Understanding crime

Print edition : October 08, 2004

An analysis throws up new facets of crime and new ideas on how to cope with them. The real tragedy, however, is that there is hardly a national debate on the subject, like the ones seen in the United States and the United Kingdom.

THE recent controversy over Census figures in the country was entertaining, without, in the least, being illuminating. That a body of harmless government statistics could divide those seeking to interpret them on crass religious lines was itself revolting. Obfuscation was the name of the game, at the end of which many of us remained confused. It could benefit the community if half of the political energies displayed on such occasions is devoted to studying more pressing national issues such as unemployment and the rising tide of suicides. This is because any serious effort in this direction could trigger at least some purposeful governmental action. Unfortunately, a major segment of the political spectrum in our country refuses to be stirred by either the able-bodied educated youth not being gainfully occupied or by the growing numbers of citizens, thoroughly disillusioned with an unjust social order, putting an end to themselves in the prime of their lives. Suicides of the dimension we are now witnessing in some rural areas are a shame on the whole polity. That remarkably perceptive observer P. Sainath whose passion it is to describe vividly the heart-rending trends in rural India tells us all about this phenomenon. We can ignore him only at our peril.

Talking of suicides, I am reminded of the interesting duel I had with an eminent criminologist Ron Clarke of Rutgers 10 years ago, while he was handling a seminar on crime prevention for graduate students at Newark. As a Visiting Fellow, I was to observe, and not to interject during this interesting session on a serious subject. When Ron Clarke - he has since become a good friend of mine - made persistent references to suicide as a crime, I stopped him asking how he could treat an individual's violence on himself out of his own volition as a crime. If I remember rightly, his stand was that the state had a legal duty to protect human life, and any conduct that diluted such duty was unlawful and, therefore, criminal. While I was not quite convinced at that time, the current epidemic of suicides in our country induces me to reconsider my earlier view and believe that unless handled as crime, the suicide rate is likely to gallop further. I wonder why the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not bring suicides into its annual review, Crime in India, but chooses to issue a separate report. This is something that NCRB Director Ramavtar Yadav may like to reflect on.

The complete crime figures for 2002 and the preliminary estimate for 2003 by the Bureau are just out. I share the universal scepticism about the accuracy of official crime statistics. Barring the United States and the United Kingdom, and possibly a few Scandinavian countries, where opportunity for the police to suppress crime is rather limited, elsewhere, such statistics are an approximate estimation of the incidence of crime. The Indian police, in particular, have a positively bad record for `burking' (a favourite expression in administrative parlance to describe `covering up' or `burying', a choice word that intriguingly does not find a place in the Oxford or many other dictionaries) and massaging statistics so that they look respectable and uneventful.

A 2 per cent and 6 per cent drop respectively in 2002 and 2003 of offences under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) looks artificial and suspect. As always, I attribute this to a reluctance of the victims to report occurrences to the police and the latter's own disinclination to register crime brought to their notice. Objectively speaking, both attitudes are wrong. The hard reality, however, is that neither will change as long as the police at the grassroots level are overworked and are therefore indifferent, and politicians judge the police solely by a rise or decline in the volume of crime. `Free registration' is an expression that one hears in police circles whenever a freak of a police chief, looked upon as being out of his mind, makes it known that any officer found `burking' will face disciplinary action. This is as if registering a crime is not obligatory but is a favour done to the citizen. Interestingly, such odd chiefs were in the past quickly shown the door, mainly to reinforce the message that `free registration' and politics did not go together. This is why we see from Crime in India 2002 that total number of cognisable crimes (that is., cases in which the police can effect arrests without a warrant) came down from 6.1 million in 1998 to 5.5 million in 2002. This fall confirms the tendency of policemen at the grassroots to dismiss complaints summarily as non-cognisable and, therefore, not meriting police action. I cannot explain it otherwise in a country where the population is rising significantly as each Census passes by.

AS regards political attitudes to crime and policing, let me not be mistaken if I give the impression that this is a disease that afflicts the Indian polity alone. I have been travelling to the U.K. fairly often in the past few years, and have had occasion to watch the debates in the House of Commons over British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). I am appalled that in that hallowed country also, from where we have acquired some good and many bad habits, there is a similar dissection of police performance mainly on the basis of statistics. Of course, this is somewhat pardonable in the U.K. because the police there have established a fair standard of integrity and have also at the same time minimum opportunity - due to several factors including high literacy and an aggressive press - to ignore crime. Half the battle to invest some credibility in the Indian Police will have been won if only we can ensure that there is no disincentive for them to bring all crime on record and there is a resolve by all political parties to abstain from criticism of the government on the basis of crime statistics. Let police performance and conduct be criticised savagely for failures to contain a public order situation or to solve a particular horrendous crime that has shocked the community, but never on numbers. Only this will dissuade Chief Ministers from directing their police chiefs to ensure dressing up of crime figures.

`Criminalisation of politics' has become a hackneyed expression. It has been overused in our country to highlight a genuinely dangerous problem, without bringing about the desired impact of keeping criminal elements away from holding public office. My point here is that crime statistics in India are studied in isolation, as if overall crime was a separate phenomenon that remains uninfluenced by either the political structure or the temerity with which people in high places commit crime and go scot-free. In a brilliant article "Local politics and violent crime in U.S. cities" (Criminology, November 2003) Thomas D. Stucky of the Indiana Purdue University says that there is growing evidence of the nexus between politics and crime. He laments that until recently criminological studies had ignored this connection and were trying to explain variations in crime through other factors. Prof. Stucky does not say that politicians foment crime, however much I believe he would say so if he were in India to study the causes of crime. His focus is rather on the local government structure and players involved therein. Citing some studies, he says that wherever there is a responsive local government, violent crime rates tend to dip. A black Mayor and a fair representation to the blacks in a city council have a tendency to bring down crime, at least marginally. Is there, therefore, a case in India for a greater representation to the minorities in local government as well as in the police? Is there also a case for decentralising police functions so that policemen are accountable primarily to local government, and only thereafter, that too nominally, to the State government? Many of my American friends are unable to comprehend a system like India's where a state police chief can cock a snook at those who head the local bodies, such as the Mayor of a corporation or chairman of a municipal council or the president of a panchayat union. (In the U.S., the Mayor of every city, big or small, controls the police by means of his authority to hire and dismiss its chief.) Those in India who are already worked up over the politicisation of policing will definitely consider this suggestion that they should be accountable to local government instead of the State government as a definite road to ruin, because such a move could inject more politics into the handling of law and order and crime.

Undeniably, there is growing political violence in the country. Coalition politics has only exacerbated the situation. The number of politicians in elected bodies with a criminal record is shocking. The tribe seems to be expanding rather than diminishing, despite all the noise made by the media. This `distinguished' group of men have undoubtedly instigated violence against their opponents. When this is the case, it is difficult to swallow the Crime in India 2002 claim of a 6 per cent drop in violent crime rate. (The number of offences per 100,000 of the population constitutes the crime rate.) This is again one instance of how statistics can lie. The NCRB analyses now give a break-up in terms of violence affecting life, property, public safety and women as a group. Distressingly, crimes affecting life constitute a majority (44 per cent) of all violent crime, with those affecting public safety (36 per cent) coming next.

Murders in terms of absolute number came down by 2.5 per cent in 2002 and 5 per cent in 2003. On an average, about 30,000 cases are reported annually. The dubious distinction of contributing most of the cases (nearly 20 per cent) reported in the past two years goes to Uttar Pradesh. Bihar did not lag far behind. Also, approximately half the murders arising from casteist clashes came from Bihar, a fact that squares with the popular impressions of a State that thrives on sectarian politics. As I mentioned earlier while reviewing crime in the country, firearms are now coming to notice in crime more than ever before. In 2002, in almost one-quarter of the murders a firearm was used. More than 8,000 victims were killed by unlicensed firearms. This speaks volumes for the manner in which the Arms Act is being flouted at will. It is also one sign of catching up with the U.S. where firearms have been a national scourge!

OUR next concern should be to investigate how bad the victimisation of women in our country is. Fully conscious of the sensitivities involved, the NCRB has over the years commendably expanded its study. Figures are now collected from the States under 11 heads, including dowry deaths, molestation and sexual harassment. An average 7 per cent of the overall IPC crime registered each year is for offences against women. Victimisation stands at about 130,000 cases each year, and it gives the impression of some stability. I wonder how women's organisations would react to this apparently steadying picture. A male perspective, such as mine, may not exactly satisfy them. They would rather need to examine the NCRB analysis in public forums and come out with concrete suggestions on how to improve reporting by women victims and how the police should be better equipped to handle women coming to them for help.

Rape cases (an annual average of 15 to 16 thousands) should in particular receive their attention. The appalling fact is that in 89 per cent of the rapes in 2002, the accused were known to the victims. Actually 32 per cent of them were neighbours. In the light of this, is there not a case for voluntary organisations in the country to tell women as to how they can protect themselves by denying an opportunity to prowlers in the neighbourhood or their own acquaintances who display criminal designs. An imaginatively conceived programme, especially in the rural setting, could have an impact. Also, the abysmal conviction rates - just 26 per cent during 2002 - in courts should stir them into action. (The national average of convictions for all IPC cases disposed of during the year was, however, as high as 41 per cent.) This calls for a clinical study of judgments in failed cases and a frequent exchange of ideas with prosecutors as well as police investigators, at locations where conviction rates are strikingly low.

A new feature of Crime in India is an analysis of cyber crime. Only about 70 cases were registered in 2002 under the Information Technology Act 2000. Interestingly, many police forces still resort to the IPC for dealing with cyber crime. About 700 cases were registered under various IPC sections for handling a wide range of digital offences. The police in the four metros and in Bangalore and Hyderabad have a great opportunity to sharpen their skills in the area. This is where major software companies have a large presence. These companies themselves are hugely vulnerable to cyber crime. At the same time, they have the resources and the expertise to train the police in the area.

Analysing crime is an absorbing exercise. It throws up new facets of crime and new ideas on how to cope with them. The real tragedy, however, is that there is hardly a national debate on crime, like the ones I have seen in the U.S. and the U.K. I have run out of ideas on how to interest India's decision makers to spare a moment or two for this important feature of modern life. Unless crime hits them hard personally, I do not believe they will ever exhibit any concern.

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