I should apologise

Hi, my name is Ashok, I am an urban middle class Indian and I have a problem for which I am truly sorry.

In the past few days, the nation has been shattered by repeated incidents of women and children being subjected to sexual assault. The crime is appalling and the patriarchal culture that enables it is reprehensible.  But I feel compelled to say sorry for quite a few things I did wrong this week.

  • Indulging in social media debates: As an urban middle class Indian, this is a serious problem. I am addicted to debating policy and current affairs on social media. I don’t know why I do it and I certainly find it self depreciating. But I can’t seem to help myself. Not unlike junkies, I find the solution to all of the world’s problems and my own in a certain dependency and with this, it is social media debates. I promise to work on my self depreciating behavior and refrain from such debates, even if I find myself experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

 

  • My arrogance: Here I was citing statistics, studies and experiences with victims of sexual assault, to highlight how the death penalty is counter productive to the victim’s rights movement, going so far as to request the opponents to volunteer time with sexual assault survivors simply to understand the difficulties that will be created when death penalty becomes a reality. Why should a person with an opinion be obligated to verify their stance? The notion that an opinion has to be well reasoned is silly and for having believed that, I am arrogant. I am sorry.

 

  • My lack of empathy: In all the efforts at focusing on sexual assault survivors and what they need, I completely lost sight of the anxiety and fear and pain that people reading about sexual assault survivors feel. Blame it on my job, but sometimes I lose the ability to connect and empathise with the chamomile tea sipping charcoal juice cleansing middle class Indian crowd who is the worst affected by this endemic culture of sexual assault. They are the true victims. Every person’s grievance is subjective and to each, the grievance is substantial. For thinking of the plight of the affected party more than the plight of the person affected by the affected party’s plight, I am sorry.

All the things that I have done wrong and I am sorry for- I must also reflect on its genesis. Its the privilege to blame. It taught me to be self centered, focus more on myself, my opinions, my work, my experience and my wisdom and taught me less to be focused on the objective reality out there. It taught me to focus on my own suffering than the suffering of people actually affected by the ills of the world.

So from now on, I pledge to understand issues better, to keep aside my own anger and suffering to focus on the bigger picture and to pay attention to the people who know better than me. I will try to make it less about me and more about others. My privilege is a liability and my confidence really ought to be a little more vulnerable. My name is Ashok, I am an urban middle class Indian and I am truly sorry.

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Morbid Conversations on Social Media-Death Penalty for rapists

I am a member of the unique creed called the “Urban middle class Indians”. I find that a liability though, because membership in this elite club often implies the following, a) I suffer from excessive wisdom and knowledge about everything that I have no idea about, b) My activism is limited to facebook, twitter and linkedin, c) I have very strong opinions on everything without ever having done any real work in the grassroot, d) Excessive empathy to the point where I am more affected by the damage done to those reported in the news and e) I want the state to pay more attention to what I think is the solution, as opposed to an actual solution.

Make no mistake, my creed is highly successful. We successfully got the government to implement the death penalty for child rape even though every person who has worked with children who are victims of child sexual abuse have said that death penalty will lead to greater chances of rape turning to murder and it will aggravate the problems of under-reporting of crimes by victims of incestuous or acquaintance rape due to inherent dynamics associated ambivalent feelings towards the offender. That is a different issue though and this post is not about that. This post is about me because I am a middle class urban Indian and I am more important than everything else.

I have tried and continued to try to mitigate the ill effects of privilege, trying in the process to hold on to humility and investing myself in trying to learn more about what I have an opinion on and deferring my own views to that of experts, lest I cause wrong policy to be put in place. But I find my efforts half hearted. All said and done, the underlining tone in my head still remains “I don’t care what you think or what the reality of the subject is, my way is the highway and everything else is just the mud road that eventually leads off the cliff”. I don’t have any control over this confidence and despite best efforts by well meaning people, my confidence is unshakable just like Bill O Reilly.

On the other hand, to hell with the well meaning people. I see the news with all the reports about ghastly crimes against women and children. I am so traumatised sitting in front of the computer, with a home over my head and sipping my earl grey tea or cleansing charcoal juice. What do the contrarians know? It is not as if their wives or mothers or sisters or daughters have been raped. I don’t know the contrarian very well, but if they don’t support the death penalty, the women in their lives must have grown up with special security by highly trained women commandos of the NSG (because women commandos as we all know don’t commit sexual assault). Its not an assumption, its a fact, my fact. And my fact is bigger than your fact.

So while you go about trying to figure out how to help victims of sexual assault cope with this new complication in their life, I will book a counselling and therapy sessions. All the wisdom that I have and the confidence I suffer from is very difficult to cope with.

 

Death penalty for rapists: Fighting fire with fire causes an inferno

In the wake of the rape and murder of a 8 year old child in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India seems to have woken up to the reality of all that its misogyny and patriarchy has managed to achieve. Overnight, citizen activists have taken to the streets, demanding, among other things, the death penalty for rapists. In sexual assault cases leading to death of the victim, the death penalty is already prescribed under the provisions of Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code. Whether it is already there in the rule book or not, the real question is, will it have any deterrent effect. I seek to explore some of the nuances around the death penalty debate so that the pro death penalty camp has more to think about before they decide which side of the fence they wish to be.

 

Does death penalty deter crime? In the criminal justice system, an accused is first found guilty or innocent. If found, guilty, the court holds a separate hearing on sentencing of the convict and then arrives at a quantum of punishment which best serves the case before it, while also conforming to the guidelines laid down under the law.

 

In India, at present, the conviction rate is around 24 to 26% across the nation in sexual assault cases. This in turn means that out of every 100 cases of rape, 74 cases result in acquittal setting loose the alleged rapist. Even if we assume that in 24 percent of the cases, the death penalty is applied, the statistical probability of an a person committing a sexual assault finding freedom, if caught, is 74-76%. So applying death penalty in a minority of cases simply does not serve the purpose of a caution against committing the crime.

 

So keep aside the death penalty for a second- first ask for better investigators, better training and more manpower for our investigators. Ask for police reforms. Ask for better witness protection programs so that the victim and his/her family can be protected from threats and inducement. This way, unlike in other cases, evidence won’t be tampered and a conviction may still be possible. You want to take time off the comforts of your everyday routine, make it count. Ask for what is needed, not for what you think is needed.

 

The case of the girl in J & K, is part of a small minority of sexual assault cases in which the perpetrator is unknown to the child or not a relative. The real issue in India with reference to Child Sexual Abuse is incestuous abuse, which is a significant majority of the cases reported to the criminal justice system. In this domain, reporting is a huge issue because children are either pressured or induced to refrain from reporting the blood relative who has perpetrated the crime. What better way to induce a child not to report than by telling the child that his/her act of reporting will likely cause death of his/her own father or cousin or sibling.

 

Often times, victims in such emotionally difficult situations find the harsh punishment of law a deterrent to report. As experts have already pointed out, further enhancing the harsh punishment to death penalty could only aggravate under-reporting instead of mitigating it. So when you ask for the death penalty, are you sure it will help the case of the beneficiaries of the punishment, namely the victims or do you think it will only complicate their case a little more?

 

To this, you may have a question- whats the point of a victim reporting if he/she doesn’t want the perpetrator punished? This question is fair although it is the product of never having listened to victims. Often times children have no interest to see the perpetrator being subjected to cruelty for the crime. They want the perpetrator to be restrained from committing the crime again. They want someone to help them cope with the aftermath of the abuse, support them in their difficult road to recovery and help them find their sense of safety in life again. We insist for higher reporting because when a child reports a crime- it enables the state ecosystem to deliver mental and physical health services to the child. As victims rights advocate, our first priority is to assist the child and enable the child to assert his/her right to bodily autonomy. The objective of punishing the offender is either incidental or a corollary to the aforesaid priority. Therefore whatever comes in the way of the child reporting is a big red flag in our dictionary.

 

As I presented these arguments calling for the recognition of the bigger picture, another death penalty advocate said that she is unconcerned with the bigger picture. All she wants is the death penalty for the brutes who victimised the child. But that is where the flaw in the pro death penalty argument lies- it is a policy stand and policy is concerned with big picture. An exception cannot be the policy. So if you are unconcerned about the bigger picture, then please don’t make a policy argument. Because policies designed to address individual case studies, often victimise more people than it assists the larger cause of justice being served.

 

Lastly, children holding placards in favour of death penalty for rapists? Really? Is that the community we want where we teach our children that violence has utility, that too, to stop violence? Its ironical that even at our best, our society is more full of anger and hate than empathy for the victim. Faced with the plight of the victim, the rapist occupies our attention for we are obsessed with what we do to him than with what we ought to do for the victim. We ask that the rapist be killed but we do not ask for better support services for victims. If we choose anger and spite over empathy towards victims, our priorities are misplaced and the resulting desensitisation towards violence will only aggravate crimes against women and children, not mitigate it.

 

-Ashok G.V.