Rape Laws: Stringent yet ineffective

Problem with Indian justice system is that it takes time to deliver its verdict.

The problem with the law on rape in India is not its efficacy but its implementation. For this reason, those demanding medieval-era punishments like lynching and burning of the guilty in the wake of the rape and murder of the Hyderabad veterinarian are addressing the wrong end of the menace.

India’s rape laws are fairly stringent. In the aftermath of the rape and murder of a student in Delhi—widely known as the Nirbhaya case—the law was amended to give courts powers to sentence the guilty to not just life terms but also death in rarest of rare cases. Apart from increasing the magnitude and severity of the punishment, the new law expanded the definition of rape including forced penetration, oral, vaginal or anal, with any foreign object. Also, under the new law, police and other public servants can be taken to court for not taking action on complaints from women. Most importantly, the process of recording the statement of the victim was made easier to stop harassment by the defence counsels. After the changes, the ‘character of the victim’—a ruse used by many accused—was made irrelevant, and absence of consent was presumed in a case where the victim states in the court that she did not agree to sexual intercourse. If followed in letter and spirit, implemented with fairness and alacrity, the laws are quite adequate to bring the guilty to justice. In fact, some activists have criticised them for being gender-biased and open to misuse.

The problem with the Indian justice system is that it takes a long time to deliver its verdict, and, as the Nirbhaya case shows, implement it. The process of trials, appeals, reviews and mercy petitions is so long that most accused manage to evade the full quantum of punishment. It is this delay that needs to be addressed through speedy trials—which will benefit even the accused where the charges are false—and then fastracking the implementation.

The outrage over the Hyderabad veterinarian’s murder and rape is justified—the diabolic nature of the crime has shaken India’s collective conscience. But demands for summary execution of the accused, mob justice and lynchings are overblown—they sound good as rhetoric but defy the basic principle of law that allows every person a fair trial. Death penalties and summary executions—the kind practised in medieval ages and by jihadists of the Islamic State—are impudent also because they leave no scope for correction in case the verdict reserves a review or may have been erroneous.

Our collective demand in the wake of the recent incidents should be for implementing the existing laws, fast trials and timely execution of the verdict. All these would be better deterrents than emotional reactions to the rape menace.