One of the aggravations of journalism in India is how often an expression, usually favoured for its pithiness or instant evocation, leads our understanding. Ideally, of course, it should be the other way around. We should understand the concept or phenomenon we are seeking to address—remembering that even incidents that seem on the surface to be of the same nature are usually substantively different—and then find a suitable manner to express our understanding of it.

A phrase or expression is coined that seems to suit, and reports that use this coinage must represent a reality that is wedded to it. It is because of this form of journalistic shorthand that stories are understood in certain ways by the public. Crucially, it also influences how stories are understood by other members of the media, which in turn affects how further reporting on the same story takes place.

Take the expression Delhi as “India’s rape capital". It denotes the existence of a number of worrying, and undeniable, facts about sexual violence in the state of Delhi, most of which have been gone over ad nauseum. But there are other, subtler, inferences that we make when we encounter this term that are often less accurate, sometimes untrue, and which in fact detract from our understanding of the nature of the problem at hand. Even in the wake of Sunday’s horrific gang rape on the bus, positioning Delhi as “India’s rape capital" is irresponsible for the following reasons.

It creates a sense of what could be termed Delhi’s rape-exceptionalism, that Delhi’s problem with rape is exceptional somehow, that Delhi is the locus of a problem only of marginal interest in other areas. In fact, understanding the hows and whys of sexual violence in smaller towns and rural India is crucial, as Delhi has the highest per capita rapes only of our major metropolitan cities (2.8 per 100,000 citizens). The highest incidence in India is in a place called Durg-Bhilainagar, Chhattisgarh (more than double, 5.7 per 100,000), while Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, is next (statistics via The Wall Street Journal’s “Economics Journal"). It performs the curious feat of providing, in the popular imagination, near-absolution to the rest of the nation, while exaggerating in the same minds the extent of the problem in Delhi.

It also allows for the under-reporting of all those cases that do not match this, supposedly larger, understanding. It is—perhaps inevitably—in the nature of media to search for “trends": one rape survivor, one death from dengue, one farmer suicide, one land eviction does not make a story (or at least, a page 1 story). If the go-to narrative is that Delhi is the country’s hotbed of sexual violence, we will find there is endemic under-reporting in the media of all those cases that do not fit that narrative: rape in urban centres other than Delhi, rape in rural India, rape by rich people, rape committed within marriage, men raping men, rape intended as caste or communal violence, cases of sexual violence that might not involve rape, and so on. Consider how many cases of rape there are in Delhi every year (close to 549, by one count) and then think of the rape cases that make it to the front page of your newspaper. The page 1 stories tend to fit a “mould" established in editorial minds. The ones that don’t fit might be reported, but usually not as prominently.

Now that the narrative has been established, reasons must be found for it. If Delhi is exceptional, what makes it so? Too often unproven, malformed or otherwise unsubstantiated theories are put forward to explain the phenomenon. It is worth noting that the theories that become embedded in the English media narrative in India are those that conform to suspicions held by the English media’s captive audience, the middle and upper-middle class. Having spent most of my life in Delhi, I am well-aware of the narrative that has spawned, seemingly spontaneously but more likely an unconscious media creation, both in this city and among other metropolitan elite, about the cause for Delhi’s high incidence of rape: The ingress of the violent, uncouth, pre-modern rural (as represented by the middle castes of neighbouring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the Jats, Yadavs and Gujjars), into sanctified, civilized, urban Delhi. Middle class fears about rural-to-urban migration meld with the idea that there is an unbridgeable gap between their own modernized value systems and the value systems of the strangers who surround them from every side.

If you are unconvinced about how closely the English media narrative reflects middle and upper-middle class fears, there are numerous other instances. One revelatory example was when data began to be published in newspapers about the horrific number of road deaths in Delhi. There are deficiencies in a number of areas that contribute to road deaths—city planning, licensing bureaus, policing, to name an important few—yet the first media narrative about this issue ascertained that the problem was a certain kind of private bus*, a form of transport predominantly used and operated by the poor, and then, some years later, BMWs driven around by the young, drunk super-rich. When these narratives were each at the height of their popularity, the media made it seem, first, as if no one died on Delhi’s roads unless they’d been hit by a Blueline; years later, the trick was repeated, and it seemed only BMWs were mowing people down—even similar cases that featured cars of other manufacture were ignored.

(*The “Redline", and later, the “Blueline". This led to a frankly ludicrous situation where operators continued to use the same buses, but, as the narrative modified, periodically changed the coat of these vehicles, from red to blue to green.)

The final problem is that once the crime has been successfully Othered—that is, associated with a nebulous group emanating from outside the self-identified community—we no longer have to ascertain the real causes for this criminality. Rape is the work of the unknown outsider, so self-correction is the last of our concerns. But self-correction is what is most urgently needed. First we have to be able to ask the right questions of those in power. How many policemen would be needed to bring Delhi’s rates in line with other major metropolitans? How much does Delhi’s relative urban sprawl contribute to higher rates of rape? What can be done to make the interstices between housing areas more safe? What can be done to change the attitudes of the police towards sexual violence against women (as a vital investigation by Tehelka showed, this should be one of our real worries)?

Finally, we must tell ourselves that rape is the horrific end of a spectrum of sex-based subjugation that patriarchal societies like ours are premised upon. In our eyes there is perhaps not a world of difference between the rapist and the policeman who tells us the girl asked for it, but that policeman sees things a different way. In the same way, for people of many societies the notion that a wife has to press her husband’s feet after he returns from work, or that a daughter will receive less education than a son, is abhorrent, yet both practices are common throughout rich, urban India. And let us not tell ourselves that this is where it ends. I’m friends with too many women who’ve spoken of being smacked around by their boyfriends, and accepting it silently, to kid myself about the nature of this problem.

Narratives such as these, even in their inaccuracy, engender a certain kind of perpetuation. If Delhi is the rape capital now, perhaps it was ever thus. Perhaps those shadowy outsiders will always come across the border and rape women. Why seek to address the real causes when this simpler story can be written? When we create a narrative we arrive with a clear sense of what we want to read into the story—and forget to look for what the story has to read to us.

Prayaag Akbar is associate editor of The Sunday Guardian.