlining and making the legal system will change all that. It will make sure more women come forward to report the crime, and more cases are registered, and more cases actually go to court, and more rapists are actually convicted, for a sizable duration. THEN we will see real change. Screaming for a kill on the streets is NOT going to achieve any of this.  

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