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Death penalty is no deterrent to rape

January 09, 2013 14:49 IST

A combination of laws prescribing tough retribution with training in morals and ethics at every level of education and insistence on parental teaching would seem to be the best stratagem to counter natural animal instincts, says A K Verma.

Rape is not necessarily an act of a deviant mind. More often it is a crime of opportunity. The intent behind the crime can be an amalgam of several thought streams.

Principally it is not about sex. The main motivation could be a drive to seek domination and power with ingredients of intimidation and violence interlaced. Instinct has a big role. It is important to understand this to determine how rapists should be punished.

Human beings, like members of other animal species, are born with four instincts, hunger, fear, aggression and libido. This is nature's prescription of survival for the species. Instincts add up to a crime when social or legal norms and codes are violated. Seeking release of libido becomes rape when the boundaries are transgressed.

Among the four natural instincts mentioned above, libido is the strongest, believed to be a thousand times as strong as the other three. Thoughts about it are said to be constantly swirling in the mind. The Oscar winning Hollywood actor, Dustin Hoffman, was reported to have disclosed in an interview that he was thinking about sex every seven minutes. Most males have a similar experience. There was a revealing story about Swami Vivekanand who was once so plagued by it that he sat on a hot stove to eliminate it, scorching his underside.

Seers, are, thus, also not exempt from its searing intensity. Our mythology relates many anecdotes of holy men not able to control their libido and losing their discrimination.

Fulfillment of a sexual desire is a natural quest. It becomes a rape when sex becomes a mechanism for establishing power and domination. Punishment for rape should not therefore be just a deterrent against crimes of opportunity. The search for appropriate remedies should also scrutinise the sociological order which invests men with embedded power over women. It will be discovered such power is exercised wherever men interact with women, such as in families, work places, educational institutions and on the streets. The phenomenon receives support from religious doctrines, social customs and traditions and biological reality of men being of a stronger built than women.

The issue then boils down to an all pervasive empowerment of women, to prevent their abuse in all spheres and fields, not just protecting them against rape. Empowerment necessarily entails giving women gender equality in all manmade equations including legislatures and political parties.

And yet there is one area where gender equality cannot be practiced, the differences imposed by nature. Because of this, the female remains the quarry, the male the hunter. This stark reality needs to be recognised: its neglect creates problems. Feminists may feel outraged but the fact remains that certain decorum in dress and conduct reinforces the protective armour of the woman.

It is not for nothing that advertisers of products insert the comely figure of a woman in their advertisements in print or electronic media. Their logic is that the figure will remain long in the minds of their viewers, reminding them of the product advertised, resulting in larger sales. The feminists should agitate against such exploitation of the female figure which creates a reaction akin to arousal. Legal steps in this context also need to be considered. Some do regard depiction of alluring female figures in advertisements as a version of pornography and hence reprehensible. Some corresponding taboos should also be placed on the film industry.

Some feminists may claim that women have a right to dress skimpily or make themselves look sexy. But all will agree that none should move on the streets entirely in the nude. The desire to look sexy should be tempered by the awareness that it could be mistaken for an invitation to sex. Just as excess alcohol blunts discrimination, projection of sex appeal through sexy appearance can play havoc in the minds of men. It is pertinent to recall the words of Paramhansa Ramkrishna that had Sharda Devi not bound herself rigidly with morality he might have slipped.

The definition of rape changes from country to country. What may be a rape in a country may not be held to be a rape in another country. Many countries in the West have extended its scope to provide greater protection to women. The numbers of cases reported in the West have consequently gone up sizably. Yet because of the social stigma, a large number of misdemeanours, arising out of sexual misconduct, remain unreported whether in the West or India.

Looking at statistics, the picture emerging for India does not appear dismal. Reported rapes for each lakh of population in India are 1.6 whereas the corresponding figures for US, UK and Sweden are 32.3, 26.4 and 25.2 respectively. It is the media hype in the country which suggests that incidence of rapes in the country is reaching scary heights.

Another prevailing misconception is that strangers constitute the largest number of culprits. According to the figures of the National Crime Record Bureau for 2011 as many as 94 percent of the culprits come from known circles of the victims. Among these close family members including parents number 1.2 percent, other relatives 6.9 percent and neighbours 34.7 percent. Some offenders come from army or police who are out on patrol duty. Those having custody also sometimes victimise their female charges.

Punishment for rape cannot therefore follow a rigid scale though prescribing a minimum number of years of imprisonment for the rapist is called for to act as a strong deterrent. While there is no evidence to conclude that a death penalty acts as a deterrent, the rape laws do need to be amended to include capital punishment for acutely gruesome episodes and gang rapes. Rapists are a class of criminals who believe that they can successfully evade punishment. With the churning taking place in the society and poor state of governance, all kinds of crime are likely to soar upwards, particularly those against women. This creates a crying need for tightening laws on rape and sexual offences.

Human right activists are forever seeking to extend the frontiers of such rights irrespective of the consideration how they impact on the citizens' expectations on their security and stability. They also oppose capital punishment. But the stark truth is that experienced police officers all over the world do not favour abolition of death penalties just as they stand against the concept of diminished responsibility or against sentimental leniency of the judges. Their attitude is not an indication of either cruelty or vindictiveness: they are just being partisans for decency and order.

Some societies accept amputation as an appropriate punishment for certain crimes while others regard it as barbaric. Indian public opinion on the whole will be unlikely to accept surgical castration as punishment for rape. Chemical castration, legal in some states in the US, involves use of anti-androgen drugs which suppress testosterones, responsible for generating libido. To be effective, continuous administration of the drug becomes necessary but side effects are produced, requiring constant monitoring. The Indian health system cannot provide such supervision. This option has therefore to be ruled out.

A combination of laws prescribing tough retribution with training in morals and ethics at every level of education and insistence on parental teaching would seem to be the best stratagem to counter natural animal instincts.

To reinforce society's concerns, the rapist needs to be portrayed as a public enemy. It follows that anyone, charged with rape, should be debarred from standing for elections of any kind, and those already elected should stand ejected. This will be possible only if suitable laws are now enacted.

The entire burden of preventing rapes cannot be thrown on the shoulders of the police. The Indian police, set up in colonial times for the protection of the interests of the British Raj, are still operated for similar ends today. It is not the police which are failing the society or the government. Rather, the society and the government are failing the police. Without police reforms good governance will remain a chimera.

A K Verma is former chief of Research and Analysis Wing.

A K Verma