On Friday, September 13, Mukesh Singh, Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, and Pawan Guptawere were sentenced to death by hanging for the murder and gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi last December. In an unprecedented verdict reserved only for the “rarest of rare” cases, an Indian court sentenced to death the men accused of repeatedly raping the young woman aboard a moving bus—penetrating her with an iron rod until only 5% of her intestines remained inside of her body—in a moment that, for many, would symbolize a monumental shift in Indian attitudes toward sexual violence and discrimination against women. Outside the courtroom there were cheers and tears of joy as spectators celebrated what they believed to be the beginning of the end to an embedded rape culture that has gone ignored for far too long. As one woman remarked in a piece written by the Seattle Times “This is the beginning of freedom for Indian women today.” (“Four men in Indian gang rape sentenced to death” 09.13.13)
Instinctively, I could not help but agree. I welcomed this verdict with a smile and an innate sense of joy for the Indian women who now felt liberated and empowered by the decision to send these men to the gallows. Finally, progress. But is it? As I found myself silently applauding the decision of Judge Yogesh Khanna to condemn these men to death, a voice in the back of my mind reminded me that I had filed the death penalty into the ‘impermissible’ category of my moral conscience long ago. So what about this case had caused me to so readily shift my view of the death penalty from a barbaric, reactionary ritual to an encouraging symbol of progress?
Was it the fact that the verdict had been reached in India? Maybe—according to a 2011 poll conducted by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, one in four Indian men have admitted to committing some form of sexual violence in their lives, yet up until the December attack, which sparked outrage and triggered waves of protest across India, local politicians and judges continued to blame the sexual violence on the immodest behavior of women or boys eating too much junk food.
Within the context of India’s long tradition of victim-blaming and discrimination, to make an example of these men by holding them accountable for their violence—albeit in such an extreme way—may indeed constitute a giant leap for the Indian judicial system; but has it been a leap forward, or merely a leap into the air aimed at giving the international community a fleeting glimpse of India’s ability to rise above this tradition?
Wary of the verdict’s intentions, Indian sociologist Sanjay Srivastava wrote in an op-ed for the Indian broadsheet Daily News and Analysis, “In the modern period, we have become so deeply nationalistic that we have lost the ability for self-evaluation, substituting instead a brand of self-congratulation for self-criticism. We are argumentative about everything except our own selves.” (“‘Family honour’ and ‘values’ give immunity to the predator at home” 09.13.13)
Perhaps real progress, then, comes only when a nation is willing to meaningfully engage with the skeletons in its closet, rather than lethally inject, hang, or shoot them into obscurity. It may comes when a people are able to ask themselves the difficult questions, rather than respond to a world that does not always ask the right ones. In the months following the attack, India did just that. Progress took the form of conversation and self-reflection; as Indian novelist Nilanjana Roy declared, “it is the first time in decades that we are exploring these fault lines—of caste, class and gender—in such a mainstream fashion.” (“Viewpoints: Has Delhi rape case changed India?” 09.10.13)
But this progress may have halted the moment the court pronounced ‘death to all.’ Is it possible that the verdict—in its attempt to stick a band-aid over the gaping open wound that is India’s institutionalized misogyny—has only distracted from the deeper issues at stake? The sensationalism surrounding the case certainly speaks to that idea, as it has clearly encouraged a perception of the verdict as the climax of a conversation that has barely even begun.
If the arc of the moral universe is as long as Martin Luther King, Jr. told us it would be, six months of protest and a death sentence—while important landmarks in India’s journey toward gender equality—will not be enough to undo discrimination that has been reinforced over centuries. Meaningful progress cannot be imposed; it moves at its own pace, and rarely comes at the expense of careful deliberation and introspection. For the arc may bend towards justice, but if it is forced, it will inevitably break.
—Natasha Bertrand ’14 is a political science & philosophy double major.