DON’T hang the rapists

The death penalty for Jyoti Singh’s rapists is not a “victory” to be celebrated

In 2012, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern, Jyoti Singh (Nirbhaya), was beaten, gang raped, and tortured in a private bus in Delhi. She succumbed to her wounds soon after. Today, the Supreme Court of India upheld the death penalty for 4 of Jyoti Singh’s rapists. This is an extremely problematic verdict for several reasons.

“This was the rarest of rare crimes”. — SC Verdict

In 1990, an 18-year-old school-girl, Hetal Parekh, was brutally raped and murdered in her apartment in Kolkata. She sustained 22 injuries. Following this crime, her rapist, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, was hanged. This was a controversial case that went on for 14 years and the verdict is said to have been hinged on circumstantial evidence only. Since 2015, new evidence has been emerging to prove that Dhananjoy may have been completely innocent.

How was Dhananjoy Chatterjee hung on circumstantial evidence? Because he was a poor man in an infamous case who could not afford competent lawyers. So, under Indian Law, that was a ‘rarest of rare’ case. But if you are famous or rich enough to afford good lawyers, or if you have enough political ‘pull’ to escape controversy, then your crime is not ‘rarest of rare’.

In 2003, Sushil Sharma, a former Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress president, was convicted for 10 years imprisonment for the murder of his wife Naina Sahni. He had killed her, then carried her body to a restaurant where he chopped it into small pieces and tried to burn it in the tandoor. Sushil Sharma was not given a death sentence. Let that sink in for a moment.

This is not a singular example. The Supreme Court has commuted sentences death penalty to life term in multiple other high-profile cases where women have been raped, tortured, killed, and even buried alive in coffins (Shakereh Khaleeli murder). It increasingly looks like the standard of ‘rarest of rare’ applies less to the crime and more to its controversy, criminal, and competency of trial lawyers arguing the case.

“It shook the conscience of the nation”. — SC Verdict

In April 2016, Jisha, a 29-year old law student was raped, tortured, and murdered in Kerala. She suffered at least 30 stab wounds, her entrails were exposed, and her genitals sustained severe injuries. For a long time, this crime was not even covered by media. Why didn’t Jisha’s brutal rape ‘shake the conscience of the nation’? Because Jisha was a Dalit and our nation’s conscience is undisturbed by Dalit atrocities. I guess this is why Jisha’s murderer, Amir Ul Islam, is not being hanged.

“They played with her dignity in a devilish manner”. — SC Verdict

Jyoti Singh’s “dignity” has nothing to do with it.

In India, assault for women has implications of eternal humiliation, victim-blaming, and shame upon the honour of the family. These extrapolations come from a problematic view of sexual violence in which a woman’s dignity lies within her body which is to be protected by men; it sees women as merely a conduit for honour of her community.

Even in the face of rape, a woman’s dignity remains hers alone. If dignity is lost, it is that of her rapists. It is shameful that the highest judicial body of the nation cannot understand that.

“It sounds like a story from a different world where humanity is treated with irreverence.” — SC Verdict

It sounds nothing like a story from a different world. If you live with your eyes and ears open and read the news everyday, you will know this is a world where humanity is treated with irreverence is the world we live in.

Jyoti Singh’s case was not exceptional. It is the following public outrage that was rarest of rare.

Jyoti Singh’s rapists are not aberrant monsters. We often like to think that brutal rapists are inhumane strangers because doing so disconnects us from reality, and give us a false sense of comfort, making it easier to distance ourselves from the problem of rape. Admitting that normal people rape is the first step in solving the problem.


According to the 2014 crime bureau statistics, 98% of the reported rape cases in India are committed by someone known to the victim.

This is one of the reasons (among a myriad of others) why women don’t report rape: it is an obvious social taboo to report a crime against someone you know, especially if that someone is your family. In light of this, harsher punishment such as a death penalty would further deter women from reporting a rape case against their uncles or fathers-in-law.

Caste, class, and poor quality defence often determine who lives and who dies.

One may say that capital punishment is only reserved for the ‘rarest of rare crimes’ but as I have argued above, this standard itself has become a selectively applied one in India’s context. Therefore, a slippery slope effect can cause many other cases to come under its ambit. And caste, class, and poor quality defence often end up being determining factors in such cases.

Rapists, like all criminals, should be given retribution and rehabilitation. But the State should never choose to kill. Capital punishment should never be an option. It should not have been meted out to the Delhi gang rapists. And certainly not based on the standards that were applied.