Populist excess: Kneejerk responses to crimes against women will have unintended consequences

The Supreme Court appointed a three-member inquiry commission yesterday to probe the recent encounter in Telangana, where four men accused of being perpetrators of the rape and subsequent murder of a doctor were shot dead by policemen. The inquiry commission, headed by retired apex court judge VS Sirpurkar, has a six month deadline. The apex court’s decision is welcome and should be seen in the context of the need to strengthen the criminal justice system.

Public pressure on the government to find a way to ensure timely justice to victims of sexual assault is entirely justified. An effective criminal justice system acts as a deterrent to crime. However, some of the measures proposed by governments and legislatures may actually end up further weakening India’s already fragile criminal justice system. For example, the Andhra Pradesh government this week decided to bring in a law which proposes a 21 day deadline after an FIR has been filed for both investigation and trial of rape cases where there is conclusive evidence. A conviction may lead to a death sentence.

Laws must be thought through to avoid unintended consequences. The Andhra proposal will likely add to the pressure on an already stretched police force short of capabilities, resulting in reluctance to file FIRs. In the Telangana rape-murder, police initially didn’t register the complaint that the victim’s family sought to file, wasting precious time that could have saved the victim. A poorly designed law could counter a sensible provision like Zero FIR. Also, a criminal justice system can be effective only when due process is followed. Else the wrong people are likely to be punished, with no abatement of crime. For the same reason punishments should be proportionate; rape or sexual abuse should not be treated the same way as murder. Else, it piles incentive to murder the victims of sexual violations, making it less likely they will survive.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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