NEWS
01/02/2019 5:52 PM IST | Updated 01/02/2019 6:04 PM IST

Modi’s Claim On Death Penalty For Rapes Is Accurate. But That Doesn’t Make It Right

Speedy trials can help politicians trot out statistics that generate shock value. But this may set a dangerous precedent.

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Earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed at an event in Surat that the speed at which capital punishment is awarded to rapists had shot up, thereby improving the safety of women.

Rapes used to occur earlier as well. It is shameful and when we hear about such incidents, we hang our heads in shame. But today death penalties are... within 3 days, 7 days, 11 days and one month,” he said.  This is not the first time Modi has made this claim—in his Independence Day speech last year at the Red Fort, he had spoken on the same lines.

This time, Modi’s claim drew widespread attention, partly because an ANI tweet mistakenly quoted him as saying culprits were hanged within days. Many portals rightly pointed out that the last time a person was executed for rape and murder was in 2004.   

But not enough attention has been paid to the other big problems with the Prime Minister’s claim—one of these is advocating speedy trials that water down standards of due process set by the law for awarding the death penalty.

“The Prime Minister’s claims must be verified for political accountability but in doing so, we would do well to avoid suggesting that hanging people within 30 days is somehow a desirable thing,” Anup Surendranath, Executive Director of Project 39A, an anti-death penalty advocacy group at National Law University, Delhi, told HuffPost India.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Where’s the data?

In 2018, amid the outrage over the Kathua and Unnao rapes, the Modi government amended the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, to grant maximum punishment to those convicted of raping children below 12 years. But before this, in 2017, several BJP-ruled states including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana had amended the Indian Penal Code to award capital punishment for those convicted of raping girls below the age of 12.

Under the newly amended law, trial courts in the country, especially in Madhya Pradesh, have indeed been awarding death penalties in record time, as Modi claimed. In MP, the longest trial resulting in the death penalty under the new law was the first one—where a man convicted of raping a 9-year old was sentenced to death after a trial lasting 46 days.

Modi’s claims, both earlier this week and in 2018, have been made in reference to only rapes of children.

In the absence of credible crime statistics, it is impossible to make the connection that speedy death penalties could somehow improve safety of women and minors.

But has the new law brought down incidents of rape in the country? That question cannot be answered because of what is now a talking point regarding this government’s relationship with data—the annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not been released since 2016.

According to the 2016 NCRB statistics, Madhya Pradesh ranked 7th in crimes against children.

In the absence of credible crime statistics, it is impossible to make the connection that speedy death penalties could somehow improve safety of women and minors, especially when multiple studies have pointed that death penalty is not a credible deterrent to crime.

The 2015 Law Commission report on the death penalty recommended abolishing the death penalty for all crimes except in terror cases.

According to a report called The Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics 2018, released by Project 39A last week, 162 death sentences were imposed by trial courts across India this year, the highest in the last 19 years.

Madhya Pradesh was first in the list with 22 death sentences on 2018. The report notes that there has been a dramatic increase from 2017, when 6 people were sentenced to death in the state. 

However, even as trial courts are showing great enthusiasm for awarding capital punishment, over half the sentences have been overturned by higher courts.

However, even as trial courts are showing great enthusiasm for awarding capital punishment, over half the sentences have been overturned by higher courts.

While 12 death penalties were awarded in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh for child rape under the new law, only one was confirmed by the high court while half of them have been commuted and the rest are pending.

Every death penalty awarded by a trial court does not translate to a hanging, since it has to be necessarily confirmed by the respective high court. The high court verdict can be appealed in the SC and even the SC verdict can be reviewed.

Death penalties at record speed

In July last year, Rajkumar Kol, an autorickshaw driver, was awarded the death sentence for raping a minor after a 5-day trial by a district court in Katni in Madhya Pradesh. The arrest and investigation were carried out in just over two weeks.

Twenty-four-year-old Motilal Ahirwar was sentenced to life imprisonment till death (the court specified that imprisonment will be for the rest of the convict’s natural life) by a district court in Datia, Madhya Pradesh, in August 2018 for raping a minor. His trial lasted all of three days. Just a few days later, a 14- year old juvenile in the state’s Shajapur district was sent to a remand home for two years after he was found guilty of sexual assault in a case that was investigated over four days and adjudicated in just seven hours.

In August, two men—Irfan (20) and Asif (24)—were sentenced to death in the Mandsaur gang-rape case. The investigation, where a 500-page charge sheet was filed by the police, lasted less than a month and the trial was wrapped up in less than two months.

For a judicial system plagued by pendency and long drawn trials, speedy justice is the need of the hour. However, super-short investigations and trials may only help politicians trot out statistics that generate shock value. This could mean that courts are dangerously risking lives for brownie points.

Apurva Vishwanath is a journalist based in New Delhi.