Delhi rape case reignites police reform debate

April 23, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Reuters)

I live in India’s rape capital where rape cases are as common as power cuts used to be a few years ago. Even reports of police misbehaviour have become routine.

While all rape cases do not get media attention, the recent rape of a five-year-old girl is in the limelight, especially because of the way the police handled the case.

Video footage showed an officer pushing and slapping a woman protester (watch here), and reports alleged that investigators offered the victim’s family money to not file a case. The man who slapped the woman and two more officials have been suspended for lapses.

“This is nothing new … these are individual aberrations,” said Rajan Bhagat, public relations officer at Delhi Police, adding that the suspensions and the institution of an inquiry is a message to the police force.

It is clear that lack of proper policing is not solely to blame for rape cases, but there’s no denying that India needs an improved police force to ensure the safety of its citizens. With people protesting on streets, the latest rape case has once again ignited that debate, especially in the capital where women’s safety is a major concern.

Even before the infamous Delhi gang rape case last year, the police have often been viewed as insensitive to women’s safety. Sample this: On April 14, 2012, published an investigative report in which they spoke to more than 30 senior police officers in Delhi and its suburbs. “When asked to explain the rising instances of rape, the cops have invariably blamed the women, an array of extraneous factors or resorted to specious arguments instead of looking inwards and focussing on police reforms,” the report said.

The government’s failure to reform the police system in recent years is disheartening. Here are some facts:

These are just numbers but the Supreme Court had sown the seed of police reforms way back in 2006, when it responded to a public interest litigation filed by Prakash Singh, a retired director general of police. The court directed states and union territories to comply with seven binding directives that would lead to reforms.

But nothing much has changed in the last seven years and the apex court expressed concern this month: “…instead of improving the police functioning and approach, what we have seen is a journey from bad to worse in these seven years”. The court seems to be firm on this, with two different benches now putting pressure on the states to implement reforms.

“We all know what needs to be done but now governments need to know they will be voted out of power if they don’t do what it takes, or held in contempt by the courts for disobeying clear directions,” said Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer.

Nundy added there’s no magic bullet when it comes to reforming the police system, and the answer lies in a swift justice system, which includes police reforms and having more courts and judges.

While police reforms might not see the light of the day any time soon, officials in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh have taken steps to motivate its police officers. The state government has decided to screen Bollywood movies such as “Dabangg” and “Singham” to boost the morale of its policemen.

The belief is that such movies, which portray a policeman in an unrealistic, larger-than-life role will boost the morale of the force. Ironically, “Dabangg” was one of the films widely criticized in the wake of the Delhi gang rape case for its item numbers.

Movies have also been screened for Delhi Police in recent times, and though Bhagat believes these are important “for mind relaxation and welfare”, only time will tell if they really serve any larger reformative purpose.

An easier way would be to push ahead with the Supreme Court’s directives on police reforms, which have been kept on the back burner for years.

(You can follow Aditya on Twitter @adityayk)

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