Death for child rape: unthinking populism

The passage of a bill by parliament prescribing death penalty for rape of girl children is again a sign of populist politics gaining over reason and good sense. The wrong notion that it is important to prescribe increasingly harsher punishments to keep crime in check has gained ground in recent years and so provisions for bigger fines, longer jail terms and death sentence for more offences are being incorporated into the law. The criminal law amendment bill replaced an ordinance which had been issued after the national outcry over the rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir in January. The amendment has also prescribed shorter time limits for investigation, trial and appeal in cases of rape of children. This is fine and necessary, but implementation may be a challenge. However, putting the death penalty in the statute is without merit and is likely to become counterproductive. 

During the debate on the bill, some MPs expressed concern over the implications and consequences of its extremely harsh provisions. These provisions, especially the death sentence, may pose a danger to the life of the victim because the rapist may kill the child to eliminate evidence. They may also result in fewer cases being reported because the culprits are often family members or are known to the family. A similar bill which was introduced in Myanmar parliament did not pass muster on these grounds. There is no special provision for death penalty for rape of minors even in countries where capital punishment exists. There is also no logic in awarding different punishments on the basis of the age of the victim. The amended law does not award the same punishment to those convicted for rape of minor boys, though the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) law is gender-neutral. Many MPs wanted the bill to be scrutinised by a select committee but the government was in a hurry to show it stood strong against heinous crimes. The minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju said that the government wanted to ensure the safety of the girl child and so wanted the bill to be passed immediately. Unfortunately, it may have the opposite effect. 

Every valid argument against the death sentence is applicable to this unwise measure, too, perhaps to a greater extent. Extreme punishment is no deterrent against any crime, including rape. Death sentence is primitive and barbarian, based on the notion of an eye for an eye, which should have no place in a civilised and enlightened system of justice. Justice aims for reformation, not retribution, however heinous the crime is. No government should assume the power to take away the right to life, which is the most basic human right. 

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Death for child rape: unthinking populism

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