In 2017, the number of rape cases registered by the Mumbai Police rose from 388 in 2013 to 751. This increase is a testimony to greater public awareness about the need to report crime and more more women coming forward to do. It also reflects greater trust in the system.
Besides, the increase shows that the police are more willing to register crimes, a bitter-sweet outcome to digest, considering that the police should honestly register any crime that is brought to their attention.
In 2016, Maharashtra registered just over 31,000 crimes against women, of which 5,128 were in Mumbai. That is more than 100% higher than the figures from Maharashtra in 2006 and a rise of almost 400% in Mumbai. But the national crime statistics only take account of the crimes that are actually registered by the police. Because of the challenges associated with reporting an offence, women avoid doing so more often than they actually bring themselves to approach a police station.
Data from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s Crime Victimisation and Safety Perception Survey (2015) suggests that only two of five people who experienced a crime report it to the police. Of those, only one case is finally registered. However, the sample size of the survey was too small to make firm conclusions.
However, the conclusion that the route from reporting to registration is still a long journey was corroborated by an investigation ordered by Bipin Bihari, when he was Maharashtra’s Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order). Bihari found that nearly 50% of the undercover police personnel he sent visiting police stations as dummy complainants were turned away.
Numerous studies and reports also capture the experience of women who have the courage to report gender-related crimes. Despite changes in laws that require mandatory registration in such cases, a study by Human Rights Watch in 2017 found that complaints of sexual violence are all too frequently met with strong dissuasion, disbelief, aspersions about their moral character and outright threats when they insist on crimes against them being registered. If that doesn’t act as enough deterrence, the police often delay the process by taking their own time in filing the FIR, or later, stalling the investigation.
The sad truth is that discouraging women from registering crimes is part of the bigger problem of “burking”. Burking, in its dictionary sense, means murder by suffocation. In police parlance, it has come to mean suppression of public knowledge of how much crime really exists in the community by making sure it doesn’t get registered. This neatly reduces crime statistics in their neighbourhood, and of course their caseload.
The Supreme Court in Lalita Kumari v. Govt. of Uttar Pradesh in 2013 estimated that the figures for burking were roughly the same as the figures of FIRs that are registered by the police. This common situation means that the victims have to live surrounded by perpetrators who have never been brought to book, suffer the pain of wounds that will not heal and harbour an abiding sense of being cheated of justice by the state.
Awareness of the particular obstacles women face when trying to register a crime was a significant factor in the change in law in 2013. Where possible, complaints by victims of gender-related crimes must be taken by a woman police officer. These include complaints about stalking, insulting the modesty of a woman, acid attacks, trafficking, and rape. Moreover, it is now a criminal offence for a police officer to refuse to record these crimes. An officer who fails to properly record these crimes can go to jail for two years.
As always, good amendments in law are plagued by poor implementation. Even as women continue to struggle to get their complaints registered, RTI responses show a general reluctance to share data. Often, information is delayed by resorting to endless transfers of applications. In Maharashtra, for instance, the headquarters responded asking the applicant to file fresh RTIs to the 46 police unit offices separately. Generally, prosecutions seem few and far between.
In 2016, women made up just 7.28% of the police in the country – and most of them are concentrated in the constabulary. Maharashtra has only 26,208 policewomen across its 1,162 police stations. The paucity of women police officers means that not every woman who walks in to report a crime will have her complaint registered by a female police officer as the statute prescribes or will have to wait for hours or days on end for a female officer to register her case.
But in some places, officials are making an effort to bring change. Maharashtra has the maximum number of women police personnel in the country. The Mumbai Police say that it has women police in every one of its 94 police station or at least are trying to get there. It even boasts of having eight police station headed by women – a first in the country.
The Mumbai Commissionerate has also taken several initiatives to enhance women’s security. These include a helpline for reporting crimes against women, Police-Didi programmes being initiated in schools and colleges to raise awareness, all-women beat marshal squads, quick redressal cells and Mahila Police Kakshas or women’s help desks being set up in each police station.
Despite this diligence, though, they still have a long way to go before they earn the trust of the women they work to protect.
Maja Daruwala is Senior Advisor at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Anju Anna John is a Project Officer at the organisation.