The eyes of the world will be on Delhi tomorrow, as six men go on trial for the barbaric rape and murder that has shaken India to its core.
Unprecedented public anger at the evil act has manifested itself in street protests across the country; those marching are directing their rage not only at the accused but at the cultural, political and law enforcement systems that have consistently failed to protect women from abuse.
It now appears inevitable that the protestors’ efforts will change India for better, at least to some extent. Chauvinistic media portrayal of women, shortcomings in the way that police handle rape cases, silence over domestic abuse and a host of other horrendous norms have been thrust into the spotlight, with politicians vowing to take action.
However, recent developments threaten a more ominous outcome when it comes to India’s justice system. There is now a growing demand for the accused to face the death penalty, a rarely-used last resort in Indian law .Prior to the only surviving perpetrator of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks being hanged amidst scenes of celebration last year, no one had been put to death in India since 2004. As Ananth Guruswamy, head of Amnesty International India pointed out in a brave article this week, executing these six men will detract attention from the underlying problems of sexual violence in Indian society whilst squandering a vital chance for the country to confine the death penalty to its history.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more worrying than the sentence itself, is the context in which the trial will be taking place. Senior parliamentarians have publicly called for hangings, a fast-track court has been set up despite the poor track record of such ventures, and lawyers following the urging of top judges have decided en-masse to refuse their services to the defence.
It is a key principle of democracy that no matter how heinous a crime, even one as barbaric as this, politicians must not interfere with the judicial process; corners must not be cut in establishing a verdict; and those standing trial must be entitled to adequate representation. Chief Justice Altamas Kabir has been amongst a minority warning that “a swift trial should not be at the cost of a fair trial”, yet such voices are being drowned out amid widespread (and understandable) public demands for retribution at the gallows.
It will be a disaster if India’s politicians and judiciary undermine the justice system in order to quell anger on the streets, not least because the precedent of doing so could ultimately lead to miscarriages of justice in the future. Giving a fair trial to people who have brutally ended a young woman’s life will be painfully uncomfortable- but it is essential.