When a crime shocks the collective conscience of society, that itself constitutes a ground for the harshest punishment – the death penalty. The social media has opened the floodgates for freedom of opinion, which makes these platforms a barometer of public sentiment. But is it informed opinion on display? Whether it was Nirbhaya or the Kathua horror or, closer home, the Child Rape in Chennai, there was a loud cry for justice. Tagged with that justifiable anguish has also been a common blood lust through demands for instant justice. Scroll down the news feed soon after such crimes are reported and almost every other post will scream “hang them immediately”, “line up and shoot the bxxxxxxx in public”, “castrate the dogs”, “torture them like they do at concentration camps and televise it”. There were even chilling and graphic videos on whatsapp of how such offenders are beheaded in Saudi Arabia. The anger stems from the realisation that this crime struck too close to home and our loved ones are also not safe.
I went on record on national television arguing for the death sentence for the culprits of the Chennai Child Rape and advocated the hangman’s noose in my weekly legal column as well. Make no mistake. There must be zero tolerance for such barbaric crimes. And yes, I concede that our judicial system has its flaws and delays and does not always inspire adequate public confidence. But taking the law into our own hands is not the solution. Are we really going to compare ourself with countries in the Middle East? Are we a banana republic? Did we not give even a dreaded terrorist like Ajmal Kasab who was seen on camera spraying bullets on innocent citizens, a fair trial, leading, of course, to his hanging? How are we so sure that the ones named as accused by police are the real culprits? Is it not possible for innocent people to be implicated due to mistakes in investigation? Or due to intense public pressure to somehow crack the case? Or genuine human errors in Identification Parades? Can evidence not be botched up? How are we so sure that all those under trials in our prisons are definitely guilty? Think about it. If a dastardly crime can be perpetrated on our dear ones, can we also rule out our family members being falsely framed under certain circumstances? We can be victims both ways. Therefore, we must not jump the gun.
A fair trial is a fundamental right under Article 21 of our Constitution. No one can be deprived of their life or personal liberty except by procedure established by law. A proper criminal trial involving examination and cross examination of witnesses, forensic evidence and arguments are imperative. There is a big difference between being accused of a crime and being convicted. The former deserves a fair trial and the latter, perhaps no mercy. Let that call be made in court based on evidence marshalled. Not on social media timelines based on half baked information or knowledge.
As a lawyer, I do believe that our laws and legal procedures need more deterrence. We need to reform the system and we need to inform society. The Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance prescribes the death penalty for child rape and sets a time limit for the investigation and trial. But for certainty and swiftness in punishment, the trial is just one aspect addressed. A convict on death row has 7 lives, with appeals in the High Court, Supreme Court, review and curative petitions and a mercy plea to the President. There is no point in having a time frame only for the trial if the rest of the rigmarole, through appeals, go on for donkeys years. We do need a strict time limit for the entire case – from trial to all the appeals. That will be a fitting and legitimate response to our collective cry for justice.
And while we are furiously venting on facebook or twitter, what are we doing for the victim whose cause we claim to champion? In the Kathua case, there were umpteen social media users who put out that angelic child’s face as their profile picture. In the Chennai Child Rape case, folks were busy sharing details like the name of the apartment complex and school. In the process, they violated the privacy of the victims and their families and committed offences under the Indian Penal Code, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the Juvenile Justice Act. This was pointed out when Nirbhaya happened, it was repeated in the Kathua case. And now with the Chennai crime. Will we ever learn?
We are all guilty of a sense of complacency and politically correct outrage. What are we doing to keep ourselves and our children safe? How many of us have installed CCTVs in our premises, not just in common areas but also blind spots? Or exerted pressure on the Building Association to do it if they haven’t? How many of us have checked the antecedents of our security guards, lift operators, house keeping staff, drivers and maids? How many of us educate our children about the ‘good and bad touch’ that credible NGOs like TULIR have been campaigning for all these years? Or requested schools to make it compulsory? How many of us spend adequate time with our children and embolden them to confide in us? How many of us have thought of sending our kids to Self Defence classes? How many of us have accompanied a victim to a court hearing, as opposed to holding placards at rallies and shouting slogans before TV cameras? Those who have, put out that next post.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24X7)