Outrage is a good thing, when it is against injustice. It shows that society does have a line it does not want crossed. It also puts pressure on the system to respond. Here's the problem with it though, it tends to ignore what is already unclear. No new clarity emerges from either the outrage or the response. Media coverage of outrage does not help with clarity either, unless the media is looking deeper.
So it will be with the entire rape debate in India. In fact even before public fury over the Delhi gang-rape has quietened, as it inevitably will, media has already started breaking more rape stories from around the country. More accountability will be demanded, as will the death penalty.
Yet, if there is one government authority that is laughing all the way to the bank, it's India's police. Here is why.
The Delhi HC has reportedly asked the local police to show it the chargesheet before initiating proceedings in the gang-rape. Why would a High Court do that? Chalk it up to experience. For years the accused in rape cases have not been sincerely prosecuted, and people have been let go with lesser charges or sentencing than was to fit the crime. The Delhi Police has a particularly soiled reputation already, and responding to this week's outrage as it were, the High Court stepped up the ante.
If a High Court in the capital territory of the nation does not trust the police's due process, what does that tell you? Let me come back to this question in a different way.
Each day in India, in buses, trains and crowed public places, women are groped, fondled, teased and made the subject of lewd remarks. Eve teasing is so common, women have simply resigned themselves to it. Women just try to avoid being in situations where they will be groped. They do not hope for much else. They do not bother going to the police. Such is the reputation our police have in handing their cases.
The police need to first accept complaints from women. Instead, as is widespread in India, they dilute complaints, humiliate the victims, and eject them from the stations. Their starting point is a judgement of the victim. And much of the problem lies here. When it comes to women, most policemen are part of the original problem. Sexual harassment of any kind - the most violent kind or a lesser kind - is about the power that one sex wants to show it can wield over the other. Usually it's men over women.
Still, the outrage in the nation is missing what the police and the governments are hoping will not come up.
Police Complaints Authorities
In 2006, the Supreme Court ordered the state governments to create one PCA per district in every state and a PCA at the state level headed by a retired judge. Human Rights groups called it landmark order. The apex court of the nation wanted PCAs to look into complaints citizens had against police misconduct or abuse of power. It could be everything from custodial torture or death or rape to not accepting FIRs to falsifying evidence.
The SC had wanted policemen to be penalised for not doing their job. It also wanted to reduce government-interference in police transfers. It wanted PCAs to act against errant officers after hearings and investigations.
Imagine this: The Supreme Court of this nation believes, that unless there was an authority to check the police, India's police would not serve its taxpayers. It would continue to operate to 'control' and 'keep order', for its political masters at state and centre, the way the British had setup the system.
When it comes to women, most policemen are part of the original problem.
Complaints? Who's listening?
States want to keep control
If errant officers were penalised quickly, police would not themselves not behave with the kind of impunity they do now.
Yet, the majority of India's states have ignored the SC's order. Only six states setup so-called "PCAs" and mostly toothless ones, and with shady appointments that violated the principle of independence the SC wanted. Delhi set up its public grievance commission as its PCA, precisely what the SC did not order. India Together reported on all this in August 2012, as a review on whether states had complied with the SC's order. In the few states with PCAs, police officers ignore hearings and go about their business as usual. State governments themselves do not follow their own PCA verdicts to act against abusive officials. Television media have mostly let this story go.
Have you even once heard of action against police official for not investigating a complaint by a woman? Are the police who mangle charge sheets, FIRs,and file false charges every prosecuted? (It is not just about complaints by women, this applies to all disadvantaged communities, but let's stick to the issue of women here.)
In the meantime, thousands of men freely roam around the country to grope and molest women at will in public places. It takes a lot of force and pressure to get a complaint registered, even with witnesses. It is no one's case that PCAs will fix all our problems. There is much else in our society's attitude to women itself that needs attention.
But if police do not act on the most basic violations, it is a free ride for men. It sends a message of what the real social rules in the country are, not the ones on the books. The culprits feel that it is a natural order for them to be able to do what they want and get away with it. And if PCAs with teeth kept a watch on the police, it would send out the opposite message that as a society we will uphold the dignity of our women.
I do not buy the death penalty argument. From outrage to revenge is a short hop. You can sentence as many losers as you can to the gallows. More will appear, especially from amongst those who have little to lose, with a very low sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
As long as we engender a society that allow law enforcers to get away with their own crimes, law breakers will only be emboldened. This is why corruption is such a problem in this country. Like our other authorities, our police system does not have an integrity of its own to justify doing the right thing, or to remedy a wrong done to restore public faith. The PCAs will not fix all the problems but they would have sent a message to outraged women that someone would listen to them and dispense justice. That is one course-correction our society needs.
The Delhi gang-rape case is also chance for the media to get its act right. For all the coverage that rape cases get (read: ratings), very little coverage if any has been given to how state governments everywhere from Delhi to Tamilnadu have said 'we don't care' to the Supreme Court.
It is easy to drive up fury. The illumination really needed is on what the governments and police do not want you to know, and therefore not demanded. The demand for death penalties in fact is a lovely distraction for our babus and cops.