ON NOVEMBER 27TH, a woman in Hyderabad was merely going about her day. She had an appointment with a dermatologist, so she drove her two-wheeler to a toll plaza from where she took a shared cab. On her way back, she realised that the tyre of her two-wheeler was punctured. She accepted help offered by four men, who said they could help fix her vehicle. The men raped and killed her.
This incident is as terrifying as it is, because here was an independent 26-year-old veterinarian simply living her life in a city. When she realised that her tyre was punctured, she called her sister from a toll plaza on the Bengaluru-Hyderabad highway. She felt vulnerable at that moment and did what so many women do every day when their instincts kick in and their guard is raised—they call family and friends to inform them about their whereabouts. But that did not protect her. That made her no safer.
Social media has no gatekeepers and within hours of her murder, she was the trending hashtag. A smiling photo of her, and anotherof her burnt body, were shared side by side as the most macabre ‘before’ and ‘after’ juxtaposition. This of course violated the basic principles of rape reportage, which forbids the identification of the person. Finally, on December 4th, a PIL was moved in the Delhi High Court, asking the court to take action against the media, which had revealed the identity of the victim and the four accused persons in the Hyderabad rape case.
The depravity of the crime, the fact that an educated woman in an urban space had been killed by working class men, ensured that it became the headline story. Parallels were quickly drawn with the 2012 gang rape and murder of the 24-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in Delhi. Processions took to the streets, anchors discussed it in television studios, and ministers spoke about it in Parliament.
But it is the reactions to the rape and murder that prove the most revelatory. In Rajya Sabha, Samajwadi MP Jaya Bachchan suggested that the accused “should be brought out in public and lynched.” She added, “I think it is time… whether it is Nirbhaya or Kathua or what happened this time, the people want the Government to give a proper and definite answer.” Trinamool Congress MP Mimi Chakraborty told a TV journalist that she was in favour of “handing over rapists to the public” for justice. P Wilson, a legislator from the DMK, opined that surgical and chemical castration should be meted out on rape convicts. PTI reported that Union Minister Harsimrat Badal suggested that the verdict in rape cases should be pronounced in as many months as the victim’s age; for example, if the victim is 20 years old, the trial should be concluded in 20 months. On social media, posts such as ‘I support death penalty for rape, tomorrow is too late, stand up for women today, spread if you agree’ and ‘Perpetrators must be hanged in public, No Mercy at all’ and ‘Bastards should be castrated’, flashed with increasing frequency.
Of late, the dominant public discourse has substituted violence for justice; the rape of the Hyderabad woman must be avenged and the way to do this is to string up the rapists and leave them at the mercy of the mob. There are two things happening here, one is the call for retribution in the form of violence and the other is calling on the mob to take matters in their own hands.
The emotion that differentiates a mob from a gathering is that of anger. Today, we can see how deities that were previously identified for their wisdom and gentleness are now transformed into martial figures bristling with rage. In May 2018, Mrinal Pande wrote about how the Angry Hanuman (created in 2015) and the martial Ram symbolised a shift in Indian sensibility, one that was more aggressive and noticeably more macho. Pande writes, ‘Similar to the Angry Hanuman transformation, in the 1990s, the familiar Ram holding his bow and standing casually next to his happy family became a lone militant warrior, all flying hair and drawn arrow.’
If the gods are getting angrier, it is little surprise that the leaders’ chests have become broader, and that the public also now wishes to flex its muscles and stand with bows ready. This is not a god or a crowd asking that the accused be given a fair trial, instead this is an act of spurning due process, deciding who is guilty, and carrying out the quantum of punishment oneself. This form of ‘justice’ absolves the executive and judiciary of all responsibility and instead lets the crowd play the role of judge, jury and jail.
By its very nature a mob cannot dispense justice as a mob is fuelled only by collective rage which simply uses the power of many to target the lone ‘other’. The rise of the mobocracy in India prompted the Supreme Court, in July 2018, to ask Parliament to consider enacting a new law to effectively deal with incidents of mob lynching, saying “horrendous acts of mobocracy” cannot be allowed to become a new norm. The bench said, “Citizens cannot take law into their hands and cannot become law unto themselves.” But today, it is those in Parliament itself who are calling for citizens to take the law into their hands and to become a law unto themselves.
The calls for castration of the accused and for them to be hanged to death at the earliest is a revival of the eye-for-an-eye philosophy. There has been an upsurge of this sentiment across the political spectrum, and spanning national boundaries. In 2016, before Donald Trump had assumed office, he told a radio host that his favourite Bible verse was ‘an eye for an eye’. He said, “And some people—look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us… And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
In his own inimitable way, Trump articulates how the eye-for-an-eye philosophy, though not ‘particularly nice’, is used by those who feel that ‘might is right’, and those who believe there is no place for due process and no time for the wheels of justice to turn. An ‘Eye for an Eye’ is found in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus, which states: ‘Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.’ Jesus condemns the practice of personal retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount, saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
While turning the other cheek cannot be an option when it comes to heinous crime, neither can the diktats of the Old Testament be the criteria in a civilised society for handing down punishment to the accused. When those in Parliament encourage citizens to lynch the accused it shows a complete breakdown of the system that legislators stand for. While it is the violent rapes by strangers on the street that get the most attention in our media, it is the violence and abuse at home that continue unabated. As the UN reported recently, every day around the world, 137 women are killed by an intimate partner or a family member. The calls for ‘death for rapists’ ignore the fact that rapists are not only strangers on the streets, but can be husbands and fathers. What women deserve is justice and equality. The bloodthirst of the mob leaves no one safe.