Reading crime trends

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

Popular vs official perceptions of the crime scene in India.

THE world over, both the print and visual media are obsessive about crime. They believe invariably except for a while in New York when Bill Bratton, heading the NYPD, the New York Police Department, produced instant results through his fabled `zero tolerance policing' that the police have no control over crime, and survive only on the strength of clever window-dressing. Many police scholars share this dim view of policing. But if you ask active police officers still in the force, you get an entirely different picture. They will assuredly reel off statistics to prove that in their regime, crime had actually fallen. So, who is speaking the truth? There is no way you can disprove either point of view.

It is because of this queer situation that I am wary about analysing crime trends and pontificating on what is wrong with the present and what one should do about the future. Undaunted by the all round scepticism, I nevertheless perform an annual ritual closely on the heels of the release of Crime in India, the highly-regarded and well compiled study of the Indian scene by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Union Home Ministry. A balanced analysis of prevailing features of crime, however trite it may sound, is useful to inform many enlightened citizens who are concerned over a seemingly hopeless law and order situation.

The just released Crime in India 2000 makes many assertions, which may not be in sync with popular perceptions. For instance, we are told that the number of crimes that came under the Indian Penal Code, the so-called IPC crimes, rose in 2000 only by 0.4 per cent. The crime rate, that is, the number of offences per 100,000 of the population, actually dropped by 1.2 per cent. The only admission in Crime in India is that cases reported under Special and Local Laws, or SLL, (such as the Arms Act, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the Gambling Act, the Protection of Civil Rights Act and the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act) had shown an 8 per cent rise.

The country as a whole reports three IPC crimes and six SLL cases every minute on an average. Reckoned together, the number of cognisable cases (that is, those in which the police and other enforcement agencies can make an arrest without a warrant) under the IPC and SLLs was a little more than five million in 2000. This was a marginal increase over 1999. Interestingly, during the period 1995-98, there was an annual average of six million cases under this head of `cognisable' crime. A drop by one million in the number of cases registered during the succeeding two years (1999 and 2000) is something that is worth taking note of. It possibly indicates not only a more selective approach by the agencies, but also a general reluctance on the part of victims to approach the former for legal redress. Of course, we have what is known as `victimless crimes', such as offences under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, the Prohibition Act and the Gambling Act, where a majority of those who are hauled up had voluntarily committed acts forbidden by law without causing direct offence to others. This does not, however, fully account for the marked fall in the number of cases registered.

A law abiding citizen is more concerned with violence on the streets that pushes up fear of crime and curbs his movements. Among a few others, violent crime includes murder or attempt to murder, rape, dacoity and robbery. India reports anywhere between 230,000 to 250,000 violent crimes every year. A mere 0.1 per cent rise during 2000 is no doubt comforting. It must, however, be remembered that violent crime accounts for nearly 15 per cent of all crime coming to the notice of the law enforcement agencies. This is a cause for worry.

Murders alone averaged 37,000 a year during the past five years. (Uttar Pradesh contributed one-fifth of these.) This is not an insignificant number. Crime in India's analysis of the motives for murders is interesting. One of the major factors is land dispute: it led to nearly 10 per cent of all murders. Love intrigues (7 per cent) and demand for dowry (3 per cent) were other known causes.

Imaginatively, in view of its popular appeal, Crime in India has, for the past few years, been devoting a whole chapter to crimes against women. The trend is one of a steady rise 4 per cent in 2000 and 3 per cent in 1999 which is definitely not alarming. I do not want, however, to sound complacent because, as many women activists would contend, and rightly so, a lot of crime here goes unreported.

Perhaps the most heinous of offences, one that is palpably under-reported, is rape. Its number has been constantly rising. A 6.6 per cent increase during 2000 cannot offer much comfort to many of us who believe in family values. The fact that more than one fifth of the victims were between 16 and 18 years of age itself tells a sad tale.

The question that is often raised is how to protect women against rape. This issue becomes knotty if one reckons the fact that most of the aggressors are relatives or acquaintances of victims. Crime in India's information is that, in nearly 90 per cent of the cases registered in 2000, the victim had already known the offender. How does one solve this problem? How much precaution can a woman take in interacting with a friend or relative?

As I write this, comes a press report that in a recent sensational gang-rape case in Delhi, the victim (a member of a dance and music troupe) had failed to identify the main accused (for whom she had earlier performed), obviously because the latter was an influential person. She had in fact been directed by him over mobile phone to come to a cinema house in the heart of the city where she was forced into a car and taken to an apartment where five persons raped her. The Delhi Police, convinced that they have arrested the real accused, although the victim has let them down, now propose to conduct a DNA test. The ultimate outcome is a matter for conjecture. I am highlighting this case only because it is a classic case where the aggressor and the victim had known each other and where the might of the former had possibly resulted in distortion of valuable evidence that could have pinned down the accused. It is also true that such a problem is often compounded by shoddy police investigation, out of either negligence or undue influence brought on the investigator by vested interests.

Property crime (such as dacoity, robbery, burglary and theft) dropped by 5 per cent during 2000. This again may not carry conviction with the average citizen. Apart from the notorious suppression of data on crime which the police in many countries practise, the growing cynicism over the utility of registering a complaint with the police and the hardship involved in following it up, explains the declining numbers. Property crime is also more difficult to solve compared to other crime. The highly objectionable use of third degree methods is therefore more in evidence in this area, getting investigators into serious trouble, sometimes leading to their prosecution in criminal courts. As a result, a high measure of apathy has crept into the handling of property offences, with its own impact on public confidence in the police.

THE appallingly poor rate of conviction of accused in court is another factor that has an impact on the crime scene. Where the rate is high, the message goes down to the underworld that the judiciary means business. Where it is not, there is an ambience that is conducive to a certain lack of inhibition on the part of individuals and groups that are prone to crime. For instance, in more than 15,000 cases of murder disposed of by courts in 2000, the accused were acquitted or discharged. Apart from being a sad commentary on the quality of investigation, this high rate of failure in court cannot but encourage permissiveness in sections that have high stakes in doing away with their adversaries. More than 7,000 rape cases also suffered the same fate. Is this not an encouragement to indulge in misbehaviour with women?

It will however be lopsided to lay the blame wholly on the police. These are days where prosecution witnesses are subject to a variety of pressures and inducements, and the police are a mute witness to this tragedy. Some judges are appreciative of the odds against which the police do their investigation. Many others are not so understanding.

As a result, if one key witness is bought over by the accused, the whole prosecution story is disbelieved and the benefit goes to the accused. The Supreme Court, especially former Justice K.T. Thomas, has frowned on this trend so that minor inconsistencies and deliberate volte-face on the part of some witnesses do not prejudice the case of the prosecution. We need to see this tribe of remarkably astute judges grow. A major change in the mindset of the judiciary alone can right this unfortunate situation.

Recidivism is a phenomenon that has a tremendous impact on crime trends. More than 250,000 past offenders relapsed into IPC crime in 2000. This was a 9 per cent rise over the previous year. Nagaland, Kerala and Tamil Nadu contributed greatly to the numbers.

The findings of a recent study of prisoners released from U.S. prisons in 1994 are relevant here. The researchers tracked down as many as 272,000 such prisoners. It was found that 67.5 per cent of them were re-arrested for a fresh offence within three years of their discharge, and 47 per cent actually suffered another conviction. Recidivism was the highest among robbers, burglars and larcenists, whereas it was the lowest among those who had been earlier sentenced for murder or rape and were subsequently released after serving a term. This study needs attention from our law enforcement agencies in their endeavours to bring down crime.

Ultimately, crime control is not the responsibility solely of the police. The community as a whole and the judiciary also have a significant role. It is doubtful whether the implications of this position have been understood. Assistance from the community is no doubt growing, but not at a pace that can bring about a measurable change.

In the same manner, some courts have lately shown a greater sensitivity to the travails of the investigator. They have come down heavily on witnesses turning hostile after their clear initial uninfluenced stance in favour of the prosecution story.

But a lot more innovations in ferreting out the truth during trial in court are warranted. Let us hope that the Malimath Committee looking into the whole gamut of the criminal justice system will come out with radical measures to stem the rot that has undeniably eroded public faith in and reduced the effectiveness of, the police and the courts. The unpleasant fact, however, is that many knowledgeable and responsible citizens amongst us have already written off the system. Can I expect my readers to tell me how exactly they react to this state of unfortunate despondency?

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