We villainise rapists to exonerate ourselves: Anup Surendranath on the futility of the death penalty

31 January 2020
Rough Cut Productions
Rough Cut Productions

Anup Surendranath is the director of Project 39-A, a centre at the National Law University, Delhi. The project’s mandate is to employ empirical research to re-imagine the practices and policies of the criminal-justice system in India. It conducted India’s first ever empirical research on capital punishment and released a report on it in 2016. Since then, every year, it has put out data concerning the death penalty in India. The research considers nearly every death-row convict in India, across parameters such as their economic and social background, the charges under which they were convicted, their experience of the investigation, the number of sentences that were upheld or commuted in higher courts, and the state-wise prevalence of death sentencing, among others. Each year, the centre’s research has found that the convicts who are sentenced to death and who remain on death row are predominantly from poor and lower-caste communities, with little access to proper legal aid. 

In mid December, Surabhi Kanga, the web editor at The Caravan, met Surendranath. The conversation is a part of The Caravan’s short series on the death penalty, “Killing in the Name of.” On 1 December 2019, the Delhi government recommended to the lieutenant governor that the mercy petitions filed by the accused in the Delhi gang-rape case of 2012 be rejected. Barely a week later, the Telangana police killed four men in an alleged encounter—the men had been arrested for the rape and murder of a veterinarian. Surendranath discussed these developments, as well as findings and insights from his years-long research into the death penalty in India. 

The 2012 Delhi gang-rape case has progressed quickly since the conversation took place—in the past month, a Delhi court issued a death warrant for the convicts in the case; the president Ram Nath Kovind rejected the mercy petition of two of the convicts, who then challenged it in the Supreme Court, which dismissed both the pleas. Four of the six convicts—one died in prison, while another, a juvenile, served three years—are due to be hanged on 1 February 2020. This will be the second case of execution for sexual violence and murder in India—the first such death sentence was carried out in 2004, when a security guard named Dhananjoy Chatterjee was executed for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old.

Surabhi Kanga: Project 39-A’s first death-penalty report included state-wise data on capital punishment. What patterns did you discern across states?
Anup Surendranath: The data that we published in May 2016 was of a certain time, and things obviously change, as we are seeing. One of the main surprises in state-wise data was the lack of the use of the death penalty in India’s conflict zones. Be it Jammu and Kashmir or central India or the northeast, there is very little use of the death penalty. The death penalty has a certain laborious nature to it that the state has no real use for—it is more interested in other kinds of violence and killings in those regions. Most interestingly, the popularity of the death penalty is driven, in this decade at least, by concerns of terrorism and sexual violence. And as with all countries that have the death penalty, the burden of the death penalty falls on the poorest and most marginalised sections of our society.

The incidents in Kathua in 2018 and of course the Delhi gang-rape from December 2012 have fuelled the public perception that harsher punishment is somehow an appropriate response to sexual violence. [In June 2019, six men were convicted for the abduction, confinement, rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in 2018, in the Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir.] Despite opposition from the women’s rights movement and child-rights groups, there has been legislative expansion of the death penalty through amendments to the Indian Penal Code—in 2013 and 2018—and the POCSO Act [The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012], in 2019. In Madhya Pradesh, in 2018, amendments were brought in to provide for death penalty for the rape of girls below 12 years. Then subsequently, in early 2019, when the POCSO was amended to bring in death penalty for child rape, you see Madhya Pradesh taking the lead in the number of death sentences.

Surabhi Kanga is the web editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: death penalty Delhi gang-rape Supreme Court Sexual violence Killing in the Name of