Thursday, September 12, 2013

Essay: What kind of society do we want to live in?

A reflection on crime & punishment

September 12, 2013

Unimaginable acts of terror are perpetrated on undeserving people all the time. As we pass the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, each of us remembers where we were when we first saw thousands of people murdered on television. I was in Goa and my host, a Jewish Indian who volunteered his time teaching young Indian soldiers photography said, “Bomb the hell out of the m*f* who did this.” No act of mass violence in recent memory was more sensational and no retaliation more morally complex. As Americans debate how to punish Syria, Indians await the decision of one judge, Mr Yogesh Khanna. What will he decide should happen to the four men who brutally raped and mutilated a young woman on a Delhi bus? On Friday, he will possibly echo the sentence that many people have already given: “Hang them.” As the woman’s father said in a BBC documentary, India-A Dangerous Place to be a Woman, “Until these barbarians are alive, my mind will not rest, my sorrow will not abate. It is not that through their death I will get my daughter back but as fast as they can be hanged, the faster I will find peace.”

If the judge fails to deliver such a sentence riots may break out again and many Indians will feel their faith in the judicial system terribly shaken. So I ask all of us awaiting the sentencing, is this the society we want to build? Does a hanging bring us closer to an ethical state?

Every time I think of what happened to this girl, I have the same visceral reaction that millions of men and women have.  In the heat of the night, I want these criminals dead now. I don’t want our society to spend any time on caring for them and feeding them until they die of natural causes in prison. In the same BBC documentary the murdered woman’s father says, “My greatest regret was that I could not tell her what was in my heart before she died, nor could I hear what was in her heart.”

After watching the outcry at the torment that this woman and countless others suffer, it appears that the collective rage of our society needs to be channeled into due punishment. I feel this rage too; particularly since I have seen abuse that has not been acknowledged. But until this case, I opposed the death penalty. And so I keep asking myself: in this instance can I not make an exception?

I cannot. In the cold light of day I am committed to moving towards a society where the human rights of women and children can be upheld without the death penalty being imposed. It doesn’t discount what men like this do to women and children and even if it is a fitting punishment for these crimes, on a longer ethical paradigm, imposing the death penalty is a step backwards to a more tribal society.

I know what I want. I want freedom, liberty, justice.

Just like my mother hoped for me, I want my girls to experience public spaces without being at risk. As a woman I have the same right to inhabit a public space as a man. My place is not only in the home even if that is where I may choose to spend most of my time. Although I have to say that no one ever pointed out to me personally that the home was where I belonged.

I want journeys to be safe. Every day millions of working class Indian women have to commute long distances to jobs and return home each night to care for their families. Every time they set foot outside their home they are at risk, every time they re-enter their homes they are at risk. Theirs is a heroic battle to survive and they have to do it on their own, because so far many have had almost no support from their families and little justice if they are violated, just like I was denied justice. The framers of our Constitution gave us freedom of movement—they did not single out this right only for men and I want to live in a society where I exercise this freedom: to have the right to go where I want, when I want, without risk to my body or my life. I want my idea of India to thrive: an India where more women keep breaking the glass ceiling and run organizations and law firms, state governments, political parties and the country. I have run a legal services company in India, and in that instance I was fortunate not to have experienced any gender discrimination in the work place.

I want homes to be safe for children and women. Many of us women in India are not safe in their homes. I want perpetrators of crimes to be held responsible and their crimes to be punished but their trials to be fair. I wonder, is there real justice to be had with anything other than hanging these men? Is life in prison with hard labor or solitary confinement the answer?

I belong to a heterogeneous, complex society, with cross cutting cleavages of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity. Some say to me, you are not from the real India, because I come from a privileged class of English speaking elites educated in the private schools of South Mumbai. Others may accuse, but you don’t live here anymore. I agree with these qualifications, in many ways I have lived a somewhat sheltered existence. However, I have also travelled around India, used public transportation and had very diverse experiences. Like every Indian I have many identities. I spent most of the first 29 years of my life in Mumbai. But this is where it gets much more complicated. On the one hand I feel a little defensive of the city of my birth. I love this city, its energy is like a drug. I enjoy exploring its streets. For the most part I did not feel any more unsafe on the streets of Mumbai than in the many Western cities I have visited. Perhaps in retrospect this was a false sense of security. Possibly one of the safest cities I have ever been in is Tokyo, but then a girlfriend of mine got beaten up by a Japanese man on a crowded train only because she was a foreigner. I guess every city has its tales of unexpected violence.

I know that terrible things happen to women in Mumbai; most recently the gang rape of a photojournalist on the job. When I worked at Marine Lines, a young woman was raped just below my office building by a policeman who forced her into a police chowki in the middle of the day. I worked with a criminal lawyer who advised any woman who would listen, that the last place she should go to complain about a rape is a police station; he also advised that if a woman ever needed to go to a police station, she should always take an escort.

The threat of violence for a woman on the streets of Delhi is palpable. I recall an incident a few years ago. I was showing an American girlfriend around Old Delhi and as we exited the Jama Masjid around five in the evening, we were given the third degree by a young man on the street, “What are you doing here? Where are you from? So Bombay girls are allowed to walk around like this?” His tone and behavior became very menacing and a few other men started to close in on us. We were terrified. Suddenly, an SUV came to a furious halt in front of us and its driver told us to get in and raced us home. This taxi driver was a good man, but my uncle was livid that we had risked our lives by getting into an unknown vehicle. The girl and her friend who boarded the bus in Delhi last December made a similar choice and she ended up dead.

Mr M. Sharma, one of the defense lawyers for three of the accused rapists, was asked in the BBC interview if it was true that he had said that he had never heard of a respectable girl ever being raped. He confirmed, “Yes, certainly, certainly. We have a different culture.” The interviewer asked him “What is the difference between a respectable girl and non-respectable girl?” Mr Sharma answered, “Respectable girl and non respectable girl means if you see someone, if you feel respect about her she is respectable. If she would be respectable, this would never happen to her. Respect is a very strong shield which can’t be crossed by anybody at all. And respect comes by character, respect comes by your behavior, respect comes by your actions…You cannot say that only the rapists are responsible. She is also responsible equally. You have to protect yourself. Any dog can bite you, and that’s happened.”

The idea that the victim is to blame has to be reevaluated. The argument that you are asking for it because of the way you dress or because of your questionable choices to go to a movie with a boy is bullshit. My friend and I were in long sleeved kurtas and I had a headscarf on to shield myself from the sun. How would Mr Sharma explain one of the worst things I have ever encountered in my work for an NGO—a baby raped in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar in Mumbai until her internal organs were destroyed.

Mr Sharma has it in reverse. Sexual violence is perpetrated on people who are vulnerable and cannot defend themselves effectively. Women and children in India do not have a framework within which to fend off sexual violence, and until recently they did not have a justice system that took care of them. Acknowledging this vulnerability and not taking advantage of it is the essence of respect. At the opposite end I know Indian men who will not have sex with a seemingly consenting partner who is inebriated because they are not sure if she is really consenting to the sex. The objects of desire do not need to possess any inviolate qualities. Otherwise, when Sita passed her trial by fire, why was she rejected by Ram and sent to the forest? It was the perception of a patriarchal society that was at fault.

At the same time, I know that there are gentler spaces in this sea of violence. I want to live in the same Indian society I spent my late teens and early twenties in, where my male friends treated me as their equal. My male contemporaries come from a variety of backgrounds, some studied and lived abroad, many of them have not, yet they help around the house, they cook, they like and indulge strong women who pursue their dreams. They grapple with the role of men and women in Indian society just like we do in America.

In his essay, A Hanging, George Orwell recounts the hanging of a man. 

The thing that I think very striking is that no one, or no one I can remember, ever writes of an execution with approval.  The dominant note is always horror.  Society, apparently, cannot get along without capital punishment—for there are some people whom it is simply not safe to leave alive—and yet there is no one, when the pinch comes, who feels it right to kill another human being in cold blood.  I watched a man hanged once.  There was no question that everybody concerned knew this to be a dreadful, unnatural action.  I believe it is always the same—the whole jail, warders and prisoners alike, is upset when there is an execution.  It is probably the fact that capital punishment is accepted as necessary, and yet instinctively felt to be wrong, that gives so many descriptions of executions their tragic atmosphere.  They are mostly written by people who have actually watched an execution and feel it to be a terrible and only partly comprehensible experience which they want to record.”

According to Amnesty International, 174 of the 193 member states of the United Nations were execution-free in 2012, so there are many societies that see merit in abolishing the death penalty. Amnesty International ( has been monitoring developments around the use of the death penalty and campaigning for its abolition for more than three decades particularly since research has shown it is not a deterrent. In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. In 2012, 21 countries around the world were known to have carried out executions and at least 58 have imposed death sentences. There are many voices in India that oppose the capital punishment. See for instance, Kanimozhi's recent opinion in The Hindu.

I like the question that my husband recently posed, if we believe to act is moral, is every action we take moral? Can our actions to correct injustice create their own injustice? Just because we cannot sit by silently when chemicals suffocate children in Syria, does it mean that missile strikes are ethical or even useful?

The idea of India is a very powerful concept for me. As the world’s largest democracy, I have a great deal of faith and pride in it. We are a nation of social movements, of men and women who stood up to sati, to dowry, to colonialism. It isn’t convenient for me to oppose the death penalty in the light of such terrible crimes, and my view is not from the trenches. My grandfather worked for a British company that doled out luxuries, and life was much less comfortable for him after he retired. Yet, he held on to this idea of India as a place where we were free, a better place than the one he knew during the Raj, even if it was less comfortable for him. It was a place where famines were less likely, the press was mostly free, and the common man who had gone without a shirt on his back was now clothed. But for the vast majority, justice has always been out of reach. Now, with the tremendous social outcry to end violence against women, it might just be within grasp. The police and courts in Delhi have been shamed into appearing to respond more effectively to a woman’s right to safety and freedom of movement.

I learned quite early that sometimes we need to use force to defend those we love, the integrity of our ideals and our country. I was greatly influenced by my childhood hero, Khusro Rustamji, my grandfather’s best friend. Rustamji was Prime Minister Nehru’s personal bodyguard and rose to be the highest ranking police officer in the country. He was the founding director of the Border Security Force and later Secretary of the Home Ministry. He had dealt with the worst atrocities that human beings are capable of including war crimes. He was a master at conflict management, he was prepared to use force when necessary but always worked tirelessly for a diplomatic solution. He orchestrated India’s support of the Bangladeshi resistance in the struggle for Bangladeshi independence, and cleared the Chambal ravines of notorious dacoits that had historically terrorized the region. My grandfather and Rustamji would talk politics, and I was allowed to join in. I picture this discussion with him. He always seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the nation, and he may have said to me that the crimes of the Delhi rapists could only be punished by death. I imagine I would have told him what I thought, and he would have listened attentively like he always did, and then, perhaps he would have said, “Maybe I agree with you.” So though I am not sure what he would say about the death penalty in this case, Rustamji, like Nehru, Gandhi, King and Mandela, was invigorated by a vision of a future that was kinder than the reality of the trenches. These men had a longer view of society. They were humanists who preferred to use non-violent resistance and persuasion to drive home their ideals for human communities. They too felt the everyday rage we feel at the shackles of colonialism, racism, and the degradation of women. In such leaders we have a paradigm for resistance and change: we are not weak when we choose a more ethical punishment for those who harm us. It reflects well on us. This is the idea of India that I hope that Judge Khanna will find himself holding on to when he delivers his sentence tomorrow.