Crime & punishment: A safety tale of two cities

There’s not much of a difference between Mumbai and Delhi in terms of how rape cases are handled, but when it comes to elopement, officials lay fault squarely on women.

Updated - December 09, 2016 08:48 pm IST

Published - December 23, 2015 01:30 pm IST

This is a blog post from

Around this time, six years ago, I moved to Delhi for a new job. Even in 2009, the city had a reputation for being unsafe for women. I got used to the city quite quickly, loved my new job and found commuting easy, but some things about Delhi gave me the creeps — it was unnerving how dark it got by 5 pm in the long winters, young men in passing cars would stare long into the auto I was taking home from work, the streets on my usual routes were enormous and often empty and there were such few women in buses.

After December 2012, the media began to report every complaint of sexual crime in greater detail. Every day, it seemed to me, a woman was being pulled into a car and raped or sedated and abducted from a busy market. Then the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual statistics came out and it seemed like crimes against women really had shot up.

After five years in Mumbai and one in London where I’d returned home as late as I liked wearing what I liked, I found myself on the look out for a ride home from a party I’d just arrived at. My parents who lived in Pune worried incessantly about me, my husband was happiest if he could pick me up rather than if I took a cab home late. Even though the most serious experience I’d had of being followed and harassed had taken place in Mumbai, I found myself making my life in Delhi smaller.

Towards the end of 2013, I began to look for court documents for some of the cases I had read about in news reports; what happens after the First Information report (FIR) was the simple question I wanted to answer. As I began to read court proceedings in one case after another, I realised that something very strange was going on. A few early conversations with cops, prosecutors and judges confirmed what I was finding. I decided to make it a full-fledged investigation.

A screenshot of Delhi's district court online portal.

Over the first half of 2014, I created a database of every case involving rape (IPC section 376) that had been decided in 2013 in Delhi’s six district courts. Delhi was particularly easy: its district court online portal has a text search feature. Occasionally this feature would pack up and I’d have to read every judgement to look for ones on rape. In all, I read several thousand judgements to find 500 that dealt with rape. I also read additional court orders in the case, and at times sought help from court sources for documents that were not online.

As I read a court ruling, I coded it; first the case number, court name, date of judgement and name of judge went into my spreadsheet for easy retrieval. Then a quick summary of the initial complaint and the court’s findings, any significant observations by the court, the ages of the accused and the complainant, the date of the alleged offence, the verdict and the sentence.

I chipped away slowly at this, coming back to my spreadsheet after I had filed my story for the day or on a lean day. By May 2014, I was done. Through June and July, I interviewed dozens of judges, cops, prosecutors and defence lawyers and through them, accused men and complainant women, and their families. >The story ran at the end of July and through early August.

A screenshot of Mumbai's court database portal.

Since the middle of this year when The Hindu decided to launch an edition in Mumbai, I decided that I wanted to do >a similar investigation for the city. I added sexual crime against children to my list this time, including cases under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act to IPC 376. I was more rigorous about sentences and ages, a point that I hadn’t reported on in detail for the Delhi investigation. Mumbai had felt so much freer, so much more gender-equal. Was I going to find the same thing?

Right at the start, it became clear that the volume of cases was much smaller in Mumbai, as is its judicial capacity — two courts trying sexual assault cases as opposed to six in Delhi. Delhi was delivering verdicts faster. Delhi was also far more conscious of the anger over acquittals — virtually every judge began or ended his or her final order with a reference to society’s anger about rape cases. In both cities, judges and cops were unwilling to be quoted, saying that their comments were often twisted to appear sexist. While there wasn’t a significant difference in the nature of cases in the two cities, cops and judges in both cities interpreted the large number of elopement cases as a fault of women rather than of their parents.

Like me, many women form their opinions about their own safety and their relationship with the city from what they read in the papers. Like me, they had been making their lives smaller. I do not expect that the stories will make me or them feel like sexual crime is no longer something to worry about; for one, the scale of under-reporting — particularly of sexual crime other than rape — is no doubt enormous across the country. Additionally, our perceptions of safety are more often rattled by that man in the car who stares into your auto, and it is clear that such behaviour is still rampant; never was that more clear to me than when I went to Jantar Mantar the morning after the victim in the December 2012 gang-rape died, and was groped by a bystander. In both investigations, I worried that I would be seen to be belittling the trauma of survivors of sexual assault, some of whom I know personally, but I have been relieved that they have seen the larger point in the number.

What I do hope is that headline numbers on rape should now be seen as the potent combination of ways in which we restrict female autonomy that they really are. I’d also like to hope that this changes our law-making responses, but I suspect that is unlikely; over the last year, I have been invited to speak to a range of people in positions of power, but neither has the tenor of the discourse changed, nor has India’s official response to policing and prosecuting sexual assault.

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