Speeding up

India’s criminal justice system seems to be stirring slowly from its stupor. If a Mumbai court’s delivery of justice in two brutal gang rape cases that happened at the city’s Shakti Mills last year is any indication, the judiciary appears to be acting more swiftly than in the past.

The court has convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment five men accused of raping separately a telephone operator and a photojournalist at the site of the abandoned textile mill. Three of the accused were involved in both rapes. Convictions of two minors, one in each case, are awaited as they are being tried separately under the Juvenile Justice Act.

In the past, rape trials would have taken years to be completed; that is, if police had registered complaints and the case reached the courts. Nation-wide outrage over the rape and brutal murder of 23-year-old ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi in December 2012 put the question of delayed delivery of justice in rape cases under the media spotlight, forcing India’s criminal justice system to speed up its act. The sentencing of the accused in the twin rape cases at Shakti Mills has come within seven months of the crimes. While the trial has gone slower than that envisaged by the court – in September it gave itself 60 days for completion of the hearing - it is heartening that our courts are becoming less lethargic.

A responsive and gender-sensitive criminal justice system will encourage survivors of rape to pursue justice. While the Shakti Mills trials provide reason for hope, better investigation and fast-track trials in rape cases must become the norm. They are at present still the exception. Besides, it is in all cases of sexual violence, not just those that happen in our metros and make it to the headlines that the criminal justice system must act with alacrity, fairness and sensitivity. Victims of rape even in remote villages must be able to believe that the courts will give them justice.

The twin gangrapes rattled Mumbaikars, who had for long believed that their city was among India’s most woman-friendly. That the rapes had taken place in the heart of the city added to their anxieties. Civil society activism on the issue prompted the government to speed up the rape trials but little has been done to improve safety even in public places. Policing to prevent crime has not improved.

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