No one enjoys looking at the faces of rapists over and over again. But on May 5, the images of four of the men who brutally raped Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012 repeatedly appeared on national television.
No matter how much we cringed at the sight of them, there is no denying the fact that there was a sense of satisfaction among people across India that justice had finally prevailed. The Supreme Court rejected the plea of the four convicts challenging the death penalty verdict that had been upheld in 2014 by the Delhi High Court, which described it as the “rarest of rare” cases.
Has justice really prevailed?
The question that many are raising is about the sixth rapist (one of the accused hanged himself in jail), the bus’s cleaner, who had been convicted as a juvenile and is now free after serving his three-year-term.
The young cleaner, who brutalized Nirbhaya with an iron rod, contributing to the horrific injuries that later proved fatal, was a model inmate at the juvenile home and was known for his religious devotion and self-discipline. He loved working in the kitchen and his fellow inmates regularly requested that he cook for them.
Since he committed the crime a few days before his 18th birthday, he escaped the death penalty. Now 23, he has apparently been rehabilitated by an NGO and is leading a peaceful life as a cook in a restaurant in South India with a new identity.
But the question that is on everyone’s mind is: did he get off too easily?
A rare case indeed
Although public opinion is divided over the death penalty, most Indians are satisfied that justice has prevailed in the Nirbhaya case. But if we look at the larger picture, justice in rape cases is rather elusive in India.
The conviction rate in rape cases was as low as 27% in 2013. Sadly, the furor over Nirbhaya’s case has done nothing to change that
Even when the Supreme Court was passing this judgment on Friday, a 12-year-old girl in Kolkata who recently gave birth to a baby fathered by a rapist was being asked to leave school by her principal and teachers. The perpetrators are still at large and her grandfather has been persecuted and ridiculed because of the rape by a kangaroo court in their village.
The conviction rate in rape cases was as low as 27% in 2013. Sadly, the furor over Nirbhaya’s case has done nothing to change that.
Take for instance the Park Street rape case. The late Suzette Jordan was gang raped in a moving car on Park Street in Kolkata on February 5, 2012. Three of the accused were immediately arrested and given 10-year jail terms. But the police did not apprehend the main suspect, Kader Khan, until 2016. He had supposedly left the country after the incident but was arrested in Delhi when someone tipped off the police that he was living there under an assumed name. The case is still in court.
In the case of Bilkis Bano, a pregnant woman who was gang raped while trying to escape the Godhra riots in 2002, the Bombay High Court rejected the Central Bureau of Investigation’s call for the death penalty for three of the 11 perpetrators to send a “stern message.” The 11 were already serving life sentences for committing the gang rape and murdering 14 members of Bano’s family, including her 3-year-old daughter.
These are cases that have received plenty of media attention, but getting justice for victims continues to be an uphill battle. Cases that don’t attract media attention usually go on for years in stuffy courtrooms until the victim and her family no longer have the resources or the will to go on. In many cases, the perpetrators harass and threaten their victims after they are released on bail.
A major hurdle victims face is getting their complaints registered in the first place.
Some positive steps to address the problem
- Compulsory jail time has been prescribed for non-military public servants who fail to register a complaint from a victim or commits a sexual assault himself.
- All healthcare providers must now give survivors of sexual violence or acid attacks free and immediate medical care.
- There’s a legal provision for compensation, but the relevant governments have not set up systems to quickly help victims.
- The new laws increase jail terms in most cases and impose the death penalty for repeat offenders as well as perpetrators of sex attacks that result in the victim falling into a coma.
- There has been no expansion of the courts, but there is hope that an amendment will ensure that “as far as possible” a trial will be completed within two months from the date of charges being filed.