When an atrocity of the kind perpetrated recently on a hapless woman in Delhi takes place, it is not surprising that a whole nation speaks. It has spoken with such vehemence that a normally slow-to-react polity could not but respond. The Justice Verma Committee appointed by the Centre should offer the much-needed palliative and help to assuage public wrath, if only slightly. Justice Verma is known for his candour and a positive approach to the ills of society. If he has some harsh things to say about how we have been tardy in protecting women, we will have to listen to him with an open mind. Once he gives his recommendations it is for North Block to act swiftly. A former Delhi or Mumbai police commissioner of repute as part of the committee would have given greater strength to it.
Now, what we need is a common sense approach to a problem that brooks no delay even after the incident goes out of our radar. We must ensure that both the police at the lower level and the lower judiciary act in tandem, instead of the two complaining against each other. (The investigating officers say trial courts are unimaginative in asking for evidence against the accused that simply is not available. On their part, magistrates accuse the police of shabby and dishonest investigation.)
We should not presently aim at macro changes. We would better be content with strengthening the weakest link in the chain. Police stations are in a woeful condition all over the country. They deserve more manpower for patrolling. As it is, in many stations there is a huge gap between what has been sanctioned on paper and what in reality is at the disposal of the station house officer. The same is the case with transport — police stations face a shortage of vehicles. This erodes police mobility and thereby its capacity to prevent crime or react to it faster than now.
Police response to crimes against women takes two forms. One is proactive and aims at enhancing the community’s confidence that a potential offender will be stopped before committing his crime. Many research studies the world over have proved that police visibility acts somewhat as a deterrent to anti-social elements. Viewed in this perspective, rapes are to an extent preventable. However, a majority of rapes however happen in private residences when the aggressor and the victim are by themselves. Also, in a substantial number of cases, the two are known to each other. This factor alone would indicate that the preventive role of the police here is limited. Nevertheless the Delhi-type of incidents reflect a growing disrespect for law and a level of confidence that the police are too indifferent or casual to come to the rescue of a victim. It is this lack of faith in the police that has to change through imaginative training and strict disciplining of erring police officials. Anything short of this will not bring about the transformation of police outlook to crime against women. It is too early to speculate whether this will fall within the ambit of the Verma Committee. Its inquiry will not however meet public expectations unless it announces some measures for a qualitivate improvement of policing in respect of women.
As for the lower judiciary, it is well known that the current fearlessness for the law flows chiefly from the enormous delays in trying offenders. This is a hackneyed subject. Setting up more fast track courts will no doubt help. Equally important is the need to have them headed by handpicked judges known for their speed and integrity. Higher incentives for judicial officers who cut down delays is something that deserves attention. This is not easy to achieve in quick time. But even an incremental acceleration of the process will be greatly welcome.
In the ultimate analysis, women can help themselves measurably by taking fundamental care in their daily routine. This is a delicate subject that has led to avoidable acrimony between women and men. A few women activists have distorted well-meaning statements on the subject without a trace of condescension made by police officers and others to allege that the officialdom are unhelpful and sanctimonious without feelings for the weaker sex. This is unfortunate. While I concede men should be extra-cautious in their public posture, equally necessary is certain awareness on the part of women leaders of opinion of the complexity of the problem and the utter need for sobriety and trust. Or else the prowler looking for a female prey will feel encouraged to strike repeatedly with impunity.
The writer is a former CBI Director