History will judge Manmohan Singh’s 10 years as prime minister more appreciatively than we may imagine. Unsensational, unsentimental, unsententious, he never let his office distance him from the realities of daily life. He knows from the inside, as it were, an average Indian’s ceaseless bouts with frustration, hassles, risks including those around crime.
At a conference of governors he enlightened his listeners with a thought that just came to him, outside of the agenda, aside from the standard exhortations that are given to the constitutional heads of states. He said – these are not his exact words, I quote from memory – something like this: “Your chief ministers are preoccupied, as they should be, with running your States. Firefighting absorbs most of their time. Certain important aspects of life, therefore, do not, cannot receive their attention. You, as governors, can turn your gaze to some of them, to the relief of the chief ministers and to the advantage of good governance.”
The governors present could not have guessed how the prime minister was going to take his preamble forward to specifics but they were all attention. He continued: “One such area is the condition of prisons. Penology is changing the world over. This change is taking place in India too but the pace is slow. We have renamed our prisons as correctional homes. But the philosophy behind that renaming is yet to become fully operational. I would urge you to find the time to visit these correctional homes and see the conditions there and suggest ways of making them places that are compatible with civilised societies.”
Gubernatorial visits to correctional homes followed. One such included joining the inmates at lunch and is etched sharply on my mind. The food, simple but substantial, was well-conceived and well-cooked. I just had to and did ask who had cooked that meal. There was silence for a minute longer than the question, I thought, justified. Then an official pointed to an inmate and said “Sir, this is … He has cooked almost everything. He is, in fact, the home’s informal chef”. Another official whispered a word to me. “Rape”. The food turning to ash in my mouth. He then added for my benefit that he thought that the rape had led to the victim’s death.
But more was to follow. As I was getting into my car, the ‘chef’ was brought to me for a ritual – the handing of a farewell bouquet. Against all propriety, all etiquette, whether of prison visits or otherwise, I made as if to decline the offering. There was an awkward pause with everyone, including me, standing and not knowing what to do next. And that is when the import of Manmohan Singh’s earnest message came back to me as a thought: “This man has been sentenced, sentenced to life. Justice has done its work. Who am I to add an insult to his sentence?” I accepted the bouquet wordlessly and entered the car.
We also are aware that our laws and our courts are powerful enough to do right by justice.
The move for death to the rapists of victims below 12 is not going to prevent the diabolism of the kind Kathua personifies, Unnao, Surat and the Delhi gangrape symbolises. No one seriously believes that it will. Only the fire of rage will find a few drops of water to assuage it. What vulnerable targets of perverts need is not the corpse of the villain but a thorough system of criminal investigation, accurate booking, quick – not hasty – prosecution and proportionate sentencing so that crime does not escape. The scaffold should not become the shortcut that demonstrates our callousness.