Last month in India, a 5-year-old girl was brutally tortured, raped, and left to die. The girl luckily survived after intensive medical care and attention were provided to her. (Another 4-year-old victim was not so lucky—she died from her injuries earlier this week.)
The first incident once again saw a wave of protest. The protestors were more concerned with how police responded to the crime. The child was reported missing for two days, and in spite of the family lodging a complaint, the First Information Report (FIR) was not lodged. It was only after two days that the child was recovered, when the neighbors alerted the victim’s parents.
What was horrifying: that instead of police taking quick action to apprehend the perpetrators of the crime, they allegedly tried to bribe the father of the child by paying him $50 to hush up the rape.
The nonregistration of the FIR was a violation of a Supreme Court order in January that said all states were ordered to lodge an FIR as soon as a case of missing child is reported. The police lost two crucial days. Had the FIR been lodged, it would have been mandatory for the police to start an investigation the same day, and the girl might have been saved from the horrendous crime she went through. It was sheer luck that the victim survived.
The case also saw police mishandling the protests that erupted across Delhi. A senior police official was seen slapping a young girl who was protesting police inaction.
The Nirbhaya rape case, which happened in December, saw countrywide protests. The spontaneous protests led the government to form the Justice Verma Commission to suggest amendments to the rape law. The Verma panel submitted its report in a record 29 days, which led to the 2013 Criminal Amendment Act being passed by the Parliament.
The amendments saw a strengthening of various penal, procedure, and evidence laws. The amendment also had provisions for the filing of criminal cases against police who refuse to register complaints.
On November 14, 2012, the government of India had brought into force the 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, which provides for very stringent punishments for sexual abuse, molestation and rape of children. It also provides for a framework for providing protection to children who are victims of such heinous offences.
The Government of India also initiated a very ambitious program in 2010—the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. The ICPS provides for institutional machinery to be set up in all districts for child protection. This includes child protection units, child welfare committees, and a Childline (the 1098 emergency help-line number) to be set up across the country in all districts. The institutional machinery is slowly coming into place, but a lot needs to be done in terms of service delivery and implementation.
Data indicate that a total of 48,338 child rape cases were reported from 2001 to 2011. The registration of child rape case saw an increase of 336 percent during this period.
In spite of countrywide protests, stronger laws, and a greater awareness among people, there's been a continuous increase in the number of cases not being reported.
Our years of experience in trial courts reveal that the general perception among perpetrators of such crimes is that they can manage the system. The conviction rate in such cases is very low. Many end up in acquittals. Victims and witnesses are pressured, threatened, and sometimes paid off to turn hostile in the courts. Combined with shoddy investigation by law enforcement and a lack of interest among prosecutors, cases end up in acquittals and many times put the blame on the victim herself. India does not provide a witness-protection program.
In such a bleak scenario, what is the road ahead? What do we do next? The answer is to make our law-enforcement agencies accountable and bring in a system where each and every case can be monitored. The police have various standing orders, standard operating protocols, advisories, and guidelines that clearly lay down the role of the police and the procedure to follow in the cases of such crimes. There are various orders of the Supreme Courts and the High Courts that lay down guidelines to handle such heinous offences. The top brass in the police need to wake up and ensure that such guidelines are implemented in letter and spirit.
The police force on the other hand is under pressure to perform. There is a severe shortage of police personnel, and the existing staff often have to work for two to three days at a stretch.
Systematic changes are required. There are issues of gender sensitization and the need to change the patriarchal mindset of the people who constitute the police force, as they are from the same society where the crimes are happening.
Finally, for the police, what is important is that ordinary citizens should have faith in them. For this to happen they have to perform and to ensure that perpetrators of such heinous offenses like rape and sexual assault are booked and convicted. The key to this is to follow the legal provisions diligently and ensure a strong case against such criminals.
The police need to send a message that the perpetrators of such crimes will be dealt with strongly. The message should be clear that the system cannot be managed, and the fear of the law should be real.
Ravi Kant is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and the president of Shakti Vahini, an organization working on violence against women and children in India. He is also involved in the training and sensitization of law-enforcement agencies.