Three challenges stand in the way of justice for ordinary Indians: low trust in the police force, the slow pace of the judiciary, and the growing criminalization of politics
New Delhi: Faced with growing countrywide outrage over the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on the issue on Friday, promising justice for the “country’s daughters".
However, securing justice for women in the country is easier said than done. A Mint analysis of data on crime and punishment in India suggests that there are three big challenges when it comes to securing justice for women in the country: low trust in the police force, the slow pace of the judiciary, and the growing criminalization of politics, which undermines any serious attempt to reform India’s broken criminal justice system. These challenges pose a challenge for everybody in their quest for justice but they often prove insurmountable for those at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy.
Consider the data on state-wise crimes against women registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The data shows that the rate of crimes against women moves in tandem with the overall crime rates across major states of the country.
This suggests that there could be a strong reporting effect, which leads to under-reporting of crimes against women in states where overall recording of crimes is poor. In Bihar, for instance, both the overall crime rate and the rate of crimes against women are considerably lower than in most other parts of the country. In stark contrast, in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, both these rates are quite high.It is worth noting that till the mid-90s, most districts in Bihar did not report any crimes against women at all.
National level trends also suggest that there might be a reporting effect at play. In the year following the so-called “Nirbhaya rape" in December 2012, crimes against women saw an unprecedented 25% jump, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows. Reporting of crime has historically been low because of perverse policing incentives, and they tend to be even lower for gender crimes.
As a 2009 research paper by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economist Abhijit Banerjee and co-authors showed, policemen in India tend to be far more reluctant to register crimes such as sexual harassment and domestic violence as compared to other crimes such as break-ins.
The second big challenge is the low conviction rates in gender crimes, which coupled with high pendency rates, inhibits victims from registering a criminal complaint.
State-wise data again suggests that there is strong correlation between the overall conviction rates in a state with the conviction rate in gender crimes, although conviction rates for gender crimes tend to be lower than overall conviction rates across states.
Pendency rates (the number of cases for which trial has not been completed expressed as a share of total cases on trial during the year) are high across most states of the country, and for almost all categories of crimes. While this is not a new problem, the pendency rate in India has reached its highest level since the turn of the 21st century in 2016, the latest year for which such data is available.
There is a common reason for the high pendency and poor conviction rates: India’s overburdened police and judicial system. Compared to other large emerging markets, India has far fewer policemen and judges, once we adjust for the size of India’s population.
What prevents greater investments in the criminal justice system, and in professionalizing the police forces?
The answer lies, at least partly, in the lack of political will. Given the growing criminalization of Indian politics, most political parties are not interested in such reforms. The proportion of politicians with criminal charges against them has been rising steadily over the past decade, shows the political scientist Milan Vaishnav in his 2017 book, When Crime Pays.
Vaishnav argues that growing electoral competition in the world’s largest democracy has forced parties to increasingly depend on self-financing criminal candidates who bring both (black) money and muscle power to the table. The success rate of such candidates also tends to be higher than those without criminal charges. Vaishnav argues that their criminal background is often an electoral asset rather than a liability.
Faced with crumbling state institutions and a slow justice system, voters rely on such politicians to settle disputes, and to get access to state benefits. Thus, such politicians are both the cause and consequence of India’s weak criminal justice system.
If Modi is serious about securing justice for the sons and daughters of the country, the first thing he needs to do is to banish such politicians from his own party. That would set the right example for other smaller parties to follow.
Dipti Jain from Bengaluru contributed to this story.