Six Reasons To Be Wary of Death Sentence for Delhi Rapists


In New Delhi last December, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a physiotherapy student out to a late movie with a friend, boarded a bus in which she and her friend were attacked by a group of men. Brutally gang-raped, Pandey succumbed to her injuries a few days later.

The case evoked unprecedented resonance among many groups, especially Indian students, who reported having become fed up with daily public harassment. In numerous marches, the case became a rallying cry for state accountability and the demand for safe public spaces for women.

Last week, the trial of the accused rapists concluded in short order, with four men receiving the death penalty and the fifth, a juvenile, receiving a short prison sentence. [The sixth accused allegedly committed suicide in jail.] New marches and passionate responses from people have followed, with two particular reactions: celebration that the four rapists had received ultimate punishments, and disappointment that the fifth man (boy) was excluded from the death sentence. Indian feminist leaders, lawyers and scholars have been loath to join these arguments, however, and not just because they might oppose capital punishment. Here are some of their questions and qualms:
1. Does the death penalty for the rapists make us feel safer? Rape happens every day, on the street and in labor sites, schools and homes. It goes overwhelmingly unreported, whether because of threats, distrust in the law or notions of shame and dishonor. The death penalty hardly deters rape culture.

2. Does the death penalty make us feel that India has become more vigilant against rape? Only certain rapes merit state alacrity (20 of 23 rape cases prosecuted in the same court as the Delhi rapists ended in acquittals). While the Delhi case was represented as the attack on an aspiring bright woman by a group of uneducated out-of-control thugs, numerous equally violent cases since have been stonewalled by the police—typically by casting aspersions on the sexual conduct or political motives of the raped person. Incest, marital rape or systematic use of rape by the military to intimidate would certainly never be prosecuted.

3. Death penalty cases make it harder to secure rape convictions. The shadow of capital punishment tends to deter police and judges from pursuing charges. The real challenge is to overcome police corruption and apathy as well as prosecutorial prejudice and judicial attitudes. It would be far more radical to consistently enforce existing laws against rape, no matter the socioeconomic status of the parties, their sexual history or their alcohol intake.

4. Who acquires more power, and who loses control, in the prompt and punitive response to such rapes as Pandey’s? Following the Pandey rape, numerous communities responded with more stringent restrictions on women’s mobility, clothing, cellphone use and romantic/marital choices. Note that the circumstances of the rape have nothing to do with these markers, but the rape helped feed patriarchal control of sexuality. Even politicians’ calls for chemical castration, tougher laws and fast-track courts replicate the logic that law is about eye-for-an-eye revenge, that castration is just punishment because it is ultimate emasculation . Rape foments patriarchal fantasies here rather than empowering the raped.

5. In likening sexual penetration to killing, are we reinscribing the shame and humiliation that rape tries to wreak? Aren’t we helping enhance the penis as a powerful weapon? To see a raped woman as a zinda laash, (a living corpse), as one Parliamentarian put it, incapable of resuming her life, is to accept the power of rape to determine not just our sexuality, but our lives.

6. What do we want? No rape. And no sexual harassment, for that matter. Being in public space as a basic entitlement. Even-handed enforcement of laws. Rape viewed as a violation of bodily integrity, not of shame or honor or virginity. Jyoti Pandey’s death has become the catalyst for a movement that emphasizes not protection but autonomy, thriving everywhere, remaking masculinity and motherhood (“Why not stop your son from going out [rather] than keeping your daughter home?” is a common sign), choosing will over fear. The voices of the people help avenge rape far more effectively than the satisfaction of four deaths.

Photo by the author of a rally by several women’s groups in Kolkata, January 2013


  1. Studies say that about 3 out of 4 rapists are multiple-offenders. I think chemical castration is a good idea, and death for a rape that ends in death seems pretty just in my book. Calling these women ‘living corpses’ reflects how their society frames it, to change that view would require working through media and cultural channels- not giving rapists a slap on the wrist or forcing their often impoverished victims to pay for their food and care- especially when they are struggling themselves! As for the death penalty and castration not being a deterrent … right, and it’s the woman’s fault for wearing a too sexy burka (eye roll)

  2. Though, the ideal solution is to leave the fate of the rapist in the hands of the victim- the complete reversal of their power trip.

  3. jacob temper says:

    What are you talking she was not merely raped but killed.
    An eye for an eye in this case fits very well.

    • She was not killed, she died from her injuries, there is a difference.

      • How is there a difference?! Are you saying, that if a man beats and assaults a woman (or man) in order to keep them submissive in order to rape them, and then that person dies from those injuries after the rape, the rapist is not responsible?! Flawed and incorrect thinking…

  4. jacob temper says:

    This case is about naked brutality rape is a whole other matter please do not confuse the two.

  5. Charles Huckelbury says:

    Until such time, and I am not optimistic, that many men cease thinking that the only reason we have a penis is to insert it in any woman we want at any time we choose, women will be at risk for rape. It’s the default masculine mindset, and no threat of punishment, even death, will counteract that assumption, especially in societies that regard women as little more than furniture: occasionally useful but generally in the way. With respect to the purported differences between “naked brutality” and rape, the latter is a classic example of the former.

  6. Horrible case…and never a right answer.

    I think many liberals believe that rape is horrible but the death penalty is cruel and unusual. We can’t as liberals stand here and say that we want death penalty reform in US when we cheer the death penalty in another country. Looking at the context from the USA: Rape can never result in death penalty because the Supreme Court has said so

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