By N. Jayaram
None but the most myopic or Hindu chauvinists could have failed to note the supreme irony in the two major events that took place in New Delhi on Friday, 13 September 2013: the sentencing to death of four men for the rape and murder of a woman on 16 December 2012 and the anointing as prime ministerial candidate of the man who is accused of orchestrating mass rapes and massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in February 2002.
While sentencing the four, Additional Sessions Judge Yogesh Khanna defended the application of the Supreme Court’s “rarest of rare” test as set out in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1983), by saying it “largely depends on the perception of society”. In other words the judge was saying courts would be swayed by public opinion. Incidentally, in Barwani, Madhya Pradesh, the same day, Special Judge Devendra Singh sentenced three people to death finding them guilty of setting fire to a bus in 2011 in which 15 people were killed. There are said to be 477 people on death row as of now. That is how rare the application of the death penalty has been.
The sentencing came a day ahead of the eighth anniversary, so to speak, of the last time a man was executed in India for rape and murder – Dhananjoy Chatterjee. Following his hanging on 14 August 2004, there was a hiatus until 21 November 2012 when the Pakistani militant Ajmal Kasab was executed for his role in the 2008 attacks in Bombay in which more than 160 people were killed. On 9 February 2013 Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri who was convicted of the 2001 Parliament attack, was executed. The highly dubious trial and appeal process in the Afzal Guru case has been rightly condemned. In its order the Supreme Court of India said “the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender”.
That collective conscience was invoked by Judge Khanna too: “The subjecting of the prosecutrix to inhuman acts of torture before her death had not only shocked the collective conscience, but calls for the withdrawal of the protective arm of the community around the convicts.”
Indian collective conscience, however, tends to remain relatively unperturbed when men, including members of the armed forces, the paramilitaries and the police, rape women from Dalit, Muslim, Adivasi, Christian and Northeast Indian communities.
As recently as on 24 August 2013, a 20-year-old Dalit woman was raped and murdered. After agitations led by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, a special investigation was ordered but it seems to be getting nowhere. Meanwhile, self-styled guru Asaram Bapu, 72, who was taken into custody after widespread campaigns over allegations that he had raped a 16-year-old girl in his Jodhpur ashram recently, has moved for bail.
Indian soldiers who gang-raped at least 53 women at Kunan Poshpura, Kashmir, in February 1991 have not stood trial. In fact the Indian state is in denial on that incident and civil society has mostly gone along with the official stance. Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher in Chattisgarh, was allegedly tortured and sexually abused in 2011. The police officer who oversaw her ill-treatment received a “gallantry award”. In August 2008, Hindu fanatics targeted Christians in Orissa after the killing of a Hindu leader. Scores of people were killed and a number of women subject to sexual assaults. The state government has not bothered to address the grievances of the survivors.
Large-scale rapes and killings by Indian armed forces in Manipur have gone unnoti