This article originally appeared in The Independent.
How should a country respond when its police force is found wanting? That is the question Indians face after a sting-operation carried out by a leading magazine last week exposed widespread rape-denial among a senior stratum of India’s police force. If the media reaction is an index, all that this revelation could muster was a nationwide raised eyebrow. In the embattled history for social justice in India the police dismissal of rape victims and the failure to respond marks one of the lowest points.
The sting carried out by Tehelka involved secretly filmed interviews with 30 Station Holders (SHOs), the policemen in charge of investigating rape claims, in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). Delhi happens to be India’s “rape capital” and 17 of the 30 SHO’s in this area repeatedly insisted that the majority of rape claims they received were false. The approximations varied. “It’s consensual most of the time” was the insistence of one policeman. When asked to put a figure on the number of genuine rape complaints, another suggested 10%. Manoj Rawat, a sub-inspector in a nearby precinct, was less generous: “My personal view is that there are one or two per cent rape cases in [the] NCR”.
There is a tragic chain of causation that this attitude fails to break: without adequate investigations and in the absence of convictions, rapists go undeterred and more women come forward simply to reinforce police perceptions of false victimhood. The policemen can also be heard perpetuating all the retrograde myths about victim complicity. “No rape happens in Delhi without a woman’s provocation”: drinking, “indecent” clothing, flirtatious behaviour and, most absurdly, working with men are all things done by women to “induce” men into violating them.
If not inducement, women are busy profiting from the “rape industry”. According to one policeman, it is the women who come forward as victims that are to blame for turning rape into a profitable enterprise. Those that lodge complaints must be extortionists or short-changed escorts because “real” victims would be too constrained by their modesty to report a rape. By this absurd logic, it’s better to suffer in silence than face the indignity of seeking justice. Caste and class prejudices are also at play. One policeman is adamant that for poorer women, alleging rape is a “source of income”. Another is certain that all victims from Nepal or Darjeeling are “sex-workers”.
The alarming disregard for the seriousness of rape was made clear last month during theNoida scandal, in which policemen responsible for investigating a complaint made public the identity and the address of a gang-rape victim. In a press conference the policemen went further, accusing the victim’s mother, as a divorcee cohabiting with a younger man, of setting a “wayward” example. The Indian penal code stipulates a two-year sentence for the illegal release of the personal details of rape victims and yet no police officer has been dismissed or charged. Apathy characterises the police’s rape prevention methods: following the Noida scandal, women in the NCR were told to stay indoors after 8pm and a curfew was duly imposed.
And yet, the most disheartening aspect of the exposé is the knowledge that these comments are the products of a much wider and much bleaker cultural attitude. In India, the suggestion that there is such a thing as marital rape is laughed at, and the high incidence of the rape of minors and the failure to report custodial rape all point to an institutional rape-denial complex. The immediate question is to ask, if this is the attitude of policemen in Delhi, a relatively progressive enclave, what is the experience of rape victims in India’s hinterland?
The stigmatisation of rape victims has a grave chilling effect on the number of reported incidents. Some figures suggest that 1 in every 50 rape case in India is reported. Of those, Delhi and the NCR have a conviction rate of just 30%. This problem is one compounded by the gaping disjuncture between law and order. Indian lawyers and activists complain that the problem is one of enforcement and the fact that rape-denial is a front-line issue is perhaps its most pernicious aspect: without the ability to adequately report rapes, women are denied recourse at the first instance.
The issue of rape-denial among India’s police force is also symptomatic of a structural problem: India’s police have long been a sort of vigilante force. Corruption is rife, custodial violence is common and policemen are rarely held to account. In this context, the dismissal of rape-victims becomes but one aspect of the police force’s indiscriminate hostility towards victims. The muted national response to the Tehelka investigation is therefore easily explained. Few, if any, retain faith in India’s police and with their reputation as a rogue force, pervasive rape denial becomes a relatively minor transgression.
Kiran Bedi, India’s Judge Judy and a celebrity policewoman, has come out insisting that a lack of training is the problem. She proposes “brainwashing” the police into taking rape seriously. Other senior figures have offered less risible solutions: have female police officers lead rape investigations or introduce quotas to encourage women to join the force. There are also those that argue that the police must not only be just, but be seen to be just and so dismissals are what are required to rebuild trust.
But each of these proposals falls far short. Just how much training is needed to purge these men of their age-old personal and professional prejudice? Critics are right to complain that training offers nothing by way of a guarantee that these policemen will have changed. Equally, India has an almost catastrophically low police to population ratio. Expunging a senior layer of police officials would only perpetuate the legal void in which rapists already act. And to argue that diversification is needed is to kick the issue into the long grass. Not only does rape-denial need to be addressed immediately, but, there is no reason to hope that the presence of policewomen will change anything: the one female police officer interviewed during the investigation parroted the same misogynistic views.
So how should a country respond when its police force is found wanting? Indians may have failed to react to the news of rape denial, but the pressing need for a viable solution is their cue to finally do something about it.