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Today, as I write this, the country is outraged at rapes seemingly happening around the country and causing outrage- in Kathua, Unnao, Surat and now Etah. Nothing has much changed since December 2012 when the rape and murder of a 21-year-old college student on a bus in New Delhi shook the conscience of the entire nation. The incident led to public outcry, including widespread protests across India decrying crimes against women and some changes in the law. If anything, things have got worse. The New Delhi rape was not premediated and arguably an act of passion, but the rapes occurring now are brute acts of domination and show of power, against those found inconvenient and not fitting the nationalist stereotype. Back in 2012, the government, shaken by the intensity of protests both in India and abroad, was forced to amend the criminal law by providing for stringent punishments against the perpetrators of sexual offenses. Sadly, the change in law had little effect on the ground, as sexual offenses against women continue to be on the rise. The actual numbers we will never know as so many crimes are never reported and never become part of the data registry.

The National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) data indicates that “assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty” (previously categorized as “molestation”) constitutes the second-most-reported crime against women. In over 337,992 crimes against women reported in 2014, over 82,000 related to this charge, around the time that the newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi launched the Beti Bacaho, Beti Padhao campaign with much fanfare. The campaign was initially received with much enthusiasm, given that the matter of womens’ empowerment and the larger concern of declining sex ratios in certain North Indian states was perceived to be somewhat neglected. It was hoped that with the Prime Minister himself taking interest, not only would this program show marked differences in the way sex ratios and school enrolment climbed for girls, but it would also have other ripple effects in society, particularly in terms of the safety of girls and women. That hope has been belied today and it seems that girls are being saved from being killed in the womb, only to be abused, raped and killed after being born.

It can hardly be over emphasised that from a citizen safety lens, it is pointless to rescue girls and educate them at one end and then harass and kill them when the begin to manifest one of the hallmarks of education – free and independent thinking. Time has changed, yet attitude towards women have never been changed. Indian society has always had a strong patriarchal streak and this no amount of education seems to have erased. These customs have a deep-rooted place in the core of our minds and hearts of every people of India which has defined our lifestyle, our thoughts, our expressions and our beliefs be it man or a woman. This has given to the males, the feeling of masculinity in every aspect of their acts and thoughts. Indian males have thus perceived themselves as physically, mentally superior than their counterparts. Indian women also have accepted to treat their males as superior. Again, “beti padhao” has not made much of a dent on the way perceive men as this socialization is dominated by entrenched cultural norms.

Overall the justice delivery system for now has failed our women. Although in a knee jerk reaction, people are talking of awarding the death penalty to child rapists and what not, there is little talk of law enforcement – particularly of the existing laws that could have served as an effective deterrent had they been properly enforced. When the law is stringent in a country and vigorously and regularly enforced before committing a crime, at least the offender would think twice before committing one.  But, effective and consistent law enforcement   is necessary to reduce impunity and effective crime control and increase deterrence, although it is easier said than done. India has one policeman for every 720 persons, which is the lowest police-to-public ratio across the world. Of these nearly one third of the police force is deployed for security duties and only around one-third do actual policing. Moreover, there is a huge shortage of policewomen. Going further, our conviction rates are too low.  The NCRB has reported that only around 24 percent of those charged with sexual violence are convicted, while the others are let off, largely because of the inability of prosecutors to prove the case. In India, the burden of proving a criminal act took place is with the victims and because of the attendant social stigma, many crimes do not get registered or reported and are hushed up formally contributing to the sense that crime perpetrators feel that they can rape and molest women with impunity.

In india, the larger political narrative talks of national security. Laws are made, and policies are laid down, all in the name of national security. Peoples’ careers and lives can be tainted if the whiff or treason, sedition and anything said, written or perceived to be done is ever felt to be anti-national. But there is little or no focus on citizen security. While it is seemed sacred to protect at any cost, the national identity and indeed make it a larger than life entity, the security of the ordinary citizen is compromised. When governments do try to improve the performance of their criminal justice system, they confront the legacies these authoritarian traits. All this is further compounded by the fact that the current policing system was created by the British colonial regime, not to protect the ordinary citizen but to safeguard the interests of the then colonial government. Successive governments in independent india have not done much to change the policing model except appoint commissions who have given fine reports, which have come to naught. So, while we express our outrage at the current spate of rapes, on the ground nothing much is going to change till our policing and criminal justice system moves from a national security paradigm to a citizen security paradigm. And even then, it will take at least a few decades for the emphasis on citizen security to take root. Till then we will fight many fires and not all, that too, one fire at a time.

Shantanu Dutta is a former Air Force officer and a development worker for the last 25 years.

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