What next?

The real deterrent to any crime is not the severity of punishment, but high probability of getting caught and punished.

After the nationwide outcry over the brutal gang-rape and death of the Delhi girl, the focus should be on an action plan to reduce such crimes. Then the brave girl’s life would not have gone entirely in vain.

First, the police reforms. The police have to stop harassing the victim and anyone coming to her rescue. First, they raise a jurisdictional issue about where the incident happened and would try to pass the buck to another police station, in spite of clear rules that an FIR can be filed in any police station.

Next, even if it falls within its jurisdiction, they will be reluctant to file an FIR since that would amount to extra work of investigation and therefore would even advise on settling the matter amicably.

This would be all the more so if the alleged culprit is a rich or politically connected person and the victim is an ordinary citizen. Finally, they will begin to ask embarrassing details of the rape in such a manner that the victim would be put to shame in describing the ordeal. An attempt would be made to paint the victim as the person who has invited the rape by going out late at night without any male relative or in a provocative dress or by drinking in a pub and so on.

So, the first priority should be to train the police so that they come out of this mind set. Any policeman found to be flouting the rules should be summarily suspended till an independent enquiry (not just by a superior police official who often tries to protect the juniors) exonerates him.

Each police station must have at least one lady police official all the time to hear charges of rape and sexual harassment. Patrolling by the police must be more efficient.

More people should be released from VIP duty to look after the ordinary citizens. Investigative techniques need to improve substantially to preserve the crime scene, to collect dress and DNA samples properly, to record witnesses and conduct appropriate medical tests on the victim without delay.

Notices should be put up in the newspapers, electronic media and in hoardings highlighting the rights of rape victims in police stations and where to complain (telephone, email addresses) if those rights are violated.

Next, judicial reforms. The real deterrent to any crime is not the severity of punishment but the high probability of getting caught and punished. First, the majority of rape cases are not reported due to the fear of apathetic treatment by the police and the social stigma attached to the rape victim in our society.

The conviction rate even for the cases reported is quite low because of faulty investigative work and the long-drawn judicial process.

Unless changes are brought about to improve the conviction rate significantly, the punishment, however harsh, will not deter the perpetrators. Remember the culprits in Delhi initially did not kill the victims even after committing such a horrendous crime because they thought they would get away. Without the widespread public outcry, possibly the culprits would have been right in thinking so.

Societal mindset

Unanimity is more difficult to achieve on the steps needed to change the societal mindset. For example, it is not clear to what extent the sexual content  (specially the pseudo glorification of forcing  the hero’s liking on the reluctant heroine and the easy access to porn sites) of cinemas and internet is responsible.

Rapes used to take place even in the times of Mahabharat when there was no cinema, TV or internet. Sex crimes in Scandinavian countries actually went down after the opening of legal sex book and video stores, perhaps because people’s fantasies got an outlet to be satisfied in private without committing sex crimes.

Teaching girls to protest and report and the boys to respect the girls are undoubtedly needed. The past rape victims should openly come out to talk about their fights in order to remove the social stigma and to spread the message that the shame should be on the rapist, not the victim.  But one is not sure to what extent those things will be effective unless the suggested reforms in the police and judicial system take place. 

Finally, exercise of caution. In an ideal society anybody all alone should be able to go anywhere, anytime, in whatever attire one likes. In principle, every one has this freedom. But, unfortunately, our society is not perfect. So, as far as possible, places which are crime-prone (like bars and discos) should be avoided without escort, specially after midnight. One should not take ride in an unknown person’s car.

The employer should make sure that the girl returning home after night duty gives a call to the employer a specific time after she takes the transport and if the call is not forthcoming, it should be the employer’s duty to check what happened.

One may immediately point out that the unfortunate Delhi girl – a perfect girl by our society’s standards --  did not disobey any of the ground rules.

This shows that rapes and sexual harassment can occur anywhere, including crowded public transport during college or office hours. But taking certain common sense precautions would reduce the probability of occurrence of a few cases. Even that is some gain, considering the enormity of the consequences averted for the girls and their families.

(The author is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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