A crime less ordinary

Convictions for December 16 have been swift. Lessons from this case must extend to less visible ones

The December 16 gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi was always a "rarest of the rare" case. Not just because of the brutality of the assault, but also in the way it wrenched attention to itself. It brought ordinary people to the streets, made a burning public cause out of rape and sexual assault, changed criminal law. The rapists were immediately found, the case was put on a fast track and watched over by many emotionally invested citizens. And now, four of the accused have been convicted and given the death penalty. This is clearly meant as exemplary punishment for an exceptional crime.

But what does this experience change for the other cases, the unnoticed and unpunished rapes that are reported across the country? Last year's data is dispiriting. Out of more than one lakh pending cases in 2012, only around 14,700, 14.5 per cent, were decided, with only 3,563 convictions. They cannot all be fast-tracked. And even if they are, there is no indication that they will produce drastically different results. In Rajasthan, where such courts were first set up after an unusual spurt in rape cases, justice has not been any more visibly served. Though hearings are day-to-day, adjournments persist. Often, when the police file charges under pressure, the sloppy quality of the investigation causes the cases to collapse or convictions to be overturned by higher courts.

There are special circumstances that make it difficult to secure justice in a rape case. This includes the perception of "stigma" that encourages silence, an investigative system that often mirrors the misogyny around us rather than protecting the rights of female citizens, the rounds of questioning and examination that can often be another kind of abuse. But apart from that, the challenge of getting a conviction in a rape case has to do with the general tardiness of the judicial process. Reforming that requires allocating greater resources to increase the number of courts, manage cases better with technology, reduce the time taken on preliminary paperwork. These are the investments we need, if rape cases are to be quickly and fairly resolved, with or without the vagaries of public attention.

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