I was visited by a plainclothes policeman last Sunday. He was there to verify my address for my application for a new passport.
I being a nominal journalist and he being a cop, I brought up the subject of the ghastly rape of the five-year-old that had taken place a few days before not too far from where we were sitting in my living room in east Delhi. I mentioned how it was sickening and whether the police were now being more vigilant, adding that at least the perpetrator had been caught quickly.
“Yes, it is horrible,” he said, adding, “but they always blame the cops whenever such things happen.” I was surprised and shocked. Surprised because I hadn’t brought up anything about the delayed responsiveness and the unwillingness of the local police initially to record the parents’ complaint about their missing girl, or even the charge that the police had tried to bribe them to let the matter slide.
And shocked because the man was propping up the police as a kind of co-victim in the case.
By the time I could muster a comeback, the policeman had gathered his papers, scratched his stubble, lingered for a while, scratched his stubble once again before leaving. He had just told me that the rape of the five-year-old girl was unfortunate, but that such unfortunate things happen, and it was unfortunate that the police got the rap for it each time. I was left with the word ‘unfortunate’ fighting for a meaning.
Much has been aired and written about the need to change people’s mindset about sexual violence. There has been a perceptible shift, at least among certain sections of the urban middle-class, from the silence of those citing or hinting at ‘tradition’ and ‘Indian culture’ to a loud but cacophonous rejection of brutality on women and children.
I have written earlier about how the devil lies in the implementation of the law. After my meeting with a representative of the Delhi Police on Sunday, I’m convinced that the solution (sic) lies in changing the mindset — of the police ‘from above’.
A change in the ‘mindset of people’, whether along gender, caste or class lines, is an incremental process that is glacial and usually generational, and is usually quickened by changes such as migration and social mobility.
We tend to forget that in far too many cases where the perpetrator maintains that nothing fundamentally criminal has been committed, the police also see the crime as a ‘misfortune’ and not criminal enough.
The ‘seriousness’ plummets further when the victim is from the underclass. So apart from the horror of a five-year-old being brutally raped — where the strand of response (from men and women) on the lines of ‘she wasn’t behaving properly’ can’t possibly exist — what makes the latest atrocity in Delhi stand out is that the response of outrage is no longer limited to a crime committed against ‘people like us’ or, as was the case in the Delhi gang rape on December 16, against a member of the aspirational lower middle-class who shares mall-space and social values (sic) with you.
Thanks to the media foraging news for a viewership no longer restricted to one slice of society in our cities, sexual violence is no longer being allowed to be considered as something ‘unfortunate’ that happens to poor city folks along with water shortage, uncomfortable long-distance train journeys, and avoidable hospital deaths.
But that still leaves us with the police. Part of the allure of being empowered is that many law-enforcers invest themselves with the ability to remain unmoved. Like doctors not squeamish about blood or mangled bodies, far too many policemen pride themselves for making molehills out of mountains. Murder? Seen many. Rape? Happens all the time.
Add to this, the culture most beat or station cops are steeped in — where women are sexual objects, where women ‘ask for it’, where fatalism rather than crime explains the ‘bad things’ that happen to kids, women and men from slums and colonies — and you have a simmering display of law enforcers who, at best, help the victim to ensure the system’s reputation remains intact, and, at worst, form another layer of anguish as a co-perpetrator.
Which is why instead of waiting for society’s mindset to change, or simply demanding that the police commissioner be sacked, it will be far more effective to seriously disincentivise police dereliction of duty.
Instead of allowing guilty cops a group huddle, they should come under the law for punishment. Being professionally and socially ill-equipped and/or badly off can’t be a fig-leaf for criminals. Being professionally and socially ill-equipped and/or badly off can’t be a fig-leaf for the police either.
Rape and crime against women will not disappear. But what can is the belief that law enforcers are selectively energised to action.
Even at the cost of the rest of society lagging behind in taking sexual violence seriously — many in the political and drawing-room classes included — once those whose job it is to take down complaints and FIRs and conduct investigations are forced to not treat taking action against sexual violence as extra-curricular activities, we’ll have a far better chance of having potential and actual perpetrators of such recurring and sickening crimes firmly in our cross-hairs.