We are happy to blame the politicians and the government for the various shortcomings of India’s criminal justice system but are reluctant to understand certain underlying reasons for these and focus on possible solutions. Two of these problems are corruption and general unfriendly behaviour in the police department.

Most citizens know how difficult it is to get the police to register a First Information Report. One impact of this is that citizens do not report most crimes. Section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Code mandates an FIR to be recorded by the police when the first information of a crime is given to them. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in Lalita Kumari versus Government of Uttar Pradesh held that registration of First Information Report is mandatory under Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure if the information discloses commission of a cognisable offence, and no preliminary inquiry is permissible in such a situation.

The FIR is an instrument that gives the police the authority to investigate an incident and its veracity has to be confirmed by the investigation. When an FIR is not registered, the rule of law suffers grievously.

Citizens usually blame the individual police official whom they meet at the police station for not registering the crime. They blame it on the cussedness or corruption of the individual officer. Little do they realise that the individual officer is himself the victim of a “system”.

What data says

The “system” has for decades said that if crime numbers go up, the police is to be blamed. Even the media and citizens blame the police for the increase in crime. The truth is that crimes are a result of various social, political and economic factors and, to some extent, also a reflection of the criminal justice system that certainly includes the judiciary as well.

It has been a huge blunder to judge police performance by just the crime figures. We have been using the wrong measure to gauge the performance of the police for decades, thereby creating a system breeding dishonesty and corruption. We must measure the confidence and the perception of the safety felt by citizens to judge the performance of the police. Another reason for this is that officers are held responsible for the number of cases where investigation is pending. It has therefore become a practice to not register FIRs.

Information I obtained from the Mumbai Police using RTI shows that in 1970, the number of cognisable crimes registered in Mumbai city was 35,802, while in 2016 the number was only 39,350. In that period, Mumbai’s population had more than doubled.

Another giveaway is the fact that in 1907 Calcutta (Kolkata) registered 44,886 crimes. Compared to this, Mumbai registered fewer crimes a century later. The numbers do not reflect the actual crime situation but are the consequence of an unwritten policy across our country to ensure that the crimes registered must not go up significantly so that the performance of police and the government does not look bad.

It is worth comparing the data on cognisable crimes in India with some other countries. As per Nation Master, the crime rate per 1,000 population in 2002 was 138.35 in Sweden, 109.96 in the United Kingdom, 80.25 in Canada,78.89 in Germany and 41.29 in the United States in 2002.

In India, our recorded crime rate was a mere 1.64 per 1,000. By this measurement, Kerala is the State with the most crimes, at 7.28, and Uttar Pradesh has the least crime at 1.28. Looking at this data it would seem that we have Ram Rajya in India since we demolish Ravana at Dusshera every year. The truth is that the entire system is focused on not allowing the crime figures to increase.

Representational image. Photo credit: Mukesh Gupta/ Reuters

Flawed statistics

Once a system accepts underreporting of crime (known as burking in police parlance), it sets the ground for dishonesty and corruption. By common practice, it is accepted that police will pick and choose which crimes they will report. The extent of crimes that are not recorded is probably in the range of about 80% to 95%. This is largely responsible for widespread burking. For many decades, police officials are effectively told to ensure a limit on the crimes registered. They are held responsible and punished if the recorded crime goes up.

Our figures of crime are a national big lie that all of us believe. We must accept that it has occurred over many decades and is not the fault of any individual. Our crime statistics are fiction and not representative of reality.

Former Cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian has written, “The target is not the reduction in crimes committed, but in reducing the number of crimes registered.” The public must demand that the police follow the law and register every crime that is reported. Asking the police to keep the crime figures low forces it to act arbitrarily and in a dishonest, corrupt manner.

Since the police are told not to record crimes, they also try and extract bribes from vulnerable parties. I must also acknowledge that the present police force is likely to be too small to carry out investigations if all crimes are reported.

Many police officers I have spoken to accept the reality of burking but are unwilling to be quoted. There is a simple solution. When police refuse to file an FIR, some citizens approach a magistrate under Section 156 (3) who may direct the police to register an FIR.

In all such cases, the court should issue a directive to act against the police official responsible. Otherwise, the Lalitha Kumari judgment of the Supreme Court will remain on paper.

Another simple method would be to think of an agency to register reporting of crimes independently. Such an agency could forward all complaints to the police. Unless we do this, we will not be able to resolve the institutionalised corruption in our police force.

Judging the police

We cannot get good performance from the police after institutionalising dishonesty. However, this will not happen, unless we stop measuring police performance by the number of crimes. This can change easily and would give rich dividends of taking us towards a better nation with the rule of law.

Police officials, media and citizens across the nation also need to acknowledge the truth and together all of us must find the right solutions to end burking. Otherwise, the rule of law cannot prevail. It would be politically disastrous for anyone to record a five-fold or ten-fold increase in crimes.

The nation needs to find a better method to judge police performance. Perhaps a true measure is that people should feel safe and be willing to approach the police when a crime is committed. Such crime victimisation surveys are conducted in many countries to judge and benchmark police performance. Maharashtra Police had sent a proposal to the home department named “Vishwas Setu” in 2013 to start such surveys. It appears it was not given much importance.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.