In December 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and her male friend decided to watch the critically acclaimed film Life of Pi. Upon returning home after the film, she was brutally gang raped and her friend was beaten up and made to watch. Her injuries were so critical that, as the world watched, she died.
This is not India's first prominent rape case, but it brought on significant discussion regarding violence against women and sexual assault in India. The subject no longer remained hushed and under the covers; protests and vigils occurred, uniting thousands of people under the same cause. On September 13, the India Supreme Court sentenced four of the accused to death, a very rare sentence. It has only been used once, on two terrorists, since the institution of the death penalty in 2004.
Does this mean that public pressure motivated this sentence, or does it have legal backing?
It isn't that easy to tell. Usually, such decisions are motivated by a combination of these factors. To make it a little easier, let's look at some of India's past and recent high profile rape cases.
1. Anjana Mishra: In 1999, the estranged wife of an Indian Foreign Services Officer was brutally gang raped by three unidentified men. Her estranged husband was fighting a case against then Advocate General Indrajit Ray, and she had accused Ray and Orissa Chief Minister Patnaik for staging the attack on her. Due to public pressure, many called for Patnaik's resignation.
2. Imrana: In 2005, 70-year-old Ali Mohammed was convicted of raping his 28-year-old daughter, Imrana. When the matter came to the Muslim panchayat (village council), they had told her that as a result of sexual relations with her father-in-law, Sharia law demanded that she come to regard him as her husband and treat him as such. This case gained national attention very quickly, but Mohammed was granted bail this July, after spending eight years of his 10-year sentence in prison.
3. Soumya: In 2011, 23 year old Soumya was on her way home on the train when someone tried to rob her in the ladies' compartment. She resisted, so he bashed her head in and threw her out of the train. After he found her lying in a pool of her own blood, he took her into the woods and brutally raped her. She succumbed to her wounds three days after she was attacked, on February 6. Thanks to the Thrissur (state) fast track court, the rapist was found and sentenced to death.
Looking at these examples really helps us look at the intricacies of India's laws regarding violence against women. Mishra's case was the most politically charged, allowing many to call for the chief minister to step down. Imrana's showed the difference between religious law and public pressure. Soumya's case is perhaps the most straightforward, showing the effectiveness of separate "fast track" courts for such cases.
In March, stringent legislation was passed allowing for the death penalty to be used against rapists. However, India is still far behind when it comes to criminalizing marital rape and acid attacks. The insufficiency in the legal system, coupled with the corruption and prevalence of illegal sex trafficking, show that India still has a lot of work left to do.
But for now, the people in India can be hopeful about this death sentence, despite what some may say. The evil is definitely not localized, suggesting that one death sentence cannot stem sexual violence completely. It shows that public pressure needs to be applied not just to such convictions, but to changing the very basis of legislation regarding violence against women. In that way, laws can be even more properly aligned with the sentences received in the end.