There are places where being boring is a virtue. The court room is just such a place, where well-considered utterances, even if they make the bystander fall asleep, are preferable to the rousing rhetoric of the street. Which is why a Supreme Court judge’s recent comments that those convicted of burning brides are “animals” who should be “hanged for the crime” are so troubling. The sentiment behind those words will resonate with anyone committed to the basic principles of non-violence and gender equity. But proclaimed from a forum that abjures street sloganeering for solemn sophistry, the choice of words is unfortunate.
Linked as it is to the systemic discrimination against women that plagues our society, it can be nobody’s case that bride burning is anything but abhorrent. But that abhorrence cannot be vented through words that convey vigilante justice. Which is why this newspaper has argued against “encounter killings”: even when the target is known to have perpetrated gross crimes, the targetting must be through legal processes alone. The very purpose of the law — and the judges who intrepret it — is to provide that mediating prism to spare even the vilest from being treated as “animals”.
Bride burning apart, the court’s comments touch another raw nerve: the death penalty. “Death by hanging” is legal in India, but reserved for the “the rarest of rare cases”. Had the issue before the court been whether bride burning was a “rarest of rare” case that justified capital punishment, then arguments of this nature could have been inevitable. But the sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether to grant bail to someone convicted of bride burning. In this context, the court’s indelicate utterances were unfortunate.
These words come close on the heels of other judicial pronouncements, on the need for husbands to “obey” their wives and the link between beards and Talibanisation, pronouncements that make good copy but only detract from the solemn business of adjudication. Perhaps it’s time to bring back the boredom. After all, its not as if judges would dream of acting upon these rousing words — so often irrelevant, moreover, to the case at hand. So, why utter them?