When a person commits a crime, society - in other words, people - tend to ascribe labels to the offender. The criminal gets described variously as abnormal (which has a medical connotation), evil (which has a moral connotation), or owing to their belonging to a social category (racial or ethnic prejudice) or acting due to poverty (a class dimension).
This tendency of distancing oneself from the offender leads to the criminal becoming the 'other', someone who is not one of us and with whom we cannot identify any more. It is then easier to ascribe reasons to his/her behaviour and slot the person in a category.
The reason that sexual crimes are seen to be committed more often by people of a certain, lower, socio-economic status is that their crimes are more visible and are more willingly pointed out, reported and acted upon.
When similar crimes - such as incest and domestic rape - occur within the middle and upper-middle classes, they often remain hidden.
One of the reasons they remain hidden is because these perpetrators do not conform to our stereotypical ideas of the kinds of people that are potentially 'criminal'. But by focusing on a few sensational cases, we are failing to look at the big picture.
It is not just instances of rape that are on the rise. All categories of crimes against women are steadily rising. The same is true of caste - because Dalits and women are no longer willing to accept the subjugated positions they have so far been held down to in society.
When women protest or resist, patriarchal society retaliates through violence.
All of this is further compounded by the forces of globalisation and consumerism. The danger here is that the same consumerist philosophy that rewards status and status symbols encourages us to demonise law breakers falling outside our socio-economic umbrella and condone those that fall within it. In such a scenario, we will never be able to tackle the roots of the societal problems causing or contributing to the increasing violence against women.
As a first step, it is important to acknowledge the rising levels of conflict in our society (on the basis of caste, class, gender, religion or ethnicity), compounded in rapidly urbanising spaces, by the lack of a functional social justice system and the crippled criminal justice system.
As a second step, we need to strengthen and reform law enforcement, sensitise and reorient our policemen, because the first step towards combating crimes against vulnerable sections is not harsher punishment but empathetic support to the victims and swift, speedy and consistent action against offenders based on the rule of law.
(Vijay Raghavan is chairperson of the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai)