The Shakti Mills gang rape on August 22 is another blot on the maximum city’s record of protecting its women. While it is true that we cannot generalise whether a city is safe or not, its milieu speaks for itself.
The speed of police and medical response, public help in the form of feeding relevant information to the police that helps to nab the aggressor(s) and the intensity of media coverage, all go to build or mar a city’s reputation. By this yardstick, I will still refrain from castigating Mumbai because of what I have read in newspapers or heard from friends. There is, however, no room for complacency. Actually, there is a case for extreme agitation.
The Mumbai horror comes close on the heels of a widely-reported, balanced and well-drafted account of her experiences in India by a US student. She is appalled that such a beautiful country should have male predators everywhere. Since the Nirbhaya incident last December in our capital city, thousands of rapes have taken place in the country, which only confirm that there is a general aberration in our psyche which is impossible to cover up.
How worried should we be? Don’t go by statistics that our politicians and police chiefs dole out at periodic intervals to show that the crime rate is not high. It is public perception rather than cold statistics that counts here. Principally, two segments of our criminal justice system should contribute to improving the ambience. These are the police and judiciary.
The Indian police, until recently, was totally clueless and shockingly insensitive. Since Nirbhaya there have been some signs of change: the knowledge and fear of departmental disciplining. This needs to be sustained in the lower rungs of the police, a task that senior officers must undertake.
While it would be unrealistic to expect them to prevent every assault on women, their accountability for a swift and meaningful response from the force should be total. The Commissioners of Police and District Superintendents of Police should evolve a mechanism whereby they should get to know about each rape or indecent assault (which falls short of rape) in their jurisdiction within minutes of it being reported to the police, so that they can monitor it until it is given a disposal in accordance with the law.
This system exists to some extent in a few states. But there is a case for institutionalising it through amendments to the Police Standing Orders so that there is no scope for evading monitoring responsibility. This could greatly enhance the quality of rape investigations, which, at present, is scandalously poor and explains the abysmal 20-30 per cent conviction rate.
The judiciary’s record in this matter is a mixed bag. It cannot be faulted for its strict construction of the law of evidence and seeking very high standards of proof for convicting an accused.
There is, however, cases of attacks against women taking place in the most private of places, rendering corroboration of the victims’s accounts almost totally scarce. In many of its judgments the Supreme Court has clearly stated that a conviction is sustainable solely on the basis of the victim’s deposition. As long as the latter’s testimony appears genuine and there is no circumstance or fact which contradicts her stand, an accused cannot go unpunished.
This is the armour available to the lower judiciary for ignoring minor inconsistencies in the prosecution story. Against this backdrop, the many acquittals we now routinely see appear intriguing. In my view, a lax judicial order delivered without an application of mind and in utter disregard of a serious malaise in society only encourages recidivism among male predators.
The writer is a former CBI Director.