The government has reacted to the national outrage over the inability to curb sexual crimes of a serious nature like rape, especially against very young children, to bring in an ordinance that also sanctions death by hanging for rapists of children below 12 years of age. The Union Cabinet approved the move, which also enables longer sentences for convicted rapists, hurriedly after the Prime Minister’s return from the Commonwealth summit in London. Much of it can be put down to political showmanship by way of a response to building criticism against paralysis of inaction on heinous crimes in some of which political functionaries of the ruling party were involved. It is to be hoped that the tough message gets through to anyone with an intention to commit sexual crimes against women. A law becomes tough only when implemented. Unless the states act to bring investigation and trial to a close within four months of a rape incident as is envisaged now, the toughest laws on the statute books are unlikely to be deterrent enough to stop these barbaric crimes.
The delays in the judicial system are self-defeating. Just over one lakh sexual harassment and assault cases are pending in special POCSO courts while hardly 11 per cent have been tended to fully. The national conviction rate in rape cases is about 28 per cent. The problem lies in tardy justice delivery marked by frequent adjournments, procrastination by the prosecution, often from delayed forensic reports, so much so the purpose of the fast-track courts is defeated. Infrastructure support and a rise in the number of judges is also called for if this serious problem, which has been highlighted ever since December 2012 when the Nirbhaya incident took place, is to be tackled with purpose and intent. The longer it takes to convict rapists, the greater the threat to those living in their neighbourhood, although the fact is most rapists are known to spring from within a family’s close circle and perpetrators are known to child victims.
The planned national registry of sex offenders is a good initiative though as it could help in outing the names of offenders. The point is the whole process of taking action has been delayed despite the Verma panel having given its recommendations in 2013. The enormous pressure brought about on the Prime Minister in London as well as comments by the IMF chief Christine Lagarde seemed to have galvanised those in power into action now. The President was quick to give his assent to the ordinance but it remains to be seen if the prospect of capital punishment — there have been only four hangings in the last 14 years, three of which were related to terrorism and one for rape and murder — will be scary enough to bring down the incidence of rape, which numbered about 40,000 in 2015. It would all boil down to what we can as a nation, including the police and judiciary, do to excise this blot on the country by way of an epidemic of rape.