Opinion

Crime and Punishment

The latest statistics show that crimes against women, children and SC/STs are on the rise. We need to tackle their root causes, and not just punish the perpetrators.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of India released their annual report on Indian crime statistics for the year 2016 recently. Along with the figures for nationwide reported crimes of the last year, the report also depicts crime figures from the two preceding years. This provides a point of comparison for where the current crime incidence scenario stands. The report is indicative of a mixed bag of challenges and developments. This article aims to address some of the crucial findings of the report, while focusing particularly on crimes against women and children, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and juvenile delinquency.

Crimes against women and children saw a rising trend since 2015, with a 2.9% rise in the former, and an alarming 13.6% in the latter. This upsurge was particularly alarming since it was double of the previous year. Specifically, reported rape cases rose by about 12.4% since 2015, which is an 8% increase in the total occurrence, as compared to the previous year. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh accounted for about 16% of all rape cases in India, followed by Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Specifically within metro cities, Delhi reported the highest number of rapes, followed by Mumbai and Pune.

Despite strong verdicts with severe sentences against perpetrators in some recent rape cases in India, increasing security measures for women’s safety–such as the women’s safety helplines, or police officers being present in ladies’ compartments of local trains late at night–the prevalence of the crime remains unmitigated. However, it is possible that more and more victims may have garnered the courage to speak up about crimes against them, thereby reflecting a growing rate of reporting. The 2017 revival of social movements (such as the #MeToo campaign) encouraging women to speak of sexual transgressions committed against them, paired with better interventions at the rural level, might well result in a sustained increase in reported rape numbers in upcoming years.

While the assessment of crime at a city-level is a welcome move, the higher incidence of cases being reported should not be considered as a true representation of the prevalence rate; the reality is most likely far from it. The rural population comprises more than 70% of India’s total population, and reporting from rural areas still remains problematic. A likely reason is the stigma associated with sexual assault, as well as the patriarchal environment that put more power and faith in the male perpetrator’s side of the story, and engages in victim-blaming. Even if the police are cooperative in such cases, there is a good chance for the investigations to be carried out in an apathetic manner, especially when the victim belongs to a lower caste.

Another issue affecting women at large, as well as children, is that of human trafficking. This prevails as one of India’s prominent challenges. About 80% of this trafficking happens for the sex trade, with the rest being associated with slavery, sham marriages, organ harvesting, and forceful begging. A total of 8132 cases of trafficking were reported in 2016. However, 23,117 victims were rescued in the year, of which 61.3% were children, which denotes that the problem is much larger in magnitude than what the numbers would lead us to believe. In such cases, we need better funding from the government to rehabilitate the victims, and fast track courts for such cases. Such courts have worked in India in the past in several cases, and could ensure faster rehabilitation for victims of trafficking. Moreover, the vigilance of citizens is also vital in such cases. In addition to helpline numbers for reporting suspected kidnappings, it could be helpful to have police officers or social workers present in areas highly susceptible to abductions and kidnappings (West Bengal for instance, which had the highest rates of trafficking from 2015, and up to June 2017). The recent law which proposes life sentence for traffickers, and also pushes for setting up rehabilitation funds for trafficking victims, is a great first step in this direction.

Figure 1: Comparison of crime incidence and rate for crime against women, children, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and juvenile crime, for the years 2014, 2015, and 2016.

The third prominent issue raised by NCRB statistics is that of the crimes against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. These figures have gone up by 5.5% and 4.7% respectively. While the number of reports about atrocities against scheduled castes and tribes is high, the actual filed complaints seem murky. For instance, in Patna, Bihar, which was one of the leading states in this category of crimes (Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan being the other two), only one case in 241 was registered for crimes against a Dalit woman, while the rest were minor offences like trespassing, hurting someone, or use of abusive language. The state reported a total of 45 offences against Dalit women, all of which were rape cases.

There are certain incidences that cause a doubt about gross underreporting of such cases. For instance, the police reaction in the Motihari gangrape case, where it was claimed by the police officials that while the victim–a Dalit girl–was sexually assaulted, there was no rape. This was despite the medical evidence suggesting insertion of a pistol and some wooden objects inside her body. It was also further claimed that the media was trying to portray it as a caste-based atrocity when it was actually not. Such dubious incidents point towards a possible misrepresentation of actual facts and figures on a larger scale, thereby raising a questions about presented data.

Even though coherent laws exist to protect the minorities, laxity on part of the authorities when it comes to reportage often supersedes any assistance by the law. What is more surprising in this context is that a high number of caste-based atrocities have been reported in the metro cities of Bengaluru and Hyderabad. The conviction rate for these atrocities in Karnataka has only been 2.8%. Considering that Karnataka has the highest number of Dalit representation in their cabinet, the not-so-blurred caste lines are really concerning. While activists claim the Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs law has not been implemented properly, the police contend that most of these cases are false.

Another largely disturbing trend was with respect to the rise in juvenile crime. This aspect has gathered significant public attention of late after the Nirbhaya case. The years 2014-15 had seen a 13.1% decline in the numbers of juveniles in conflict with the law. But there has been a 7.2% rise in total juvenile offences in 2016. The real direction in this trend may become clearer once the 2017 report is released. The rise in the juvenile crime-rate is problematic because it is also linked with recidivism (i.e. recommission of crime upon release). Youths coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds or broken families are highly susceptible to partake in offences. Policy makers can pay special attention to such youths, and perhaps focus on some preventive, rather than corrective measures. Geographical areas where such incidences have particularly stood out could be highlighted, and youth-focused programs could be executed here. Such programs could employ mental health professionals and social workers to train individuals to healthily work through their personal issues.

A preventive way of tackling this issue could be to introduce diversion programs, which serve as alternate ways of rehabilitating juveniles in conflict with the law. Such programs deal in behavioural issues of the offenders, by educating them about factors that would entice them to reoffend. They also focus on community service, and restitution to the victims, which often helps control for recidivism when initiated to offenders not in custody.  These programs avoid a formal crime record for the offenders, and therefore can be hopeful.

In sum, the crime report of 2016 is varied in its nature. While it shows some encouraging trends from the point of view of more crimes being reported, the increase in atrocities against women, children, and underprivileged social classes also raises some serious red flags. The report also calls a need for varied interventions in the domain of juvenile crime. Various think tanks push for policy reforms via their work in sectors such as education and livelihoods. State and national governments could team up with such bodies to tackle the socio-cultural antecedents of crime, rather than only focusing on dealing with victims and perpetrators after the crime has been committed.

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About the author

Sampada Karandikar

Sampada Karandikar is Senior Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit academic research organization based in Mumbai. She is a Forensic Psychologist and an RECBT practitioner, and undertakes psychological counseling across various centers in Mumbai. Her research interests lie in Forensic Psychology, Criminology, Personality Psychology, and Social Psychology.