The outrage over the recent gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai has brought back memories of the brutal —and fatal — gang rape in Delhi on December 16 last year, turning the spotlight again on the poor rate of conviction in cases of sexual assault against women.
Following the Delhi gang rape, public pressure forced the central government to make changes in the criminal law and introduce the death penalty in cases of rape victims being murdered or left in a permanently vegetative state.
Though these sweeping changes in the criminal law were made in record time by Parliament after the panel headed by former Chief Justice of India late JS Verma submitted its report within a month, the main challenge before the country remains how such heinous crimes can be prevented.
The Supreme Court on Monday echoed the widespread anguish over the abysmal rate of conviction in rape cases across the country.
“What is wrong with the system? The situation is going from bad to worse. Over 90% rape cases end in acquittal. What is the reason behind the spurt in such cases? Have our social values changed or is the police investigation flawed?” observed a bench headed by Justice RM Lodha.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of rape cases registered in India increased by a startling 870%, from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. This is more than three times the increase in murder cases over the last 60 years.
Despite rape being an under-reported crime in India, a fact brought out by a series of reports by expert groups, which have blamed social stigma and fear as the main reasons behind a large number of victims remaining silent even after having suffered so much, NCRB figures point to a highly disturbing trend of rape being the fastest growing crime in the country.
To add to this alarming scenario, the conviction rate for rape at the national level is lower than the average of 11 other violent crimes. The conviction rate for murder in 2011 was 38.5%. In the case of rapes that year, it was substantially lower at 26.4%.
Government figures for 2012 show that of around 100,000 rape cases pending in courts across the country, only 14,700 (14%) resulted in verdicts being delivered. Of these, less than 25% ended in conviction, with 3,563 people being punished and more than 11,000 being acquitted.
Former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium, who was a member of the Justice Verma panel, feels rape trials in the country need an overhaul.
“Victims are too terrorised to speak out in courts, prosecution is faulty and it has been found in so many cases that judges, particularly in trial courts, are not sensitised to deal with such sensitive cases involving the honour and dignity of women,” he said.
Subramanium pitched strongly for time-bound trials in rape cases to improve the conviction rate.
A senior government official said the new rape law includes a guideline for completing a trial within two months of the chargesheet being filed by the police in court, “but it cannot be made mandatory since there can be unforeseen delays like the one witnessed in the Delhi gang rape case.”