It must surely rank as ironic that just after the terrorist Ajmal Kasab was hanged, some voices were heard saying that perhaps it was time for the death penalty to be abolished, even for someone like Kasab, who was responsible for the killing of 168 people.
Now, in the aftermath of the horrendous gang rape in Delhi, shrill voices are calling for the death penalty for rapists. As of now, the demand for such a death penalty is more rhetoric than reason, ignited by the chaos in Delhi where youngsters have been protesting over the past few days.
It is wrong to demand the death penalty for rape. And there are good reasons in jurisprudence for this. Primary among these is that different crimes must get different punishments. Rape, no matter how horrendous, is not murder, and should not be equated with it. Only the taking of a life must deserve the death sentence. Here, I hasten to explain that in the Delhi case, the manner in which the girl was attacked by the men amounts to an attempt to murder and should be treated as such. But if every rapist is to get the death sentence, there is always a possibility that rapists could try to kill the victim, so as to eliminate the chances of getting caught.
There is another reason. In the Delhi case, the gang rape is very clear: a bunch of men took advantage of a girl and raped her, and then attacked her with an iron rod. But in many other cases, rape isn’t so easily defined. For instance, in India, having consensual sex with a girl on the promise of marrying her, and then reneging on that promise, amounts to rape. Elsewhere, it would amount to cheating and moral turpitude, not rape. What if, as Flavia Agnes has pointed out in a brilliant column, parents file a case against a boy who has eloped with their daughter? Elopement being called rape by aggrieved parents is not unfounded.
Finally, let us not be naive. Mere hanging will never stop rapes, or even cut down the number of cases. In 19th century Britain, pickpockets were hanged publicly to discourage others from committing this act. But when the crowds that had gathered to cheer the hanging returned home, many of them found that their pockets had been picked! Obviously, hanging was no deterrence.
Thus, to curb rapes the law must be strengthened at every stage. What is needed is ensuring that the police take complaints seriously, that trials are held quickly, that the number of cops on the streets is increased sufficiently so that a girl walking alone at night has nothing to fear. Merely increasing the sentence won’t suffice.