The Roadblocks in Reporting Rape-Crimes in India

It was the night of 27th November, 2019, merely 2 days after the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, when women’s rights activists and social media pages worldwide were abuzz with hashtags and campaigns for standing against Rape…

A veterinary doctor’s family in the city of Hyderabad reached out to the police during their frantic search for her after she went missing while returning home from her regular day of work. It was merely hours after her last phone-call to her sister, telling she was scared on being stranded among strangers in a deserted area, that the would find her raped, brutalised and burnt body.

This particularly horrific incident of rape, which hit India at the dawn of this year’s 16 days Gender-Violence campaign, has shocked and enraged the nation into a renewed sense of urgency to change the way the country deals with rape-crimes.  

There have been demands of castration, death penalty and even burning the rapists alive. Sadly, on the touchstone of both humanity and legality, it merely demonstrates a sentiment of wanting to eliminate such criminals from the society, without much exertion in prevention and prosecution in the long term. In a myopic sense eliminating such criminals may seem like the best possible solution, but we cannot ignore the fact that even making punishments more stringent has not had a deterrent effect on sexual predators in the country.

In the shadow of the ‘Hyderabad Horror’, there has been news of multiple other rape incidents from all corners of the country within the same week. On 26th November, a 20-year-old woman was raped and hanged from a tree in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu; on the same day a 25-year-old law student was abducted and raped by 12 men at gunpoint in Ranchi, Jharkhand; on 27th November, besides the Hyderabad Horror, the nation also found an 11-year-old girl who had been kidnapped by an auto-driver, held captive for days and raped repeatedly in Chandigarh; on 28th November, a 32-year-old woman was gangraped by five men on her way home from grocery shopping in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu; on the same day a 14-year-old girl was raped by 2 men in Vadodara, Gujarat; on 29th November, a 17-year-old girl was found to have been kept chained and allegedly raped repeatedly by her father in their home in Jalore, Rajasthan… the list goes on. It does not seem to matter what the punishment prescribed under the laws is.

These circumstances call for urgent scrutiny of the way the laws against rape-crimes in India are implemented. It is in the efficient reporting and stringent prosecution of these offences that the nation stands any chance of being able to make a real difference. The real chasm exists not in the content of the laws, but in their toothless enforcement.

Former police officer and social activist, Kiran Bedi (IPS) has given us a chance to systematically address this issue in her recent framing of the 6 ‘P’ Formula for Women’s Security: People – Politicians – Police – Prosecution – Prison – Press. On the 70th anniversary programme of the United Nations in India organised by the UN Information Centre for India (UNIC) and the Bhutan and Indian Federation of UN Associations with focus on women’s security, Bedi said “Only when we look at it with the 6 ‘P’ formula, we address it in all directions. Unless we address it in all directions, any aspect left unattended in the chain, women’s security will suffer.

At the very heart of this chain lie the aspects of ‘Police’ and ‘Prosecution’ – relating directly to the root problems in the reporting of rape-crimes in the country. At this juncture when there are widespread demands for deterring rapists and sex offenders, it becomes paramount priority to ensure that the reporting mechanism becomes watertight and leaves no room for any offender to get away with their crime. This includes no laxity in filing of the complaints, no ease of release on bail, no fear in the testimony by witnesses, no scope for tampering of evidence, and no biases/influences/compromises in the investigation process. Afterall, what justice can the most rigorous punishment achieve, if the offender manages to escape from weak links in the chain of prosecution at the primal  stages? What process of justice can effectively deter such offenders when it is ridden with holes at its very inception?

When examining the roadblocks in the reporting of rape-crimes in India, an unpredictable and particularly multifaceted monster comes to the fore. Dismantling it reveals several key themes which require simultaneous redressal. Tragically, the same six ‘P’s which constitute the formula for women’s security, also translate into the 6 heads of the monster preying on the reporting process:

PEOPLE   (Prejudices, Character Assassination, Labelling, Social Isolation)  Social stigma is the biggest deterrent in reporting of rape-crimes. The victim is labelled as ‘impure’ and unfit for marriage. The victim and the family get socially ostracized and isolated. The victim’s actions, way of life, habits, relationships etc. are dissected and judged. These prejudices spill onto all spheres of the victim’s life be it family/personal/professional. The victims and their families get further victimized by societal beliefs & practices.  
POLITICIANS   (Bureaucracy, Corrupt Officials, Political Influence, Vested Interests)  Corruption, politics and vested interests impact the reporting of rape-crimes in insidious ways – quashing of complaints, vested interests of bureaucrats preventing law enforcement from taking due cognizance of cases and collecting necessary evidence, political power being used to coerce victims and families to withdraw complaints, political duress over witnesses in providing necessary and timely information/statements to police etc.  
POLICE   (Insensitivity, Prejudices,  Procrastination, Inaccuracies, Harassment, Evidence Tampering)  As highlighted in the sting-operation by Tehelka in the context of Delhi Police we find the police personnel themselves becoming a roadblock in the reporting process. Filing of timely complaints with due diligence and care is extremely rare. The personal prejudices of policemen affect whether a case registered or not, even after the victim/family has come to report. Jurisdiction conflicts and procrastination are commonplace. Careless collection of evidence, and even tampering is not unheard of. Harassment of the victim and the family at the hands of the police is one of the weakest links in the chain of reporting.  
PROSECUTION   (Insensitivity, Harassment, Excessive Delays, Victim-Blame)  Another aspect of discouragement from reporting is the widespread knowledge that the prosecution procedure is extremely insensitive, excessively prolonged and adversarial towards the victim. Many victims don’t report keeping in mind the kind of insensitive, victim-blaming questions and harassment that they would have to face during prosecution.  
PRISON   (Ineffective Rehabilitation, Short Sentences)  Aside from the alarmingly low ratio of conviction in reported rape cases, instances of offenders seeking revenge against the victim are also found. This instils pure fear in the victims even when they think of reporting. Also considering the state of our prison system, there is zero faith among the public in the offender being rehabilitated and so the fear of repeated victimization prevents even primary reporting of cases.  
PRESS   (Violation of Privacy, Labelling, Sensationalisation, Insensitivity, Social Media trial of Victim)  Coupled with the problem of social stigma, the press becomes the major perpetrator of secondary victimization of the victim. Most victims do not report because of fear of their tragedy being publicized, sensationalized and insensitively dealt with at the hands of the Press. Labelling and violation of privacy of the victims and their families have become the norm. What also compounds the problem is that with the advancement of social media, the general public gets a platform to have an informal trial which puts the victim under the spotlight, even sometimes creating a permanent digital record of the criminal act itself.  

These practices and problems at the very first instance unnerve the victim from even filing a formal report of the crime, and in the long term, corrode the faith of the nation in the justice system itself. Why would rape-victims, or even their families, voluntarily wish to subject themselves to further victimization by the society and the system, when the rapist has already violated them in such a brutal way? This hesitation has been the same ever since the 1973 case of Nurse Aruna Shanbaug, where the hospital dean and her fiancé didn’t permit the reporting and prosecution of her rape by sodomisation, just to prevent ‘embarrassment’ due to public disclosure. Her rapist was convicted only for assault and robbery and imprisoned for 7 years while she lay in a vegetative state for 42 years, effectively serving a life sentence.

Even in these dire circumstances we find 100’s and 1000’s reporting on a daily basis, because they are desperate for justice. We should not be celebrating their courage. We should be alarmed that we are living with a system where even reporting of heinous crimes against half the population of the country requires ‘courage’. Reporting needs to be made a seamless process of seeking justice against victimization.. not a matter of waging a war against multiple layers of further victimization!

– by Prarthana Vaidya, Lawyer & Masters Candidate in Criminology & Forensic Psychology, Consultant at MSAAW.