The rule of sentiment

And so she lives on, known only by her vaginal violations... Never before has a woman, whom a nation wishes to revere, been known only by a name which symbolises her victimhood.

An eye for an eye, a death for a death, and the nation’s soul rests in peace. Or so it seemed as we watched the applause that broke out inside and outside the fast-track court, when judge Yogesh Khanna pronounced the foregone verdict, “Death for all”.

Precise and to the point, ending the nine-month-long saga which turned the brutal gangrape and murder of a young 23-year-old into a never-ending, voyeuristic media spectacle. We are told that the hanging of the four young men, one of them barely 19, will be a deterrent. That there will be no more rapes if all rapists, including minors, are hanged to death. The popular sentiment has just stopped short of demanding a public hanging, as in the dark medieval ages — a sad comment on a modern, civilised nation governed by constitutional democracy and the rule of law, and known to the world for its message of non-violence.
Over the last several months we were fed gory details about the injuries caused not only by penetration of the male organ, but by insertion of iron rods, the perforation of the intestines, the gorging out of her intestines, the manner in which her naked and bleeding body was thrown out and she was left to die with her intestines hanging out even as motorists on the highway zipped past on that fateful cold winter night in Delhi. We know the details of her surgeries, the removal of her internal organs, the spread of poison in her body, the collapse of her lungs, her brain-dead state, the last-minute attempt to provide international standard treatment so that the tension at home caused by the protesters would ease a bit, her inevitable death in foreign land, the quiet funeral at the break of dawn back home, attended by dignitaries of the highest order. The works, literally!
We also know her father, mother, brother, friend, grandmother, neighbours in the village. We have been provided the occasional sound bite from them. More recently, we have also watched the re-enactment of the entire gory incident, where she climbed into the fateful bus, how she was lured into it, how she was attacked, her struggle and resistance, the exact spot where she was thrown out, with her friend participating in the re-enactment to satiate the curiosity of the viewers — lest we forget.
We know it all, every minute detail, except her name. The legal provision forbidding the media from publishing the name of a rape victim further fuelled the titillation and excitement, making a mockery of the provision against disclosing the “identity” of the victim. Media houses vied with each other to rename her through her violations — some called her Damini, some others “a braveheart”. The name given by the Times of India, on December 23, while she was still alive, stuck on, even after her death, when the provision of non-disclosure of name to protect the dignity of a victim had been rendered redundant. But the farce continued. The name was immortalised when finance minister P. Chidambaram named a relief fund for rape victims as Nirbhaya Fund, adding insult to injury and disregarding the wishes of a forlorn father, that if there is a new law or a new scheme, it should be named after her, using her real name — Jyoti Pandey. But Nirbhaya was heavier, had a certain drama, rather than the plain and simple “Jyoti”.
And so she lives on in public memory, known to the world only by her vaginal violations or by a name to which she would not respond to were she alive. Beyond this she does not exist, she does not need to. Never before in the history of world civilisation has a woman, whom a nation wishes to revere and pay tribute to, been known and remembered only by a name which symbolises her victimhood.
The name “Nirbhaya”, the one without fear, itself glosses over the death-like fear that must have engulfed her in those moments before she passed out, awaiting rescue by the roadside. She was not Nirbhaya, the fearless one, the modern Jhansi ki Rani! She was just an ordinary girl, taking a bus ride one evening with a male friend, not anticipating what was in store for her. She possessed the same survivor intuitions that any girl in her situation would.
Terming her a survivor is yet another mockery. She was a victim of the deep-seated hatred of the female anatomy in the male psyche of a patriarchal order, and she died a victim. Changing the terminology does not change the reality. Becoming a survivor is a long-drawn process requiring care, treatment and healing, away from the voyeuristic and intrusive media glare. There was no time for that. She had already been rendered a spectacle. Perhaps she lived the lesson she was taught, that rape is worse than death. A good woman must fight with all her might to save her virginity, even at the cost of her perforated intestines! As compared to the 22-year-old photojournalist in the Shakti Mills case, or the 27-year-old Spanish girl who was raped by a burglar in her own home, she fought and died a brutal death. That’s tragedy.
Her story is comparable to that of another young woman, the 26-year-old Pallavi Purkayastha who also died a brutal death fighting off her attacker, the watchman of her building. But there was less sensationalism involved as there was no vaginal penetration. That was, after all, “only” an attempt. So what if she died in the process? The media could use her name, splash her photograph — there was no heightened suspense. It seems that there is a world of difference between a mere “attempt” and the actual thing. The same value system that vaginal violation is a state worse than death continues, despite the change in law.
The three Mumbai cases are awaiting trial in special courts. In which case will the accused be served with death penalty? We have to wait and watch. But the benchmark is already set.
Will the death penalty to the four bring solace to Jyoti’s soul, bring in a sense of closure to the family? The media laments that there is no closure as the juvenile went “scot free”. This goading continues though the juvenile was punished as per the provisions of law, as per the norms of a country ruled by law. The sensational reportage makes us believe that we must become a nation ruled by emotions, by public sentiment, and not by the rule of law. For even the reformed law does not mandate death penalty to a minor.

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer

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