By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women's rights activists have gone against popular public opinion and cautioned against handing down the death penalty to four men convicted in the high-profile grisly gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in December.
The four men were convicted of gang rape and murder by a special fast-track court on Tuesday in a case that shocked the country and triggered a wave of angry protests over rising sexual violence against women in India.
They are expected to be sentenced on Friday and face either life imprisonment or the death penalty.
But while popular public opinion - reflected on social media sites and interviews with people on the streets, as well as in comments made by the victim's family and politicians - is that they should be hanged, some women's rights activists refuse to support this.
"How will the death sentence in this one case make any big difference? The argument that it is a deterrent for all other cases simply doesn't cut ice, as research shows otherwise," says Kavita Krishan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association and one of the most prominent voices during the December protests.
"We are focusing on the death penalty as a quick-fix solution, as though if we hang these four men, all the rapes are going to stop - rather than looking at the root causes of the sexual violence against women."
Statistics showed that 244,270 crimes against women were reported to the police in 2012, against 228,650 in 2011, according to the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB).
These include rapes, kidnappings, sexual harassment, trafficking, molestation and cruelty by husbands and relatives. They also include crimes in which a woman was driven to suicide as a result of demands for a dowry from her husband or in-laws.
Bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh had lured the trainee physiotherapist and her male friend onto a bus as they returned home after watching a movie at a shopping mall on the evening of December 16.
As the bus drove through the streets of the capital, the men repeatedly raped the victim before dumping her and her friend, naked and semi-conscious, on the road.
Prosecutors, who demanded the death sentence in court on Wednesday, said the men used a metal rod and their hands to pull the woman's organs from her body after raping her. Her injuries were so severe that she died in a Singapore hospital two weeks later.
All four men deny the charges, but the prosecution said mobile phone records, CCTV footage, DNA evidence and bite marks on the woman's body placed the men at the scene.
"This is an extreme case of depravity," special public prosecutor Dayan Krishnan told the court, likening the woman's injuries to someone "cutting open a fruit".
Many in India agree that such a heinous crime can only be punished with the harshest of punishments, saying that it will send a strong signal to potential rapists that assaults on women will not be tolerated.
In the run-up to the verdict, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter where "delhigangrape" and "ALL 4" have been trending have been abuzz with comments on the sentencing.
"No mercy! Hang them all! Society will revolt if demons who rip us apart are not gravely punished!" said one tweet, while another stated, "Possibility of reform? Reform is only possible for humans. They are NOT humans. Hang them!"
"BAYING FOR BLOOD"
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the death penalty was assured in the case, while a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Sushma Swaraj, said it was important to "set an example for the future".
Under the law, the death penalty is reserved for the "rarest of rare" cases. Even when it is imposed, the authorities often do not carry out executions.
There are 477 prisoners on death row in India, according to the home ministry. Last year, India carried out its first hanging in eight years when it executed the lone survivor of a squad of Pakistan-based militants who attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people.
Human rights lawyers, many of whom are prominent feminists in India, say the "baying for blood culture" that has come to light after the incident has become an easy solution for many Indians, who have failed to introspect about how they themselves treat women in this deeply patriarchal society.
An example, they cite, are reports of molestation during the Delhi gang rape protests in December, where men calling for the death penalty were found to be harassing women at the demonstrations.
They say that there are no short-term solutions to ending the scourge of rape in India - where a rape occurs every 21 minutes - and that many measures are required.
Enforcing and implementing current laws pertaining to crimes against women, ensuring speedy justice by investing in police and judicial reforms, increasing public education in schools and creating safer public spaces will all help.
Rather than providing the death sentence, banning parliamentarians who have rape charges against them and making marital rape a crime will send a stronger signal, they add.
"The law prescribes death or the life sentence for the act of murder, so whichever sentence is passed on Friday it will be a legal one," said Rebecca Mammen John, a supreme court lawyer and women's rights campaigner.
"My personal view on the death sentence is that I oppose it completely. I think it's barbaric and I don't think the state has the right to take a life away and I don't think it acts as a deterrent in the least bit."
(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani, Sruthi Gottipati and Anurag Kotoky in NEW DELHI)