Translate Rape Outrage Into Fundamental Police and Legal Reforms
It is December 2012 and Delhi’s residents have been outraged at the brutal rape of a young girl in Delhi. Encouraged and supported by the media, the outrage has spread to other parts of the country. People are demanding reforms with an emotional immediacy that is sincere and compelling. My thoughts drift back to another December, six years ago, to another outrage the abduction, rape and killings of a number of girls, including six children, when the Nithari murders came to public notice. In December 2006, the horror enfolded slowly, but the sense of horror and outrage was no less. One can recall numerous other incidents of rape, shooting and murder, but there are many others across the country that go unnoticed or are occasionally seen in small print. These are all symptoms of a police-judicial system that is breaking down and in urgent need of reform. It is legitimate for the public to demand immediate measures such a reallocation of existing personnel from VIP security to public security, increase in police vans and other resources devoted to women’s safety, fast track courts, more sensitive handling of women’s complaints of harassment and rehabilitation of rape victims. However it is equally, if not more, important to use this public attention and outrage to demand fundamental changes in the police and legal system, before it reaches breaking point.
A number of eminent experts and professionals have given very useful suggestions to address the vital issue of safety and security of women: One has diligently followed these on TV and read these in the newspapers. We have to sift through all these suggestions and extract those that have the possibility of sustaining over the long term any measures adopted under public pressure by making more fundamental changes A 1999 Monograph titled, “From Poverty To Middle Income: Reforms For accelerating Growth in the 21st Century,” stressed the need for Institutional reform of Administration (e.g. Freedom of Information Act), Outdated Laws and the Legal system (e.g. Criminal Procedure code), in addition to economic policy reforms relating to Labor, Land, Natural resources, Education and Infrastructure. According to the World Bank’s definition of country income classification, India was a ‘Low Income Country’(LIC) in 1999 and had become a ‘Lower Middle Income country’ (LMIC) by 2011. Having transited over the past decade to “Middle income”, the urgency of Police, Legal and Judicial reforms has therefore heightened, with necessity of aligning these with the needs of a Middle income country.
What do we as a country need to do? There are six broad elements of fundamental reform:
(1) Public Education through media and Civic education in schools to change mindsets relating to social ills. Besides treatment of girls and women, this would also include other issues like public health, cleanliness and, behavior in public spaces and basic civic responsibilities of all citizens/residents.
(2) Police System: Separating investigation, forensic analysis and prosecution of all crimes, from the normal police, which reports to the home minister/chief minister of each state, into a separate organization under an independent police Commission that will have full administrative autonomy and be accountable to a constitutionally appointed overview authority that includes civil society representatives along with government and opposition representation. This is a version of the reforms recommended by the Law Commission and others and approved by the Supreme Court in 2006 in a case filed by Prakash Singh et al.. The directions of the SC have been blithely ignored by all State Governments (who are responsible for Police under the constitution).
(3) Legal System: Reform of the Code of Civil Procedure Code, to eliminate opportunities for willful delay by lawyers such as through filing of interrogatories, appointment of commissioners for local inspection, temporary injunction and attachment of immovable property and adjournments under Order 17, rules 1 and 2 of the code. Procedural bottlenecks like serving summons and verbal arguments also need to be streamlined. Fast track courts for rape cases would be helpful till such time as the more fundamental reform is operationalized.
(4) Laws: Reform of the laws relating to physical violation of females and children of both genders so as to define different forms/categories (e.g. statutory rape of children under age of consent, possible chemical castration of multiple/serial offenders) so that they can be carefully linked to minimum-maximum punishment in each category. In making more stringent laws and procedures, a civilized society must not forgot to provide reasonable protection against to those who may be falsely accused, sometimes in collaboration with police, to extract ransom or bribes.
(5) Social education of police who deal with crime against women and reform for procedures for dealing with rape cases, given the trauma that the victims have gone trhough, including the rehabilitation of victims. Especially in metros like Delhi, the proportion of policewomen in the police force could be increased at a faster pace. A special Female Police Commissioner can also be considered for overseeing crimes against women and children.
(6) Administrative: Given the already low ratio of police and judges to population, the fact that a substantial proportion (10-15%) of vacancies in the police force and of judges at different levels have remained vacant for decades, shows a serious failure of administration. A major program of computerization, use of information technology and modern management tools to register, gather evidence on, file and prosecute cases and to manage, monitor and dispose of cases in the courts, can be launched immediately as part of the 12th plan.
The outpouring of anguish will lead to some visible changes relating to protection of women. Given the deteriorated state of the police-legal system and the recent history of such short term changes they are very unlikely to be sustained, unless more fundamental changes to improve the system as a whole. I would urge the young people on the streets and the news media to focus on these fundamental changes.