On the Delhi Gang-Rape

Before blaming the police, let’s try to understand the context in which they operate

The brutal gang-rape and the subsequent death of a Delhi medical student have grabbed the national headlines over the last couple of weeks. There has been a sense of outrage amongst a section of the urban middle class* and it has renewed the  focus on gender and sexual violence which is all too common in India. Naturally, Delhi Police has come in for severe criticism not only for its apparent mishandling of the protests but also for its alleged failure to prevent the incident itself.

For instance, critics have pointed out that the bus with its heavily drawn curtains passed through no less than five check points, and yet no one bothered to stop it. Considering the general level of corruption in Indian police, it is entirely conceivable that this happened because the local cops were on the take. They were simply not interested in their policing duties busy as they were in ensuring that their ‘accounts’ were in order. This argument clearly suggests that if Delhi Police was not corrupt, it could have possibly prevented this terrible incident.

But is that really true? In a mega-city like Delhi, there are over 10000 buses. Is it practical for the police to individually check each and every bus? Even if the cops were not corrupt and diligently performing their duties, it would simply be a logistical nightmare. Indeed, one could argue that if the cops actually did their jobs, the traffic situation would be so bad that the same people lamenting their ineffectiveness would immediately demand that the checkpoints be disbanded. More importantly, it would hardly solve the problem. For instance, in the Dhaula Kuan rape case, the victim was not raped in a bus or any other public vehicle but in a private car. Can police be reasonably expected to individually check each and every car in a city of 16 million?

And think about the implications of such a policy. It virtually gives the police a carte blanche to question random individuals who may simply be caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Young couples may be particularly susceptible to police coercion who may be mis- interpreting their mandate to clamp down on ‘immoral’ activities.

It is important to re-evaluate what we truly understand by ‘security’ in the Indian context. For instance, it is virtually impossible to enter a mall in Delhi unmolested—without tolerating the presence of random hands on your body. To add insult to the injury, this so-called security is entirely ineffective and perfunctory. Then why this drama? Simply to ensure that in the case of a terror attack, the police and mall owners can both conveniently pass the buck: The former can claim that the local security was at fault while the latter can shrug their shoulders and claim that they had done the best they possibly could.

It is easy enough to understand why the police and the mall owners organize this so-called security. But why do common citizens tolerate it with nary a whimper? Is it because they are too enamored with visible policing? Or with ‘something’ being done?

Tempting as it is to ask the police to be more ‘visible’ or do their jobs at checkpoints; will it really make a difference? If the security at Delhi malls is any indicator, the answer is an unequivocal no. Only the citizens would be further inconvenienced in the name of security.

Or take the case of public service badges which are mandatory for drivers of public vehicles in Delhi.  The local government has ordered the police to verify the antecedents of public vehicle drivers. But in a city where according to one recent study, knowing driving has no discernible impact on your ability to obtain a license, why would this particular drive be any more successful? It is quite possible that after the media attention has shifted elsewhere, ‘business as usual’ will resume.

The idea is not to deliberately sound  pessimistic. Not at all. It is to underline the fact that improving only one part of the ‘system’ is extremely hard unless relentless public and political pressure can be ensured. And that is difficult in a country where outrages of all sorts are unfortunately only too common.

It is equally important to understand that rapes and other sexual crimes are extremely tough to investigate and prosecute. USA is a highly developed society with rule of law, robust policing, and stringent punishments. Yet, according to government statistics, only 46% of rapes are ever reported to the police while only three alleged rapists out of 100 ever spend a day in prison.**

Sexual crimes are not the low-lying fruit people often pretend they are but require diligent investigation and a sympathetic judicial system.  For starters, across countries—and not just in India—women remain highly reluctant to report sexual assault. And as the situation in USA suggests, there is simply no magic bullet to address this. In India where trust in police is generally low—and not just among women—-it is hardly surprising that most victims prefer not to approach the authorities. This trust is further eroded by instances where the police appear to deliberately victimize rape survivors in collusion with the perpetrators.

And then there is India’s tardy legal system where even high-profile cases like the murder of Congress minister Lalit Narayan Mishra can be stuck for over four decades. There has been some talk of ensuring that rape cases are only handled by fast-track courts with minimal delays so that justice can be quickly ensured. However, the efficiency of any such court is likely to regress to the mean in a few years. Indeed, in their very success lies the seed of their ultimate failure. Politicians would see the potential appeal of handing ever more cases to fast-track courts which ultimately would be indistinguishable from other parts of the justice system. This is exactly how state police forces across India who may be incapable of conducting even basic investigations have all acquired a ‘commando’ force—properly attired though not particularly well trained. Of course, it doesn’t even solve the problem of ensuring that a rape survivor is not further victimized by the legal system whether by threats to her privacy or inappropriate questioning by defense counsels.

And we haven’t even talked about the larger society where rape victims are often summarily discarded and public groping is so common that it is practically impossible to meet a woman who has not been subjected to it.

In summary: this is hard. And it is certainly much harder than passing tough laws or somehow ‘ensuring’ speedy justice in an individual case. The challenge is not how to ensure justice for this particular victim—the perpetrators are likely to spend the rest of their lives behind bars—but to do so in cases which don’t dominate national news.  Indeed, in a few decades when India is a developed society with fairly sophisticated institutions, we are still likely to be debating the best way to prevent sexual crimes.

So what should be done? Many people have laid out in great detail the kind of institutional reforms necessary to improve policing and help sexual assault victims get justice. (See Ajay Shah in Pragatimag , Pragmatic_d’s blog, and Saikat Dutta’s twitter feed). Obviously, all these steps require a major reorganization of the entire Indian policing and legal system necessitating large investments of resources and time. It is also not clear if the Indian state has the institutional capacity or for that matter the political will to introduce these reforms. Moreover, as pointed out in this poignant post, an average woman is most interested in getting from Point A to Point B without the fear of getting groped. Or raped. Or assaulted.  And she wants that freedom right NOW—not after 5 or ten years.

How do we address this? Some development economists have argued that broad institutional changes are necessary for sustainable change. Others repose their faith in relatively smaller innovations with rigorous testing to measure the efficiency of different approaches to a particular problem. Perhaps, India needs a mixture of both though some of these steps may carry little more than a symbolic value. For instance, despite the inherent danger of institutionalizing a system of ‘separate but equal’, Delhi Metro’s decision to reserve the first coach of every train for women may be one way of ensuring a relatively secure public space. Is that an ideal approach? Hardly. But the alternatives appear even worse.

It is frequently lamented that in Indian cities the average citizen fails to help distressed women.  Or take the infamous case of Kolkata traffic sergeant Bapi Sen who tried to rescue a woman who was being molested by his fellow officers. Bapi Sen was mercilessly killed for his troubles and while his murderers were finally convicted, the identity of the woman remains a mystery for she never came forward to depose against the accused. Why? The answer is not that the woman was particularly callous—it is simply because all the incentives are aligned against citizens getting involved in public brawls or rescuing a woman who may be a victim of molestation. A ‘Good Samaritan’ law which excludes citizens from liability in cases like these would at least alleviate some of these concerns. This is exactly what Vivek Deheija and Rupa Subramanya argue in their new book in a slightly different context (road accidents).

Now, we should not overstate the importance of such steps in the Indian context. Years of conditioning cannot simply be changed by passage of a law especially in a country where the general public awareness is limited. Nevertheless, these are examples of interim steps which may have some impact on the security of women in Indian cities while the larger institutional changes are worked out.

Finally, the idea of this post is not to defend the conduct of Delhi Police or of the Indian state for that matter. In any case, it is hard to defend a police force which operates in the 21st century with the tactics of 19th century and mentality of the 18th. Nevertheless, in this particular case, the police appears to have acted with alacrity arresting all the accused within a short period of time despite slender leads. Blaming the police for not preventing the incident itself may be cathartic but it is probably not very fair and largely meaningless.

*While the English media likes to pretend that Delhi=India, it is an issue which largely agitates the urban middle class.

** Other government statistics suggest higher conviction rate of rapists. What is not in doubt is that a substantially large number of rapes are never reported to the authorities.

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