In the 2001 movie, In the Bedroom, the life of an elderly couple is turned upside down by the murder of their son at the hands of the ex-husband of the woman he is dating. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler who face the prospect of justice being denied to them because of the slow and confounding grind of the law. The couple suffers as they watch their son’s killer walk around town. They wonder if they must wait forever to see the murderer behind bars, or if there was another way to right things. In the end, Matt, with the help of a friend, kills his son’s killer and disposes of the body.
I was reminded of In the Bedroom last week when I heard Jyoti Singh’s father say to a journalist: “What can we do [about the release of the juvenile convict]? We will have to accept the law.” His fatalism masks the tenacity with which he and his wife have appealed to the relevant authorities to do whatever is possible within the law to ensure that the convict is not released. But the law has proved to be of little help. After much back and forth, including a last-minute intervention by the Delhi Commission for Women, the convict was released yesterday.
I am not suggesting that Jyoti’s father or some other vigilante group take up matters in their own hand. But equally, I am not sure of my reasons for not suggesting so. Mostly I am doing this out of a sense of politeness and some nebulous respect for maintaining the social codes that we must abide by. But every once in a while, these social codes break down. A young woman lying on the streets of Delhi with her innards falling out is one such image. When the crime is too vicious and mind-numbing to evade all possibility of calm ratiocination, surely an insistence on maintaining social codes is itself problematic?
At any rate, there is a threat to the life of the convict, so it is reasonable to assume that somebody out there has plans to finish him off. There is the added complexity of the Intelligence Bureau report that claims the convict was radicalised by his interaction with the Delhi High Court blast accused, with whom he shared a cell. All of these are matters of the law, but that’s so clichéd it’s neither here nor there. As Parliament refuses to function and the debate over whether there ought to a lowering of the age for heinous crimes carries on seemingly interminably, what is one to do about the widespread feeling that justice has not been seen to be done in this case?
One argument says that every criminal has the right to be reformed and absorbed into society. But is this really a right? The dictionary defines a right as “a moral or legal entitlement to have something”. By the legal yardstick, the convict may have a right to his freedom, but not if we looked at the case through a moral prism. Does the right to be reformed apply in all situations, or should it be constrained by the quantum of hurt caused to the victim?
The law looks to grant punishment in order that equilibrium is restored between the harm caused to the victim and that brought upon the perpetrator after the fact. It is very nice and noble to say that prisons ought to be avenues for reformation but surely the law serves a more primary purpose: to right the imbalance created by the committing of a crime. The death penalty leaves no scope for reform, yet it continues to exist on the statute. Confinement is punishment and is meant to evoke the hand of the state in correcting or mitigating the impact of the intentional actions of the perpetrator. Reform of the convict, while desirable, is secondary, or should be.
When we draw a human rights angle into this, and look upon this as a case of law and order, we overlook that an innocent life was mercilessly snuffed out that night. To stress upon the convict’s rehabilitation is to suggest a moral equivalence between his actions and what is now sought to be done to him. This makes for perfect legalese but does not serve the cause of justice. There is no reason the convict should be rehabilitated. There is no reason that he be given a fresh chance. He did not run away with Jyoti’s purse. He, along with other men, raped her.
A supposedly extenuating factor has been brought up again and again in the past few days, that this convict was not, after all, the most brutal of the rapists, as was initially thought. Does that matter? The way Jyoti was brutalised was so barbaric as to shift our very perception of brutality. Can we grade brutality on a scale that lets us account for one action and not the other? Every man on that bus raped her that night. Some went too far. Should the fact that the juvenile was not one of those who crossed all limits make us nuance our disgust for him?
We must also question the impulse that makes us argue for his rehabilitation. The better angels of our nature guide our hand. We have grieved collectively over Jyoti’s death and now hope to move forward and turn it into a narrative of a grievous wrong that led to rebirth. The rebirth may be all in our mind; the shock and awe of the protests may change little on the ground; but we would still like to wrap up the messy affair by painting the final outcome in humanitarian hues. It has caused us so much pain that we may want to numb the hurt by even perhaps forgiving the convict in our mind.
This, to put it bluntly, is the refuge of the charlatan, the bleeding heart who wishes to build a narrative of his own goodness and propriety to maintain his delicate sense of the world. How is he different from the vigilante father in In the Bedroom who also wants to keep it together and finds that taking the life of his son’s killer is the only way to do it? To say that the convict too is human is to fall into a trap of the most offensive moral relativism. Regrettably, this stance is the unfortunate natural arc of a case like this, a sequence that has brought us to a point where we are able to talk of justice so casually as to include the convict in its purview. Justice needs to be done to Jyoti, and at the expense of the convict. The two are mutually exclusive.
In 1995’s Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen, played by Susan Sarandon, agrees to be present on the day of the execution of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) to help him with his journey into the next world. Poncelet has thus far denied the crime he is accused of, the rape of a girl and the murder of a boy. But on the final day, he confesses to Sister Helen that he did indeed commit the crimes. As he is taken to be lethally injected he also seeks forgiveness from the parents of the victims, who deny it. My memory of the film is an exalted one because of how it ends, but it is also a memory of fear. The scenes of the crime are shot on the edge of a forest, by a river, and retain a diabolical hold on my imagination. The death of Poncelet crushes the viewer but not to the extent that forgiveness follows. That is the prerogative of those who suffered at his hands, and to them, his dying is comfort to the soul.