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Crime And Punishment

By now, nobody disputes that Delhi is seriously unsafe for women but one has to follow the other if our cities are to be made any safer. Here's what Seema Goswami thinks...

entertainment Updated: Jan 03, 2011 12:41 IST
Seema Goswami

By now, nobody disputes that Delhi is seriously unsafe for women. But I never quite realised just how dire the situation was until a recent incident that occurred a little too close to home for comfort.

This is how it unfolded. My cousin (lucky thing!) lives in a sprawling bungalow in a rather tony area of Delhi. Once her kids grew up and flew the coop, she rented out the first floor of her house to a few young women. All seemed to be going well for a while. My cousin was secure in the fact that there were no strange (in every sense of the word) men on the premises. The girls were happy about living above a family which had a dog prowling the grounds and a guard stationed outside the gate, which in any case was securely locked at all times.

But a week ago, my cousin woke up to loud screams emanating from the first floor. She roused her husband and the servants – thinking there would be safety in numbers – and they rushed up to the first floor. Utter confusion raged. Two men had broken in and had chased the terrified girls out to the terrace. One of them had gotten hold of one of the girls by the arm and was trying to drag her into a room. She was screaming for her life.

The moment they saw more people come through the front door, the intruders abandoned their purpose, made for the spiral staircase on the side of the terrace and ran down. By the time their pursuers caught up with them, they were long gone. The guards on the outside road swore that no one had run past them. That left just one possibility. The intruders had climbed over the boundary wall of one of the adjoining bungalows. By then, my cousin had a pretty good idea who these men were. They worked in the bungalow next door. She asked the girls who had been attacked if they could identify them. Yes, they said, they would be able to pick them out with no difficulty at all.

So, my cousin and her husband set off the next day to file a complaint at the local police station. They were told to go home and wait and the police would come and investigate. One day came and went. Then another day passed. Finally, the cops arrived, and asked to see the girls who had been attacked. They asked them if they could recognise their attackers. Yes, said the girls, in fact they had seen them in the neighbourhood even after the incident. Okay, said the cops, don’t worry. We will pick up these guys and teach them a lesson. And we can guarantee you that they will not bother you again.

But, they asked the girls in tones of faux concern, did they really want to file a case? Did they even understand what it entailed? They would have to go to jail to identify these men. They would have to attend court hearings to give evidence. And God knows how long the case could drag on. It could be years and years. Did they really want to get involved in all this jhamela?

What do you think these traumatised, terrified victims did? Yes, you’re right. They listened to the cops sketching out this nightmarish scenario with sinking hearts and decided not to file a case. So, these miscreants got off scot-free.

Now, what do you suppose will happen next? Will these men be chastened after the beating that will undoubtedly be delivered at the police station? Will they decide to give up on criminality and turn into model citizens? Will they now treat women with respect rather than as potential rape victims? Somehow, I think not.

Instead, they are going to become even more emboldened, secure in the belief that no matter what the provocation, the consequence will never be more than a thorough beating – and that’s only if they were ever caught and identified. The next time they go trawling for victims, they will choose some vulnerable girl who is not so well protected, and inflict much worse damage on her. And the odds are that they will get away with it yet again.

The recent Dhaula Kuan rape of a BPO employee is a case in point. All the men who have been arrested are petty criminals who have been breaking the law for years with impunity. And after starting out with minor offences like stealing cattle they have escalated to the point where they turned rapists.

That is why I think there is a lesson to be learnt from what happened one night in my cousin’s house. Allow these miscreants to get away once and they will offend again and again. And every new crime will be more serious than the one that went before.

Perhaps it is time the Delhi Police paid attention to the ‘Broken Window’ policy that was adopted by the New York Police many decades ago. According to this theory, you can’t ignore even something as minor as a broken window. You must repair it and crack down on the vandals who break it. You need to make it clear that no matter how petty a crime, it will lead to punishment. That is the only way to deter people from breaking the law.

If only that same lesson was reinforced in our own metros, we would all breathe a little easier. Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami

- From HT Brunch, December 12

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