In The Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie wrote: “I often wonder why the whole world is so prone to generalise. Generalisations are seldom if ever true and are usually utterly inaccurate.”
It is appropriate to remember this statement when we discuss the crime scene in any part of the world. This is because crime statistics offer people a huge opportunity to indulge in generalisations. For instance, if there are two murders on successive days in our city, we are quick to condemn the police and the government for their alleged laxity in controlling murders. In India, ‘murder capital’ and ‘rape capital’ are some of the most regular expressions used by those who want to condemn the police and the government, and sensationalise crime, while ignoring the hard realities on the ground.
Law enforcement agencies have to learn to live with such sweeping remarks. To an extent, the anger directed at the state is rooted in partial crime data. But though accurate data may be difficult to come by, that gives us no reason to ignore what is available. If you want to portray the ground situation with reasonable accuracy, you need to rest your assessment on available statistics, however shaky they may be, and not make statements that betray your own prejudices and biases.
Publications such as ‘Crime in India’ (CII), which is brought out annually by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), offer some hope that at least some people, including researchers and discerning citizens, will give up sweeping analyses and rest their case on a rational platform. I do not for a moment suggest that NCRB statistics are 100% reliable. It is true that they have many infirmities. But the NCRB is the only source of crime data we have today.
Let us look at some of the formidable challenges faced by the NCRB. The first is the lackadaisical approach of some of the States in providing data. The NCRB merely assembles the figures it receives from the State police forces and does not tinker with them to reach a predetermined conclusion. It hits a roadblock when a few States either don’t bother to send the figures or send them much after the volume is published.
The second problem is that questions are raised over the utility of the data. There was a two-year delay in releasing the crime statistics for 2017. Just two months after it was published, the ‘Crime in India’ 2018 report was released. These numbers are only relevant to researchers, not policymakers. It is strange that we see such delays in an age of computerisation, when we boast of efficient and swift online services. Part of the blame rests on State police agencies. It is intriguing why they cannot send preliminary figures to the NCRB by mid-January every year and fine-tune the figures a few months later. A fossilised CII is meaningless. There is nothing sensational to report on what happened in 2018 on the crime front. A less than 2% increase in the total number of cases registered under major and minor laws may be comforting, but it does not carry us far in understanding what is happening on the ground.
The third problem lies with the police and the public. The police are notorious the world over for not registering complaints. They do this so that they can present a false picture of a decline in crime. This pernicious practice is often encouraged by the top leadership. Legend has it that some four or five decades ago, an Inspector General of Police in Uttar Pradesh lost his job for ordering his force to register every single complaint made to them at the police station! His political bosses apparently didn’t take kindly to this, as a phenomenal increase in the number of crimes would show the government in poor light.
The public are also not very enthusiastic about reporting crimes to the police. They are fearful of being harassed at the police station or do not believe that the police are capable of solving the crime. This is a Catch-22 situation.
Crimes difficult to bury
However, the problem has declined slightly over the years due to public awareness and intense media scrutiny. Despite the widely prevalent desire at the lower levels of the police, abetted sometimes by their immediate superiors, to suppress crime, there are a few classes of offences which are becoming increasingly difficult to bury. This is attributable to the extraordinary interest evinced by the media in reporting crime.
The first category of crimes that is difficult to bury is of homicides. India reports an average of 30,000 murders every year (29,017 were registered in 2018). Every murder is a matter of distress. Nevertheless the stabilisation of the figure at 30,000 is a mild assurance. The corresponding figure for the period in the U.S., a land notorious for lax gun laws and the liberal use of firearms to settle personal disputes, was around 16,200. Though the U.S. has about one-third of India’s population, the reported decline in murders in many major U.S cities is worth studying.
Crime against women should agitate every responsible citizen in the world. The common man in India does not lag behind others in reacting strongly to attacks on hapless women and men. The growth of the visual media possibly explains this welcome feature in Indian society. The nationwide outrage over the gang-rape of a woman in December 2012 in Delhi and the subsequent tightening of laws on sexual crimes generated the hope that attacks against women would decrease.
This prognosis has only been partially realised. In 2018, there were 33,356 rapes, a higher number than the previous year. But these figures do not fully reflect realities on the ground. There is still the unverifiable suspicion that while in urban areas sexual violence cases are reasonably well-reported, the story is different in rural India. Money power and caste oppression are believed to play a significant role in under-reporting. It looks as if we may have to live with this unfortunate situation for many years to come. What is more significant is that a substantial number of such crimes are committed by the ‘friends’ and families of victims.
To be fair to the NCRB, we must concede that the organisation has more than justified its existence. The CII is used extensively by researchers. However, there is scope for more dynamism on the NCRB’s part, especially in the area of educating the public on the realities of crime and its reporting. The NCRB will also have to be conscious of the expectation that it should bring greater pressure on States to make them stick to schedules and look upon this responsibility as a sacred national duty.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director