The Supreme Court is made up of humans and, thus, fallible. But it is a repository of wisdom, authority, integrity and fair play. What they judge on become rules for us to live. Three days before the Delhi bus gangrape, came a significant ruling from the Supreme Court.
Two judges of the Supreme Court, Swatanter Kumar and Madan Lokur, reduced a death sentence to life for a man, 23, who killed a woman, 65, and raped and mutilated her granddaughter-in-law, 25, in a relatively posh Pune colony in September 2007.
Swatanter Kumar retired on 30 December 2012, two weeks after this judgement. Madan Lokur will be around, health permitting, until the end of 2018.
The crime and the ruling are enough to jolt.
Sandesh Abhang, the convict, stabbed the older woman 21 times, chopped four fingers of one hand and severed the other wrist. He then raped the pregnant younger woman, stabbed her 19 times and left believing that she was dead. He later told friends that he had killed two women and was not afraid of anyone. The woman he raped and ravaged was five-months pregnant and gave birth to a child later.
A sessions court sentenced the perpetrator to death. The Bombay High Court - in March 2011 - concurred. The high court said the perpetrator deserved no mercy as he was incapable of remorse or reform.
The perpetrator, who lived by his earnings as a mechanic, entered the house one afternoon saying 'sahib ne bheja hain' [master has sent me]. He looked to rob. He was upset that the older woman's bangles were not of gold. He then chopped her fingers and severed her wrist.
The younger pregnant woman begged the perpetrator to take the jewellery he wanted and let them go.
He took some gold jewellery. And slashed the older woman's neck. He forced the younger woman to undress and raped her. After raping her, the perpetrator attacked her viciously. She turned her back to take most of the blows and protect the [then] unborn child. She played dead as she lay down in quiet after the savagery.
The high court described this as wisdom and bravery.
As she lay there, the attacker washed himself and his weapon, bolted the door of the apartment from outside and left. The younger woman then yelled out to her aunt in the flat below. She was finally taken to hospital. She was in intensive care for close to three weeks.
These were the details that came to the two Supreme Court judges. What they said is important.
Swatanter Kumar and Madan Lokur said a heinous and brutal crime was committed. But, a 'very vital factor' was that the perpetrator 'may not have been aware of what he was doing as he smelled of alcohol'. Therefore, his 'abnormal behaviour' was a relevant factor against the death penalty.
The Supreme Court judges said 'to kill, it was not expected of him to inflict 21and 19 injures on their bodies'.
'He could have simply given an injury on the vital parts of their bodies and put them to death. His conduct in inflicting large number of injuries and even amputating the fingers clearly reflects the conduct of an abnormal person'.
'Absence of normal behaviour during the commission of the crime is a relevant consideration,' they said.
Therefore, they let the rapist and murderer live. The conclusions of Kumar and Lokur seem to suggest that alcohol is the determining factor.
This is a pronouncement of an almost momentous nature.
In India, a nation with too many people, there is crime every day and everywhere. Men kill wives, parents, daughters, sons, brothers, other relatives and strangers. They steal, occasionally from their own. They rape, and rape and murder. Or they simply hunt for victims. The crimes are random. Or driven by reason [in the perpetrator's mind].
Often, there is alcohol too.
The Supreme Court judges seem to think that alcohol changes behaviour from normal to abnormal. Which means, if perpetrators didn't drink, they would be more reasonable.
In this Pune case, by inference, the perpetrator might merely have raped and killed but not mutilated. Rape and murder should be bad enough anyway, but we'll let that be for the moment.
Alcohol does not create another person altogether. It merely relaxes inhibitions and allows a person to act on what they may already be thinking and emoting. Distortion in personality is already present for alcohol to act on.
Every day, in the course of my work as counsellor and sobriety campaigner, I deal with families who think that the substance [alcohol or other drugs] is the root of the problem.
The drug may be of partial significance when ghastly crime has been perpetrated as in the Pune case. The drug is of no consequence when dealing with addiction [it could be alcohol, heroin, marijuana, pills, glue, anything]. The root cause is.
In the Pune case, the perpetrator was already thinking crime. He was looking to rob. Thoughts of crime create stress in most cases. If violence is likely, then the stress increases.
Sandesh Abhang, the perpetrator here, might have had alcohol to deal with the stress of his motives. Alcohol numbs stress and this is a prime reason why many humans choose this as a way to cope. Abhang was able to carry out his crime almost with precision. He chopped only the fingers he chose to. He severed only the wrist he chose to. He was able to complete an act of dominance through sex [rape].
The only thing he got wrong was the second murder. His victim didn't die; she only played dead.
Even here, Abhang had stabbed her 19 times. He would have deemed it ferocious enough. Abhang's personality wouldn't have been created afresh after drinking. The monster in him was already there.
Alcohol only helped let it loose.
Abhang would be in full awareness of what he set out to do when he entered the house. His opening line was 'sahib ne bheja hain' [master has sent me].
Those are not the thoughts and words of an unaware person. Abhang knew exactly why he was there. The law allows intoxication as defence only when a perpetrator can prove beyond doubt that it was against his or her will and knowledge.
And when the intoxication renders a person incapable of proper judgement of his own intent to commit a crime.
This was not the case here.
Then, there is the element of reform. The Supreme Court judges said Abhang, 23, was young and 'had no criminal involvement in similar crimes'. That maybe. Past history is a factor but its absence does not change the nature of a crime such as the one Abhang committed.
Does the Supreme Court have evidence to show that Abhang was a decent bloke who was metamorphosed into a monster by alcohol? No. It is an astounding decision to arrive at. That alcohol is the culprit and not the man.
It is a faulty understanding of the nature of alcohol. This verdict deserves to be challenged. The family of the victims has said it would.
We need to support them. There is much at stake here.
Also by the author:
Schools for parents, a woman Deputy PM: A 2013 manifesto for IndiaDelhi gang-rape case offers us insights into attitude of our youthDon't believe the cops: The way forward in the Delhi rape case
Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.