The Politics of Punishment: Media Framing and the Death Penalty in Crimes Against Dalits

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The Politics of Punishment |
Media Framing and the Death Penalty in Crimes Against Dalits| |
Sabrina Buckwalter|


When Ramdas Athavale, Republican Party of India (Athavale), announced that the death penalty verdict in the Khairlanji ruling (an infamous case of the rape and murder of a dalit family in 2006) was the first time such a sentence had been given in a caste crime, it was echoed by other activists, repeated by journalists and hailed as the coming of a new era in which the courts were finally acknowledging these crimes with serious punishment. The lone survivor of the massacre, Bhaiyallal Bhotmange, was pictured in newspapers with perhaps the first sign of a half smile anyone had seen from him in years, making peace signs with both his hands, surrounded by his group of supporters, all dressed in white. The significance of the ruling was the subject of editorials and became the anchor in communication about the case. The special public prosecutor in the case, Ujjwal Nikam had touted the sentencing as historic and remarked that, “This is a key judgment because it sends a very strong message that brutality, especially to low castes, will be dealt with very strictly." A supreme court judge was even overheard observing the seeming trend in capital punishment for caste atrocities. It turns out though that Khairlanji was the third case in which a crime committed against dalits was met with death penalty sentencing. No one who commented publicly on the ruling though had yet to hear of those cases perhaps because when the massacres happened over 15 years prior, they didn’t receive the kind of media coverage the Khairlanji massacre garnered. Less than two years later after the Khairlanji ruling, two more cases of death penalty sentencing in caste crimes were handed down, bringing the total of capital punishment cases to five. That meant that 80 percent of the death penalty sentencing in caste crimes was handed out within 17 months of each other. Most noteworthy is that those last two sentences were delivered even closer together, within just over a month of each other. Come June 15, the Indian Supreme Court’s decision on whether or not to stay the death sentence conviction in the Khairlanji case will be announced which could carry even more significance in the trend of capital punishment in caste crimes. With the historical absence of justice and punishment for crimes against dalits in India, how is it that the death penalty was a punishment never handed out in such cases just seven years ago, but today is a sentence that’s been awarded in five separate cases of caste atrocities? Through looking at another scholarly theory that argues the media framing of a particular issue shifts public opinion which in turn influences public policy and legal decisions, I make a connection to the Indian media’s recent portrayal of caste crimes and growing coverage of death sentencing to suggest an increasing support and subsequent rise in death penalty sentencing for crimes against dalits. In this paper, I will highlight the media coverage of the Khairlanji massacre and the Ranvir Sena dalit attacks in Bihar, illustrating a connection between the increased attention to caste crimes that preceded the rise of death penalty sentences. In the work done by three scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, the decreasing support for the death penalty in the U.S. is explained by media framing, specifically an “innocence frame” that has highlighted the wrongful conviction of people sentenced to death who were later found to be innocent. When various innocence projects at universities began discovering innocent people on death row, after DNA technology was proving innocence and when movies like “The Green Mile” depicted stories of innocent people sentenced to death, the media coverage of capital punishment began shifting from being portrayed as retribution for heinous crimes to it being the cause of wrongful death for...
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