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Police and courts take time to process all crimes against women, not just rape cases.
Police and courts take time to process all crimes against women, not just rape cases.

Justice system lets women down

Despite efforts to expedite cases of sexual violence against women, a huge backlog remains which could be eroding trust in the police and the law

Seven years after the crime, the infamous Delhi gangrape case labours on in the Supreme Court with the filing of a new review petition. In the Unnao case, the rape victim was killed before the final verdict. In India, justice, even in high-profile cases of rape, can take time. These delays hurt victims but also affect society by eroding trust in institutions and increasing the clamour for extrajudicial justice.

According to the latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), cases of rape in India fell in 2017 to 52 incidents per million women (from 63 in 2016). But this figure is likely to be an underestimate: an earlier Plain Facts analysis had estimated that 99% of cases of sexual violence in India go unreported.

And even when rapes are reported, their resolution is delayed. Like with any crime, rape-related crimes are first dealt with by the police and then by the courts. Both processes can be slow. According to NCRB data, 29% of all cases of rape at the end of 2017 were unresolved by police forces across the country. The court backlog is even worse: nearly 88% of all rape cases in Indian courts were pending resolution in 2017. These figures are an improvement from 2016 but significantly worse than the 2001 figures.

This pendency persists even after concerted efforts to expedite rape cases. For instance, the Delhi gangrape in 2012 triggered several initiatives to prioritize resolving rape cases. They may have had an immediate effect with pendency rate for rape cases falling between 2012 and 2013. But the pendency rate on rape cases still remains no better than the pendency for other crimes. Even the fast track courts that were established to expedite cases have a pendency problem. Though the government proposed establishing 1,800 fast-track courts, only 700 are currently operational with the total number of pending cases in these courts standing at around 700,000.

Police and courts take time to process all crimes against women, not just rape cases. And since law enforcement is a state subject, the time taken to process these crimes, which include acid attacks and dowry deaths, can vary significantly across India. For instance, police forces in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat seem to be the most efficient at disposing of both crimes against women and general crimes. In contrast, police in Jharkhand, Delhi and Punjab are among the worst at processing crimes against women when compared to other crimes. These differences, though, could reflect levels of reporting in states. Gujarat, for instance, has a minor pendency issue but also the lowest levels of gender crimes reported among Indian states.

In courts, pendency is a big issue in every state but courts in the east of India (such as West Bengal, Assam and Odisha) suffer from bigger backlogs for both crimes against women and other crimes. These courts are also among the most under-staffed in the country.

Regardless of the crime, understaffing is a major driver of pendency in both courts and police forces. But for crimes against women, there could be other factors. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2013 expanded the definition of sexual violence crimes against women which could have increased the caseload for both police and courts. There may also be differences in how gender crimes are treated. In a 2019 survey of police personnel across India, the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) show that around 20% of all police believe that gender-based violence complaints are false and motivated. Little wonder then that women trust the police less than men. In a 2018 survey on police perceptions, CSDS find that 66% of women said they trusted the police compared to 71% of men.

Delays in the system could also be encouraging support for extrajudicial justice. A significant proportion of India’s police force believes that extrajudicial killings and violence towards criminals is justified. The 2019 CSDS survey found that 19% of police personnel believe that killing dangerous criminals is better than a legal trial and 75% feel that violence towards criminals is justified.

As reactions to the Hyderabad encounter demonstrated, this is a view shared by even those outside the police. The 2018 CSDS survey suggested that 50% of all Indians believe there is nothing wrong with violence towards criminals. As India’s police and courts strain under a backlog, and India’s women continue to suffer from savage crimes, the clamour for swifter, extrajudicial justice could get stronger.

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