As an Indian court handed down death sentences to those accused in the brutal gang rape and murder of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi last December, people distributed sweets on the street and tweeted “justice served.” The appeals will drag on for a while, but in a country where a typical rape case takes nine years, the model speed with which this case was settled has elicited jubilation. Yet, if anything, this case highlights the problems with India’s criminal justice system, not its strengths.
The main — if not the only — reason why the wheels of justice moved so swiftly this time was the domestic outrage and the international headlines this case generated. This episode got the attention of India’s middle classes because they couldn’t hide behind any special biographical detail about the victim or her behavior to tell themselves that this couldn’t happen to them. She wasn’t some brazen hussy from the village traipsing around town alone late at night. No, she came from a “respectable” family, was appropriately dressed and had a male friend escorting her back from the mall where they had gone to catch The Life of Pi.
And it captured the imagination of the international community because of its horror-movie aspect: An unsuspecting couple climbed into a bus, the lights dimmed and unspeakable horrors unfolded on them for several hours as they drove past multiple checkpoints in a bustling metropolis.
But the real test of a justice system is not how it deals with high-profile cases that, for one reason or another, have managed to generate headlines and put the national prestige on the line. Rather, it is how it deals with cases away from the limelight involving ordinary citizens. And on this score, India’s system is nowhere close to civilized standards.
In this case, for the first time ever, prosecutors actually matched the dental impressions of the accused to the bite marks found on the victim’s body. But in most rape cases in India, this never happens. That’s because the Indian police is poorly trained and unaware even of the elementary forensic tools at its disposal. India has a total of 29 forensic labs for 1.2 billion people, not even close to what would be needed to support meticulous forensic work for the 95,000 rape cases languishing at any given time. This is ironic, to say the least, for a country that has aspirations to become the global technological superpower some day.
What’s more, this case was settled in one of New Delhi’s five fast track courts that were created specially to deal with rape cases in the wake of this episode. These courts, where judges are required to hold hearings almost every day instead of adjourning the case for months at a time, are a popular solution in a country whose judicial system suffers from notorious bottlenecks. But the fundamental promise of a liberal democracy is to provide equal protection under the law. Carving out special categories of crimes for special treatment through special courts is inherently discriminatory. Why are rape victims more worthy of fast-track justice than say women or men murdered or maimed in non-sexual crimes?
When a good is scarce, its possession becomes a status symbol. And, in India, police protection is the ultimate status symbol. There are 129 police officers per 100,000 civilians, the second-lowest figure of 50 countries surveyed by the United Nations, just above Uganda. On average, the nation spends two cents per day per person on policing. Ordinary citizens confronting criminal situations don’t have a prayer of getting the police to respond in anything resembling a timely fashion. Yet the central and state governments have created special categories of people for lavish protection. Public officials and wealthy movie stars deemed to be in the second highest “Z category,” for example, were granted 22 personnel at taxpayer expense as part of their security detail until recently when this was scaled back.
The New Delhi rape victim deserved justice. She got it only because she gained celebrity status. But if that’s the bar that her fellow sisters will have to meet, her case will not just be a tragedy — it'll also be a travesty.
A version of this column originally appeared in TIME