Last week, the Delhi High Court upheld the death sentences of four men accused of raping and murdering a student on a moving bus – a case that caused fervent outrage amongst Indians and led to a subsequent change in anti-rape laws. Although the defence will appeal, many Indians who demanded the death penalty may feel justice is finally being served.
There is no doubt that the crime committed was inhumane and unacceptable. And it is out of the question that it should go unpunished – although it is claimed that many cases often have. But before we look with disgust at the six violent individuals, do we ever stop to think about how six boys grew up to be such misguided men? Are we born violent? Are some of us inherently rapists, or murderers? Or can these be characteristics we learn, or become?
The most detailed and meaningful account of the Delhi gang rape that I have read was by Jason Burke for the Guardian, called ‘Delhi rape: how India’s other half lives.’ Burke gave a detailed background to each suspect. And one factor is immediately apparent – all six men came from poor upbringings, which is a common lifestyle in India: “These were not serial sex criminals, psychopaths or brutalised men from the margins of society,” writes Burke. “Their backgrounds were, perhaps more worryingly, like those of tens of millions of Indian men.”
The men lived in basic dwellings in deprived neighbourhoods. And the 17-year-old juvenile lived in the impoverished northern state of Uttar Pradesh, sent to Delhi by himself to scrape a living at the age of 10 or 11, his parents not even knowing if he was still alive. The 23-year-old victim of the attack was also from a humble background, but according to Burke’s account, she was educated and had the support of her family — unlike the men who took her life.
The absence of compassion
It’s not the absence of wealth in the suspects’ lives that appeared to be the main problem. They all led troubled existences, with a lack of education, opportunity, guidance and compassion. They lived in struggling societies within which women were oppressed. And they tried to survive in a country which, although is dubbed to become a future economic superpower, does not have the means to take care of its 1.2 billion population, with a widening gap between the poor and the prosperous.
The gang rape incident was followed by a review of anti-rape laws. But after we’ve focussed on the punishment, what are we doing to encourage compassion? Why are maths, biology and physics given such high importance in schools, but compassion is not even a word on the curriculum? Instead of instructing our children to read or write, do we also encourage them to look after the environment, animals and each other? And if they are neglected by their families, like some of the suspects were, where can they go for guidance?
Such neglect has negative repercussions. If you have a child and you allow their education, physical health, and mental well-being falter, what happens when that child deviates? How do you judge them if, instead of becoming a doctor, accountant, lawyer or engineer, they break the law? You may lock them away or crush their life with the tightening of a noose, but until you look at what that child needed but never received, you will never get rid of a reoccurrence of the problem.
Deepak Kashyap, a psychologist in Mumbai, once told me that pinpointing the factors that cause a boy to become a violent man are complicated and intertwined, but environment and upbringing certainly play a part. They are also where society comes in – but in a country with a high female infanticide rate and attacks on women, what example is being set?
Perhaps, it’s a difficult truth to handle, when we are faced with it. Apparently, most people ignored the gang rape victim and her injured companion as they were lying on the side of the road and they also faced indifference from the Delhi police. Was it a fear of getting involved, or knowing how it happened? Were they the same people who then took to the streets in protest, because it’s easier to point the finger from a distance?
I felt sad when I read Burke’s account of the rapists. And I felt sorry when they were handed the death penalty. Not because I agree with or condone what they did, but because of how society trundles ahead, without looking at those who are falling behind. And then throws them back even further when they deviate, without understanding that we have never helped them gain ground. Instead of looking at crime as a basis for punishment, we should realise that every criminal is a reflection of society gone wrong.
The criminals should not go unpunished, but how do we prevent similar characters from being reborn, or, remade? Education, not just within the confines of a classroom but through every individual’s compassionate interaction with one another, is key.
The death penalty definitely rids the streets of the criminal. But, does it get rid of the crime?