In 1989, a young woman was brutally gang raped – she suffered two skull fractures and brain damage – in Central Park, New York. Six black and Hispanic teenagers were charged and five were eventually convicted on the basis of their videotaped confessions. As per a news report at the time, in videotaped and written statements to the police, “the teen-agers described how they hunted the woman, chased her down a path, beat her with a lead pipe, a brick and rocks, stripped her clothes and then held her down while at least four of them raped her”. The case dominated headlines and the woman became world famous as the “central park jogger”. Frank Sinatra sent her roses while she was recuperating in the hospital. A year later when the woman, an investment banker, returned to work, the mayor of the city called her inspirational, saying, ”despite tremendous odds, she is rebuilding her life. What a human life can do, a human society can do as well”. In 1991, while sentencing the last defendant, Steven Lopez, the judge regretted that he was prevented by law from imposing a tougher penalty on “one of the most vicious” of the six youth charged, and that his sentencing was “the final chapter of a cowardly attack that will continue to live in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers.”
There are some obvious parallels of this case with that of the Delhi gang rape in December last year. The Delhi gang rape too quickly became a flashpoint, dominating headlines and the public discourse. Both the crimes were exceptionally brutal. The victim in each instance was a role model of sorts: the Central Park jogger, a brilliant student who graduated from Wellesley, an accomplished ballet dancer and a rising star at an investment bank; the Delhi girl, a much loved daughter in a patriarchal society, who was going to break the class barrier through education and industry. The perpetrators too in each case were the underclass lowlifes out on a rampage. Public outrage in both cases was inevitable.
The main accused in the Delhi gang rape case, Ram Singh allegedly committed suicide in Tihar Jail a few days ago. The brother of the victim expressed his disappointment saying, “I’m not very thrilled with the news that he killed himself because I wanted him to be hanged … publicly. Him dying on his own terms seems unfair”. This sense of dismay that Ram Singh had successfully eluded punishment by choosing to die on his own terms was echoed elsewhere too. Without having been convicted, on the back of charges by the police alone, he and the other accused have been certified guilty. Yet in the Central Park rape case, after each of the convicted teenagers had spent between 6-13 years in jail, they were suddenly exonerated. Another serial rapist confessed to the Central Park rape and his guilt was confirmed by DNA test. This is not to insinuate that the six charged in the Delhi gang rape are innocent – but the apparently incontrovertible evidence of their guilt –the victim’s blood on Ram Singh’s shirt the next day, the blood-soaked bus, the test identification parade, the confessions – are all police’s versions and have not yet been upheld in the court as yet (and it’s not as if our police has never been found guilty of fabrication of evidence).
The common thread between the two cases is not the potential innocence of the accused but their vilification, facilitated by an overzealous media. The vilification of the Central Park five – widely called the wolf pack – enabled their conviction on flimsy grounds. The vilification of the six accused in the Delhi gang rape is fueling not just serious assaults on their physical being and dignity while in custody but also the outrageous notion that these are somehow just desserts for their purported brutality. One of the accused, Mukesh, was forced to consume excreta in prison. Ram Singh’s father claims that his son was sodomized in jail. Ram Singh was found hanging in suspicious circumstances, while the three other inmates in his cell slept. However any expression of concern at this state of affairs is somehow taken as loony liberals’ unjustified sympathy for these brutal men. Nidhi Razdan, a senior anchor on NDTV, closed her show by repeatedly calling Ram Singh a coward. In the middle of the show when someone tried to talk about the disturbing implications of his suicide/murder on prison conditions, Ms. Razdan emphatically claimed, “the point is no one misses him”. Praveen Swami, the former head of Delhi bureau of The Hindu, wrote an article arguing that there was no cause to “reinvent him [Ram Singh] as a victim” even if “Ram Singh driven to depression by sexual attacks by fellow prisoners did kill himself”. These two individuals represent not the fringe right but the mainstream.
However this line of thinking if accepted is dangerous. It says that if the crime is heinous enough, then merely imputing guilt is enough to abridge all rights of the accused – the right to be presumed innocent before being proven guilty, the right to dignity, the right to bodily integrity. This line of thinking also betrays an unhealthy preoccupation with specifics thus paving the way for discretionary and arbitrary response by the State with reference to both the victim and the perpetrators. This is already evident in the Delhi gang rape case while other victims of equally heinous rape and acid attacks languish in obscurity without help or hope of justice. Most importantly, by shifting the focus on to the individual, this line of thinking papers over State excess and abuse of power. Given the brutality of the crime, we want the State too to respond brutally – to abet abuse in incarceration and to give the death penalty after. Those who argue that Ram Singh got what he deserved propagate an inhuman vision of crime and punishment focused only on retribution. They also gloss over their own inherited privilege and undeserved breaks. We may vilify Ram Singh to justify our self-righteousness, but ultimately how we treat him speaks more about us than him.