By Kartikeya Tripathi
Indian laws against rape are amongst some of the toughest in the world. Owing to regular interpretation of Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the victim’s word is now considered substantive proof to convict the accused and send him to jail for a minimum of seven years. In fact, in one case even the lack of conclusive medical evidence to show that a woman was raped did not prevent the Supreme Court from ordering a jail sentence for the accused.
In a deeply conservative society, rape is an emotional subject which perhaps explains why the judiciary has been so recipient to making it easy to secure convictions. However, this approach as a crime prevention strategy has little value as it is reactive. It comes into play after a crime has already been committed.
Research has shown that though we may like to believe that harsh sentences act as deterrents to future criminals, there is little evidence in favour of this belief. Most criminals either truly believe that they will get away with the crime, or are unable to think through the consequences of crime they are about to commit.
The crime prevention premise on which First World criminal justice systems (which includes police, prosecutors, judges) now work is that criminals are deterred by their proximal conditions, and not the prospect of a distant punishment. Thus incidents of sexual harassment, and drug dealing in public toilets in London dropped drastically with the introduction of better lighting, and signs warning that plainclothes policemen often used those facilities.
Similarly, to prevent cases of rape there is a need to view it as a crime in isolation from the emotional rhetoric that surrounds it. The most influential crime prevention philosophy of the last decade stated that a crime takes place when there is presence of a likely target (i.e. victim), and the absence of a capable guardian (examples : policeman, guard, a responsible elder, or even a good lock).
Building on this notion police forces in cities like London, and New York write what are called ‘crime scripts’ of common crimes. Simply put, the policemen put themselves in shoes of a criminal and write down a detailed step by step procedure in the commissioning of a crime. Thereafter, they concentrate on ‘script disruption’, where interventions at certain stages of the criminal’s actions prevent him for carrying out his criminal act. For instance: jails in Australia reported several cases of inmates scalding other prisoners with hot liquids. The solution came in the form of thermos flasks with narrow opening that did not allow liquids to be thrown at each other.
In case of Delhi too it would not be impossible for police to build a script of rapes that are committed. The ease with which criminals can use means of public transportation to pick up unsuspecting victims comes immediately to mind. Moreover, little application of mind would show that crimes against women are concentrated in time and space, or go in conjunction with other crimes. That could serve as a starting point for police in Delhi to frame a strategy on how to best use its limited resources for maximum deterrent effect. It is by using such scientific means that police forces in developed countries have been able to reduce crime rates to lowest than they have ever been.
As is the case every time, after this rape case in Delhi too, we hear platitudes about falling moral standards of society, with the blame for the crime being laid on factors as wide ranging as erosion of family values to de-individualisation of people in a metro. This kind of approach in reality is a disservice to women as it offers no solutions. At this stage it would be pertinent to remember that the instances of perverts making lewd calls to women – which was a common phenomena in 1990s – dropped to virtually nil within a few years not because the Indian male underwent some sort of moral renaissance, but because phones started coming with caller IDs, and in a way disrupted the script.
(Kartikeya Tripathi is a graduate in criminal justice from Oxford University and is a researcher at University College London's department of security and crime science. Views expressed are personal)