Hard labour of justice

Data from Rajasthan provides a sobering context to the discussion on how best to deal with sexual assault

The protests in the aftermath of the rape of a young student in Delhi last December served to focus debate on ways of dealing with such crimes bringing the guilty to book, as well as preventing assaults on a woman's bodily integrity. In fact, there is a line connecting the two, with the guarantee of punishment perceived to be a valuable deterrent to would-be offenders. A law was passed in Parliament, and hurriedly so, without enough debate, bringing in the death penalty for certain crimes and widening the definition of what qualified as a crime against women. However, so far there has been little in parliamentary debate or at the level of various government departments to suggest movement on reforming the criminal justice system. In the absence of root-and-branch reform, such a law, as well as the fast-track courts demanded by activists, will remain mere quick fixes.

Data from Rajasthan provides a sobering context. In 2005, all rape cases were transferred to fast-track courts. In rape cases, speediness of investigation and trial are essential. Even so, as reported in this newspaper, the conviction rate since 2000 remains largely uniform, around 25 per cent. Nestled in this record is a worrying trend highlighted by the advocate-general's office. While the overall conviction rate is uniform, before the introduction of fast-track courts, the proportion of convictions overturned at the high-court stage was lower. Each case turns on its own specifics, but as a trend on a time horizon of more than a decade, it puts the investigation process in fast-tracked trials under an interrogating glare. If there is a possibility that fast-tracking trials is resulting in shoddier investigations, the process needs to be re-assessed. The data also reveals that fast-track courts have not yielded lower pendency.

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