Saturday, May 6, 2017

Supreme Court Affirms Death Sentence for December 16 Incident - Some Thoughts

The Supreme Court yesterday affirmed the death sentence awarded by the Trial Court, and confirmed by the High Court, in the case resulting out of the gang-rape incident that occurred in New Delhi on December 16, 2012. The decision was lapped up by raucous applause we are told, as "justice had been done". Seeing the circus that followed on national television led to some thinking and this post follows. The comments are frankly unoriginal, and are merely confirming what many of us know and understand. 

Criminal Law in the Age of Consumerism
Perhaps history will remember the first decades of the 21st century as the apogee of the age of consumerism and service-oriented thinking. Consumerist ideology has affected all facets of life, most notably government and governance. Good governance manuals now emphasise that this is a service being offered to citizens, and citizens have grievance redressal mechanisms galore akin to making complaints at a shopping mall. 

How has this affected the traditional understanding of criminal law? Significantly. There are books (David Garland's The Culture of Control an excellent one) which discuss this phenomenon. One thing that the present incident puts in the spotlight is how the consumerist ideology has brought victims in the spotlight. Criminal law classes begin by telling us how here the state is the victim - which is why most cases are prosecuted by state agencies. Crime is about harm to society, and the victim was not really given much importance. Slowly, though, this changed. If security is a service offered by the state, of which the criminal law was a facet, then it made sense to accede to victims demands for greater inclusion in the decision-making process. This would increase satisfaction with the system. This, like most other things, accelerated drastically with 24 hour television cycles. It became obvious that crime sells, and so maniacal reporting with amazing graphic (more on that later), little insight, and opinion polls through SMS came here to stay. Obviously, all this is class-specific, so the security concerns of the rich and middle class naturally get more air-time and attention than those affecting the poor. 

The legislative changes are there to see - India has allowed for victims to appeal against acquittals for some time now. This was unimaginable around thirty years ago. The present incident and the media coverage surrounding it just shows how far we've come down the road. Here, there is little else but the victim's perspective that is commented upon everywhere. 

Justice seems to have become rather One-Sided
A very wise lawyer once told me that our statutes created courts of law and not courts of justice, and so I should not lament over seemingly bad decisions. But what really is justice? If I was to take a shot at it, justice best serves as an adjective, describing decisions by looking at the means and ends both. A just decision is not only one arrived at in terms with proper processes of law, but also one that takes into account the rights and interests of every party involved. Given how scholars since Aristotle have been taking a shot at this, I'm pretty certain that my crude understanding is rather inadequate. Still, the idea of justice being something wholesome is something that can be found across philosophers, and can serve as one of the markers.

That wholesomeness seems to have been entirely abandoned in the present case. Nearly every news outlet ran pieces titled Justice for Nirbhaya. These ran with images of the adult perpetrators being crossed out with Hanged (eerily similar to the montage in the first Death Race film which was based on a system of lawlessness). Possible arguments advanced by the defence, on both conviction and sentencing, were brushed aside summarily. The bloodlust was chilling, but hardly novel. In all such cases, wherever there is extensive media coverage and sympathy for the victim, it becomes anathema to raise arguments supporting the rights of an accused person. This is mots extreme in terrorism trials, where persons are routinely denied fundamental human rights but those issues are airbrushed because of the threats to national security. 

In this regard, the Supreme Court deserves to be lauded for the effort it took to hear arguments on sentencing. The Court accepted specific affidavits addressing mitigation factors to consider whether the case fell within the rarest of rare standard (something which was not done in either of the courts below).

Extreme Cases and Lessons to Learn
Make no mistake, this case was extreme in terms of its brutality and violence. Extreme cases often lead to extreme reactions, so it is said, and therefore must not be used as markers to gauge a system. There is much merit in this. It is also valid to argue that extreme cases bring out latent tendencies and show exactly what each of us expects from the criminal justice system. Reactions to the present case leave me with little doubt that debates on abolishing the death sentence in India are a tad redundant. This is saddening, for there is nothing as arbitrary as the infliction of the death sentence in India. Perhaps more disturbing is the perception that those arguing for the defence are somehow bogeymen, delaying the inevitable. Such a view distorts the crucial role that the defence plays in ensuring that justice is not only done but in fact seen to be done. Alas, it would seem that the idea of justice, itself, may no longer be the same.

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