A harsher anti-rape law is no answer,certainty of punishment is.
The December 16 gangrape led to widespread outrage that forced the Central government to enact tougher anti-rape laws. The incident appeared to have shaken the conscience of the nation to such an extent that it gave rise to hope that such incidents would go down,if not cease altogether. This hope has been belied. Such incidents did not end,and the Mumbai gangrape is the latest in a sequence of ugly events.
Why is this happening and why are we not able to control it? When the Delhi gangrape was followed by the gangrape of a Swiss tourist in Madhya Pradesh,the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times felt that the frequent rape cases cast a shadow on the quality of Indian democracy. They called it an indicator of the failure of Indias democracy to ensure good governance. The quality of governance may not meet required standards,but to ascribe the increasing number of rapes in the country to the failure of democracy is somewhat far-fetched. The reasons for the continued assaults on womens dignity lie elsewhere. Two reasons are prominent: weak law enforcement and a conservative mindset.
Whenever such incidents occur,people blame the laws. The current anti-rape law is quite harsh a 20-year sentence is a fairly severe punishment. But people want stricter penalties like chemical castration and public hangings. Despite all the evidence,we are not willing to accept that the effectiveness of laws does not lie in how harsh they are but in how successfully they are enforced. Criminology research has established that it is the certainty of punishment,and not its severity,that deters people from committing crimes.
This element of certainty is missing because the law is not enforced effectively. Law enforcement does not merely mean police action but also the effective completion of the process of justice,from the registration of the FIR to the final judgment. The way the criminal justice system functions in this country,it inspires no great fear even in first-timers. While crime rates are increasing,the conviction rate is declining. In 1971,the conviction rate of IPC crimes was 62 per cent,but by 2010,it had declined to 40.7 per cent. In the case of rape,it was as low as 26.6 per cent. This is without taking into account the number of cases in which FIRs are not registered or where the police do not succeed in chargesheeting the accused. Add to this the number of cases pending in court and the fact that it takes years to settle them. According to PRS data dated September 30,2010,there were 2.8 crore cases pending in subordinate courts,42 lakh in high courts and 55,000 in the Supreme Court. It is this ineffective enforcement that has reduced the deterrent effect of the law.
Another reason why such crimes continue to occur is our mindset. The cultural norms and traditions that flourish in our patriarchal society undermine the dignity of women. Inside or outside the family,we do not treat them with respect. Violence against women is bolstered by this environment. A French tourist in India complained that even though she had not faced molestation,she was always afraid of the violence she saw in the eyes of some Indian males. Similar experiences were recounted by an American student,Michaela Cross,who had come to India last year. During her stay,she experienced such relentless sexual harassment that she returned to her country with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Societal attitudes will take time to change. The police as well as parents and teachers need to draw on the broken windows theory of criminology. According to this theory,small acts of deviance,if ignored,can escalate into more serious and major crimes. Do not ignore incidents of eve-teasing or stalking on the grounds that youngsters are entitled to some indulgence or of domestic violence because it is a family matter. In addition,the whole criminal justice system must ensure that crimes against women are no longer low risk. Resources must be devoted to making this system more effective than it presently is.
The writer is former director,Bureau of Police Research and Development email@example.com