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Why India doesn't need to change its rape law

India's cabinet approved the death penalty for rapists, it was reported on Saturday. Does India have a rape problem?

No, it doesn't. This is according to a report in the Indian Express on December 9, 2008 ('It's official: India 3rd worst offender in rape cases'). The person filing the report didn't understand the data, which actually proves the opposite. It said in the first 9 months of that year there had been 18,359 rapes registered in India, behind only the United States (93,934) and South Africa (54,926).

"Altogether 44,159 cases of different sex offences were registered across India," the report said, "in such cases too, India stands third after England (62,100) and Germany (47,070)."

India's population is more than three times that of the United States and more than 12 times that of England or Germany. The data indicates that rape in India per million of population, the true indicator of crime levels, is probably among the lowest in the world.

Are things getting worse? No. The annualised number for 2008 in the Express report would be 24,478. There were 24,206 rapes registered in India in 2011 and 22,172 in 2010, acccording to a report in Mint published four years after the Express report, on December 19, 2012 ('Every hour, two women are raped in India, data shows').

AP

File photo of protests against the Delhi gangrape incident. AP

Anyone who thinks of the United States, England and Germany as more unsafe for women than other nations has no experience of the world.

It's true that as a tribal society whose women possess something called "honour" which can be "lost", the reporting of rape cases in India is much lower than in more civilised nations. And it's also true that India's laws are not sympathetic to the victim on what specific act constitutes rape. But if we were to account for 100 percent or 200 percent or even 1,000 per cent under-reporting, India is still no more dangerous for women than even European nations, forget the rest of the third world.

But to read and watch the media in India we are surrounded by rapists. Our panic and hysteria about safety in our cities has infected others. In recent weeks even the New York Times and the Guardian have run pieces reporting how unsafe Indian cities have become, though their reporters should have known better. Only one report, I think it was a journal in CNN, said the female reporter faced no problems in her travels in India.

So what is the reason the Cabinet is now seeking death for some rapists (whose victims die or remain in a "persistent vegetative state")? It isn't rising crime, as the data shows, or even a general problem. It is bullying by the media, a high moral dudgeon which seems to have possessed all of us in the past couple of years, and the fantastic idea that legislation can solve our problems. This disappoints me as I have always thought of Manmohan Singh as being wise enough to recognise that writing more laws won't bring any change. And here he's legislating even where there is no evidence of an India-specific problem. Perhaps he's doing this just to shut the media up. This is fine, but disappoints me still. The solution will produce more problems.

I'm against the death penalty generally and don't think the state should be taking life. But I'm making an argument in favour of the victim here.

The clearest reason not to have the death penalty is that it gives the rapist the incentive to kill the victim after the act to clear the evidence. If he's going to get death anyway, he may as well make sure he's not identified.

We should think about that.

There are some good changes in the new law - for instance rejecting cross examination of a woman's 'moral character', and making irrelevant her previous sexual experience. Also expanding the definition of rape. These are things that should not have been in practice in any case. And these are not changes that will reduce crimes against women, though they will certainly help in getting more cases registered. Strangely, this rise may then be seen as the law 'failing'.

And then perhaps we shall have yet another law.