A crime well reported is half-solved

The latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau show that it is time to change our understanding of felony and its registration by the police

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

Published - August 22, 2015 02:27 am IST

With every passing year of writing on the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s crime data, it has become increasingly clear that what I am forced to do is essentially compare apples and oranges, and then make a normative call based on that comparison. This is not the much-maligned NCRB’s fault, but calls for a change in our understanding of crime and its registration by the police.

This year, I found that in both absolute and population proportionate terms, Delhi >was now the crime and rape capital of India . However, I have come to the conclusion that the spike that Delhi saw in 2013 is almost certainly a direct result of the >December 2012 gang rape and the widespread protests that followed, which began an impassioned and long overdue conversation around sexual violence in the capital. From conversations with women’s rights activists and the police, I have learnt that now more women come forward to complain and the police are less likely to turn complainants away.

Other cities may not have experienced the same change in the same way. The >Shakti Mills gang rape took place in Mumbai nearly a year after the Delhi incident. After the complainant went to the police, another victim came forward a few days later; she had been raped, she said, by the same gang just weeks before the Shakti Mills incident, but did not have the courage to approach the police.

In Chennai in December 2014, a man posing as a policeman allegedly raped a girl who was at a beach with a male friend; not only did the crime attract far less media attention than sexual assault does in Delhi, the police and a leading newspaper indulged in the kind of slander against the complainant that has become all but impossible now in Delhi.

Police still apathetic None of which is to assert that sexual crime doesn’t go unreported any more in Delhi. In July 2015, a young woman was stabbed to death in Delhi. Her family spoke later of the complete indifference of the police in pursuing her earlier repeated complaints against the same men who fatally attacked her. Further, increased reporting alone cannot explain Delhi’s elevated rate of sexual crime. In 1990, the number of reported rapes in Delhi and Mumbai were only as far apart as the difference in populations would predict. By 2000, the capital was recording three times as many rapes as Mumbai. The two cities can be said to have comparable levels of feminist activism and media interest, yet there was a substantial rise in the number of reported cases in Delhi.

Moreover, whether high rates of reported sexual assault should be seen directly as a proxy for the lack of women’s safety is debatable. While the city-wise break-up of reported rapes by the proximity of the accused to the complainant has not been released this year, in past years it was no different in Delhi than in other cities, and ranged between 95 and 100 per cent of all reported rapes. Similarly, while The Hindu>found that the largest category of rape cases in Delhi , based on district court judgements, involved parental criminalisation of consenting runaway couples, a preliminary analysis for cities in Madhya Pradesh showed similar results.

What the activism around the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape is likely to have done is to nudge reported rape in Delhi closer to its real value, while the true numbers in other Indian cities are harder to estimate. In a working paper, economist Aashish Gupta compared the rates of reported rape (as per the NCRB) for 2005 with the rates of experienced rape as reported by women in a household sample survey to the National Family Health Survey. He found that just 5.8 per cent of rape by men other than husbands was reported to the police.

It is important here to place rape in the context of general crime. The rates of recorded crime in most Indian cities and States, quite frankly, defy belief. Uttar Pradesh recorded just over 10,000 cases of “grievous hurt” in 2014, while London recorded over 70,000 cases of “assault with injury offences” according to its police statistics for 2014-15. From people’s testimonies of police corruption and brutality, it seems entirely conceivable that in large parts of the country, people — especially the poor — do not go to the police to register a complaint unless they absolutely have to. So it is likely that India’s murder rate is quite close to its true value, as would be the case with, say, auto theft, in which an FIR becomes essential; unsurprisingly, auto theft accounted for 42 per cent of all reported theft in 2014, and 6.5 per cent of all crime.

What about crimes against women — is there evidence that some States under-report more than others? In Mr. Gupta’s analysis, the numbers of reported rape by men other than husbands were too low at the State-level to make valid comparisons. However, when he looked at the State-wise spread of the actual incidence versus reporting of physical violence against women, he found that Delhi had consistently higher reporting and lower incidence of actual violence than other States while Bihar had low reporting rates and high actual incidence. Among larger States, both actual violence and under-reporting were higher in northern States with poor gender indicators than in southern States with better gender indicators, he found.

Should we then see high crime rates as a positive rather than a negative? Globally, countries with wide income disparities are four times more likely to be afflicted by violent crime than more equitable societies, and high levels of crime are both a major cause and a result of poverty and underdevelopment, says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. However, this applies only to states in which full registration is the norm, and that is almost certainly not the case for most Indian States.

In 2014, the highest crime rates in India were in Delhi and Kerala. People often use Kerala’s high rates of reported crime, particularly for women, to criticise the State, former State police chief Jacob Punnoose said recently. “But what this shows is that with more female police recruitment, more women felt confident to approach the police. We should celebrate this,” he said. Not all crime is under-reported equally, Mr. Punnoose cautioned. “I would not say that I will celebrate an increase in the numbers of all crimes — auto theft or murder for example. But if the police of a State is able to significantly increase the registration of crimes in which grievous physical injury does not take place, I will congratulate that police commissioner.”

Registration of crime is the culmination of multiple realities — the existence of crime, the empowerment of an individual to report it, and the willingness of the police to register it. With the second and third parts so sorely lacking in most of India, perhaps it’s time to stop reducing our analysis of the NCRB data to only the existence of crime.


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