The big point that the police want to make is that they cannot act without a complainant.
Police officials say while cases like murder or theft can be investigated suo motu, cases of sexual assault or harassment absolutely require the victim’s involvement in the investigation.
It boils down to evidence. In a murder case a corpse can, in itself, be proof that a crime has been committed. But in a sexual assault case, the crucial evidence cannot come from anyone else but from the victim. That such cases are sensitive is all the more reason to make inquiries with the victim before proceeding.
“The victim’s statement, and medical examination in cases of rape, are the most imperative evidence in such cases,” says Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Sanjay Saxena. “Even if someone has definite knowledge of a sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is only the victim’s statement that lets us file an FIR [first information report].”
The very first thing to do, officers say, is to record a statement and register an FIR immediately. It is mandatory for police personnel to register an FIR; a delay in doing so results in departmental action.
Once a victim of sexual harassment files an FIR, standard operating procedure takes over. Investigating officers have strict instructions to ensure speedy action, and every effort is taken to deal with the victim as sensitively as possible.
The crucial statement
The recording of the statement is the most important part of the investigation. It is also the most difficult for the victim, who has to relive her ordeal, and answer questions that can seem invasive and insensitive. The investigators have to make sure no detail is missed, while also taking care not to further damage the victim’s mind.
But the statement is crucial, because it is on the basis of what the victim says that the police are able to decide which sections of the Penal Code to evoke, and whether these sections will stand in court during a trial and ensure the accused gets the strongest punishment for his crime.
A senior officer with the Mumbai Police explains: “It is for this reason that we need to ask the victim about everything that transpired in minute detail. We tell them in the beginning that we will be asking some very uncomfortable questions, and that they should answer them truthfully as the entire case depends on it. A frequent question we have to ask a rape victim is whether she had a bath after she was sexually assaulted. While victims find this question to be invasive and irrelevant, we need to know, because if they haven’t bathed, there is a good chance of [finding] DNA samples of the accused on their bodies, which would be a strong piece of evidence.” He says that this is one of the reasons why rape cases need to be reported as soon as possible.
An already distressed woman may not find it easy to go into detail about the crimes committed upon her person. So, to make the complainant as comfortable as the circumstances permit, her statement is always recorded by a female officer. (This is one of the reasons why the police ensure that there are women officers posted in every police station.) Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Deven Bharti says, “On the rare occasion that a female officer is not available, a male officer records the statement but in the presence of a female constable. We have also taken efforts to sensitise our personnel and make sure the victim does not feel uncomfortable while such cases are being investigated.”
Combating police bias
Women who face molestation or sexual abuse anywhere often face the ‘she asked for it’ excuse. Inevitably, they are told that the way they dress, their lifestyles, the company they keep, their previous sexual histories, provoke and even justify the crime. Often, many women victims say, it is the police who make such judgments.
Police officers agree that these patriarchal, narrow-minded biases still exist in the minds of a large part of the police force, even with female personnel. And they agree that for victims of sexual harassment or abuse, these attitudes can deter them from coming forward to file a complaint.
A senior officer told The Hindu, “Police personnel join the force at an age when they have fully developed into adulthood, which means they have spent at least around two decades listening to opinions around them and forming their view of the world. To expect them to suddenly change their mindset would be ambitious, to say the least.” He says that to combat this, there have been strong and repeated instructions passed down the ranks to not let the bias get in the way of the investigation. “The least we can do is to ensure that they do their jobs in a professional and efficient manner. Strict action is taken against any officer or constable against whom a complaint of insensitive behaviour in such cases is received.”
This action can be anything from a negative remark in the erring person’s file to a departmental inquiry, depending on the seriousness of the allegations. Top police officials said that there have been sessions with NGOs in the past to sensitise police personnel to these issues, but they were unable to give specifics.
In cases of rape, victims must also face the necessity of medical examination. Here, at least, there has been tangible improvement. Examinations like the so-called ‘two-finger test’ — checking the vaginal muscle by inserting fingers, once used regularly, to establish whether the victim was ‘used to sexual intercourse’ — meant that aside from the invasiveness, the victim had to also suffer the indignity of having her personal life and the condition of her vagina discussed in court. Many NGOs took this matter up, and it is no longer used. Currently, doctors visually confirm whether the hymen is intact, and to establish whether there was forcible intercourse, they check for injuries to and around the vagina.
Police officials say that despite repeated appeals through print, television and social media, a large number of sexual abuse cases still go unreported. “What victims don’t realise is that the more they delay reporting a case, the harder it becomes to prove the offence,” an officer says. “Apart from the fact that medical and forensic evidence is lost, the delay results in minute details — some of which can be important in terms of evidence — getting lost due to being forgotten.”
For victims of harassment and abuse seeking justice, then, it is critical to take the first step towards ensuring the punishment of the perpetrator: report the crime.