India divided on death sentence for rapist gang

The death sentences handed to the four rapists in the Delhi bus attack invited reflection about how the judgment might change India, a country in which sexual violence against women is rife.

Protesters hold candles and march outside a court in Delhi mark the verdict in the rape and murder of a student last year.

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NEW DELHI // As Judge Yogesh Khanna prepared to sentence four men convicted of raping and murdering a young student last December, an impatient crowd gathered outside the courthouse in south Delhi.

Babli Devi, a 40-year-old woman from Badarpur village outside the capital, was among them, jostling for position in front of reporters near a police barricade.

She was apprehensive. “If the judge does not hang them, I can guarantee you that tonight the men in our slum will be drinking and celebrating that they can get away with hurting a woman,” she said.

Then the sentence was delivered: death by hanging for all four men. Cheers broke out in the crowd, and Ms Devi heaved a sigh of relief.

“This is the right decision,” she said. “This should show men that they cannot harm us any more without being punished.”

The story of last December’s gang rape, aboard a moving bus, is hardly over. The four defendants can file appeals in a high court and then in the Supreme Court, before finally petitioning the Indian president for mercy.

But yesterday’s sentencing invited reflection– about the effect of the case and the verdict, and about how it might change India, a country in which sexual violence against women is rife.

“What this case has taught us is that even if a woman is accompanied by a male relative, even if she dresses decently and does not provoke men, a group of men can still hurt her,” Ms Devi said. “So where is the guarantee? There is no guarantee of our safety.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, the south Asia director of Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the resolution of the case pointed to “no easy solution” to the larger issues about women’s safety in India.

“We need systemic reforms, a trained and accountable police force, [and] an end to the culture of blaming the victim more often than the perpetrator by commenting on lifestyle choices of women,” Ms Ganguly said yesterday.

The death sentence itself, she added, was not welcome.

India had, for more than a decade, conducted no executions until last year.

“We urge the Indian government to announce an official moratorium on the death penalty and work towards abolishing it altogether,” said Ms Ganguly.

Tara Rao, the director of Amnesty International India, said: “Sending these four men to the gallows will accomplish nothing except short-term revenge.”

But others, including India’s home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, thought that the death sentence would act as a deterrent.

“It passes on the message that if you commit this crime, this is the punishment you will get,” Mr Shinde said yesterday.

Some sections of the media and many users on social media were quick to hail the trial as landmark judgement. But V Rajeev, a Bangalore-based lawyer, disagreed.

The death sentence, he said, applied to the murder convictions – not an uncommon occurrence in India.

“Some might say that the fact that the trial was completed in seven months makes it a landmark,” Mr Rajeev said. “But would the case even have been sent to the fast-track court if there hadn’t been so much uproar around it? No way.”

Far from providing closure, the sentence would not change the realities of rape trials and convictions in India, according Albeena Shakil, an activist with the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Out of all the thousands of rape cases registered with the police, “the trial is completed only in 14.9 per cent of the cases,” Ms Shakil said.

“There are more than 100,000 pending rape cases in the criminal justice system,” she added.

Shikha Rai, a 32-year-old woman who had accompanied Ms Devi to the courthouse, was happy with the sentencing, saying she “strongly believed these men should die for what they did to that woman”.

“It’s a pity they won’t suffer the way she did.”

She doubted that the verdict and sentence would make the streets of Delhi safer for her.

“You cannot see the change in society yet,” she said. “Just because of this case though, we may be able to hold our heads higher.”