To Stop Rape, Fix the Police Force First

AP Photo/Manish Swarup

in New Delhi, India, policemen stand guard at the judicial complex where a new fast-track court was inaugurated Wednesday to deal specifically with crimes against women.

In the past few weeks, the brutal murder of a young woman in New Delhi has consumed international media and fomented a social rebellion in India. The victim, a 23-year-old medical student, was gang raped in a public bus, then mutilated with iron rods and thrown out onto the street; she died on December 29. 

As a woman born and raised in India, I can attest to the ubiquity of sexual violence. I myself avoided being gang-raped by a group of drunk men through sheer providence. I was 20, a junior in college here in the United States, and doing a field project on rural cooperatives in India. My guide—a local girl my age—and I had decided to stay overnight at a one-room guesthouse in a village hosting a traditional, all-night festival. Sometime in the middle of the night, we awakened to what sounded like a mob trying to break down our door. Through the window, we saw half a dozen drunk men talking excitedly about how they had seen two girls come up to this guesthouse. They surrounded the shack, broke the windows, and tried to kick down the front door. We were saved only because the men were too drunk to sustain their efforts all night, too drunk to notice the broken back door; we found some of the men slumped by the entrance the next morning. 

The first thing my female companion said after we fled was that if she had been raped but survived, she would have committed suicide to avoid social shame. This reveals the most shameful aspect of India’s rape culture, which is that it is the victims rather than the perpetrators who are blamed, silenced, and ostracized. Hence the advice I consistently received: “Stay quiet, stay in the house, stay safe.” 

Each of us in India is culpable for this social pathology. Right-wing politicians condemn urban Indian women for provoking rape, the defense lawyer in the Delhi case states that he doesn’t know of a single case where a respectable woman is raped, bystanders gather and watch as an entire mob tries to gangrape a girl in the middle of a city street, and India’s political parties have supported 27 State Election candidates facing rape charges in the last five years. But the current national outrage offers hope that society might be outgrowing its blasé attitude toward sexual violence. 

While no single policy reform will be a panacea, reform must begin with the first line of action: the police. A police officer’s act of responding to a crime or its threat initiates the entire process of crime deterrence, legal punishment, and even social censure. But many women in India feel as physically threatened by male police officers as they do by any other male on the street; I am still fearful of walking into an Indian police station alone. The Indian police are also notorious for humiliating and emotionally violating female rape victims during the process of lodging reports. As in the United States, police behavior in India is tied to personal prejudices regarding gender, class, race and ethnicity; a certain demographic not only receives little help from the police but is itself a target of police abuse. The persistent non-responsiveness of Indian police to rape charges and the many cases of police-perpetrated sexual abuses bolster the argument for police reform. A 2012 undercover investigation of Delhi police attitudes toward rape reveals their shocking perspective on sexual violence. “The only (victims) who complain are those who are in the (rape/sex) business,” one law-enforcement official is quoted as saying. “Rapes occur, but 70 percent involve prior consent. If someone sees them or if the guy refuses to pay up, then the consensual sex becomes rape.” How can legal reform effect adequate change when officials entrusted with enforcing legal norms dispute the very legitimacy of rape as a crime?

A systematic effort to clean up the police force has been on India’s public agenda for a while now. In 2006, the Indian Supreme Court responded to demands for a nationally coordinated reform measure by issuing a seven-point directive to strengthen the accountability of the Indian Police Service (IPS). Included in this were two important state-level provisions: the establishment of a politically autonomous police-oversight body—the State Security Commission (SSC)—to ensure transparency and prevent political interference, and the Police Complaints Authority, which would investigate complaints of police abuse at the district level. Not surprisingly, state governments ignored these directives. As late as 2011, states were still being served multiple court notices because of their lack of compliance. Even those that were coerced into establishing an SSC did not implement the entire set of directives, preventing the monitoring institution from having any real power. 

But were we to get over the hurdle of state-government resistance, we would still face the high costs of enforcing a top-down accountability mechanism in a vast country with a large number of police stations. While punitive measures are crucial for checking police abuse, daily responsiveness is best tackled by local reforms. Local reforms require that we stop vilifying the police, approach the average police officer in India with empathy, and try to understand his constraints. Despite doing demanding and risky work, India’s lower-ranked police officials—the ones at the law-and-order front-lines—receive inordinately low compensation; political interference and bureaucratic inefficiency leave them with few prospects for promotion. What’s more, the social prestige for a junior police officer is as low as his salary. It is mortifying to recall the numerous instances during my high school days when we teenagers would ridicule constables on their bicycles by chasing them in our cars, or harass them by shouting out offensive names and then speeding away. Significant salary benefits, some measure of social prestige, and a transparent, efficient promotion system could together motivate the current police force to better discharge their duties and could also help the IPS recruit motivated, high-calibre individuals in the future.

Bringing more women into the police force, which the the Delhi government is currently trying to do, is another way to make the police more responsive to women. Female police officials are likely to perceive reports of sexual violence as legitimate and female victims are likely to feel more comfortable when discussing the details of their complaints. But note that these female officers will still be working within a law-enforcement system that shames and dismisses female victims. For this strategy to truly work, they would need the power to lodge rape complaints as well as conduct follow-up investigations. One idea comes from Brazil, which in 1985 initiated all-female police cells to deal exclusively with female physical abuse victims. 

A final note regards public participation in the policing of sexual violence. One of my childhood heroes, Kiran Bedi—the first and highest ranking woman officer in the Indian Police Service, an outspoken social activist, and a feminist icon—has come up with a detailed plan that emphasizes citizen-police partnerships as the best way to tackle sexual violence. Her vision includes such wonderful ideas as citizen watchdog groups that conduct joint patrols with the police and disseminate social audits. But to be honest, I am a little wary of solutions that rely explicitly on extensive public participation.

The truth is that India’s police are drawn from the same Indian society that is largely apathetic toward misogyny and typically distances itself from the complex realities of implementing change. The progressive section of Indian society currently protesting for government reforms is not a section of society that tends to participate in government. But why not? After all, despite all the corruption, India’s governance structure remains a democracy at its core. A remarkably progressive set of political rights gives Indian women access to opportunities for democratic leadership. Shall this be the moment when we finally turn our outrage into an opportunity for governing ourselves? 

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