Justice delayed is justice denied. These words, believed to be by British politician William Gladstone, are among the guiding maxims upon which legal systems today attempt to revolve. The duty of law isn't to singularly deliver justice, but to deliver it timely in order to exercise its effectiveness. This is an ideal, however, that unfortunately isn't always the norm in a country like India, known for its relaxed approach towards aligning the judiciary with swift action. Even in matters of life and death. Thousands languish for years before they receive a hearing date. More, before 'justice' is even mentioned, realised, or, in rare cases, ever found.
The Delhi gangrape incident from 2016, which marked its eighth anniversary earlier this week on December 16, is probably the most infamous example from recent times. Jyoti Singh, who was brutalised on that cold, fateful Delhi night, died days after the incident, eulogised as 'Nirbhaya' - a name that won't ever encompass the experience of a rape survivor or victim, but that became the call for a revolution against rape in India. She did not live to see whatever justice was imparted to her eight years too late, with four out of six convicts sentenced to death by hanging in 2020.
This same year saw a similar crime play out in Hathras. In a story that rocked the nation, a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh's Hathras district was reportedly gangraped by four upper-caste men in September and later succumbed to her injuries. Though far different in manner and experience to the Delhi gangrape, such was the intensity of the incident that the girl was dubbed a 'second Nirbhaya.' After a hushed cremation, several botched inquiries, and widespread agitation, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Now, days following the annual calendar reminder of the 2016 horror, the CBI on December 18 charged the four accused with rape and murder.
The CBI chargesheet, which comes almost exactly three months after the crime was committed, is an upward-looking sign of things moving forward in the case. But can we afford to let the pace of proceedings drop? Should the road to justice be as prolonged as it was in the case of the Delhi gangrape? And what of the countless other cases of rape registered but incubating without justice in the courts of India?
When the incidents of it came to light, the Hathras case was marred with a cesspool of speculation, victim-blaming, political agendas, and social media noise. In all this, justice lay unattended in the corner, waiting to be laid claim to. But as the waters continued to get murkier by the day, Hathras became a battleground bereft of the sobriety, decency, privacy, and propriety that should be the ethical necessity in a case as violent as this. Especially, since Hathras was a caste crime, it deserved a more sensitive treatment than it got.
Now, with news of the chargesheet, the public is hoping for the authorities to make up for their oversights in the aftermath of the case by fast-tracking it to justice. Singh's mother, Asha Devi, has been very vocal about not letting another 'daughter' of India suffer the same slow, painful justice her own daughter and family suffered.
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However, a question that pressingly resurges as news of the chargesheet comes to light, is the manner of justice the Hathras woman deserves. What kind of justice should the public, outraged at the gender violence in the Hathras case, be expecting? Asha Devi, in her pursuit of justice for her daughter, affirmed the court's judgment to hang the Delhi gangrape perpetrators. Family of sexual crime survivors or victims often hold similar beliefs in seeking answers for their beloved's death. But has capital punishment ever served as a due measure in curbing gender-based crimes?
It may be a hard pill to swallow, especially to a family affected by similar bereavement, but hangings, executions, and encounters are seldom the correct conclusion in rape crimes. For the reason that it is neither a reformative legal measure, not a corrective one. We saw it occur in the case of the 2019 Hyderabad rape and murder of a young veterinarian. The four accused men were killed by authorities in an "encounter" that was much celebrated by common citizens across the country. Justice was served, they said. But a year on, Hathras still happened. As did these rapes during the coronavirus lockdown.
So is a fate similar to the Delhi gangrape convicts suitable for the Hathras accused? Aside from offering the Hathras victim's family some semblance of justice for their daughter's death, will it be effective in the larger plan of ending gender crimes? Should the Hathras case be viewed through the lens of gender justice only, or caste justice too? To seek redressal for what the Hathras woman suffered, these questions should be pertinent within the purview of the authorities and law.
Views expressed are the author's own.