Saturday, September 14, 2013

The fate of the Delhi rapists, and an exercise in situation ethics

The past two days have been filled with thinking, and talking, and chatting, and Facebook commenting, about the death sentence given to the rapists of Jyoti Singh Pandey.

One has already died in custody. Amidst suspicious circumstances. The other, a juvenile at the time of the crime, will spend three years in prison and his slate will be wiped clean.

People have celebrated the verdict of death by passing out sweets. Activists against the death penalty, and indeed, the rapists' parents, have accused the court of bending to public opinion. And the question everyone asks -- and some feel fit to answer -- is, Was justice done?

The girl's parents wanted the death penalty. If we want to speak of justice, really only their opinion matters. My opinion, then, is just that - my feelings on the matter. And I am unsettled.

My first, most visceral response, was that death was too good for them. Their days are numbered and if they show any remorse at all, a swift death is certainly merciful. There are those who would inflict unmentionable punishment on the men, commensurate to what they did to the girl, but I think an eye for an eye only keeps the cycle of violence going and teaches that in some circumstances, violent acts are okay. And we have seen the lengths people will go to in order to justify rape and murder, these most heinous of crimes for which death is the recommended punishment: She was out at night. She has brought dishonor to the family. He committed a crime and was in jail. He was campaigning against morality and decency. She was asking for it. Who decides what crimes warrant cruel and unusual punishment? You'd better hope you never end up on the wrong side of that decision maker's politics, and political connections change so quickly.

Ideally, I would have liked to see them condemned not to death, but to a lifetime doing hard labor in a maximum security prison where they can no longer be menaces to society. Human rights? Certainly, give them the rights that they so callously took away -- we are not barbarians -- but the privileges of life in this free world they would never see again. Food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care are requirements, but biryani and badminton are privileges. Without leisure, without contact with their loved ones, they would have all the time in the world to think about what they had done until finally God himself granted them mercy and took them from this world. In playing God ourselves, we are being merciful to those who we say do not deserve mercy.

But the mother of the victim said, in an interview I heard earlier but can't find a link to, that the victims showed no remorse, that in court they seemed befikr - unworried. How is it punishment if there was no remorse to begin with? Zero times infinity is still zero. The main problem with my ideal punishment is that it is an ideal and shatters in the face of reality.

The two main arguments that I have heard against life in prison have been that rehabilitation does not work, so why bother, and that the cost borne by the taxpayers would be too great. To the first argument, I agree; although in the US the recidivism rate of sex offenders has been shown to be just 14 percent, this number is low because of controls in the system, including monitoring and registration. In India, where it is difficult to even get a rape case registered at the police station, these controls do not exist and the data does not apply. I do not argue then for rehabilitation at all, but for life sentences with public safety in mind: removing violent criminals from society.

Then people will ask, why should we pay taxes to keep these people alive? That is a difficult question to answer, and the answer will depend on how an individual, and how a culture, values life itself. There are some who believe in the absolute sanctity of life -- that we may not interfere in the natural processes of giving or taking life. Others believe that all humans are allotted a set of inviolable rights without which society will collapse. Yet others believe that human rights should only be extended to those who respect human rights, and that your right to live ends when you take someone else's life. And then there are those who take a utilitarian view: if someone is an unwanted burden on society, they should be done away with sans emotion. My view is closest to the second of these, but I do understand that others hold different opinions and, as such, come to different conclusions.

Which is why, in conclusion, I believe that there was no right thing to do in this case. No action the court took can bring Jyoti Singh Pandey back, can fill the hole in her family's life, can enroll her in classes for this term and get her back on her way to becoming a medical professional. Perhaps the verdict that was delivered was the least wrong thing. But I will leave that for her family to make the final call on.


  1. Excellent post! I agree, it is hard to know what justice is to be done...what is fitting "justice" after what those monsters did...who knows?

    1. Thank you Alexandra! I think justice is what will make the world a safer place.


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