ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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On Rape and Capital Punishment

Would capital punishment for rapists help protect India's girls and women? Would a capital trial for these gang rapists help reform the deeply dysfunctional system of criminal justice? The answer to both questions is in the negative.

Our essay advocating a formal end to the death penalty in India was published on the same day that the gang rape in Delhi resulted in the victim’s death (“Executing Kasab: A New Beginning or the Beginning of the End of the Death Penalty”, EPW, 29 December 2012). Those horrendous crimes have generated a firestorm of public rage, one by-product of which is a call for capital punishment for rapists. In this article we consider what Delhi and its aftermath can teach us about the death penalty in India. Would “capital punishment for rapists” help protect India’s girls and women? Would a capital trial for these gang rapists help reform the deeply dysfunctional system of criminal justice? And could capital punishment for rape be a dangerous diversion of attention from India’s real problems?

In our view, a death penalty for rapists in India is a truly terrible idea. With tens of thousands of rapes each year but only two executions in the past 15 years, arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the death penalty would be a certainty, not least because inefficient, misogynistic, and corrupt police and prosecutors would be put in charge of this lethal lottery. There is also a practical problem: threatening to hang rapists provides incentive for them to kill victims and witnesses in order to avoid identification.

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