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Can anti-Romeo squads curb sexual harassment?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-03-2017 Roshan Kishore

“In Uttar Pradesh, every college would be provided with the anti-Romeo squad. Our girls would be safeguarded. These anti-Romeo squads would allow the girls to study without fear in college campuses… The law and order machinery is so weak that they have no fear of anyone before casting their evil eyes on our girls. But believe me, if the BJP comes to power, we will safeguard the honour and chastity of our girls,” said BJP president Amit Shah in an election rally in Merrut on 3 February 2017, according to an Indian Express report.

Yogi Adityanath, BJP’s new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), has implemented this promise almost immediately after assuming charge in India’s largest state. Expectedly, the move is turning out to be controversial. But is the move effective in curbing crimes against women?

A look at the crime statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and collated by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) seems to suggest that the rate of crimes against women is lower than the all-India average in UP. But as has been pointed out in Mint earlier , under-reporting of crimes against women hugely distort the reported crime rate in India. In states where public awareness is high and the police pro-active, both overall crime rate and the rate of crime against women turn out to be higher than in other states. A case in point is Delhi, where the reported rate of crimes against women shot up from 311 per million to 609 per million after the infamous 16 December 2012 gang-rape case, which led to greater focus on this issue and a likely uptick in reporting.

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There are several reasons why under-reporting is high in India. First, reporting of crime has historically been low because of perverse policing incentives, and they tend to be even lower for gender crimes. Policemen in India tend to be far more reluctant to register crimes such as sexual harassment and domestic violence as compared to other crimes such as break-ins, according to a 2009 research paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economist Abhijit Banerjee. Secondly, the perpetrators are often friends and family, which makes it even more difficult for a victim to approach an insensitive police force. Low conviction rates act as a further disincentive.

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UP’s record when it comes to conviction is better than many other states, as the above chart shows. Mint has looked at number of persons and cases convicted as percentage of persons arrested and cases registered under assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty between 2010 and 2015 in major states. We do not use NCRB statistics for cases registered under the category ‘insult to the modesty of women for crimes against women’ as the numbers for UP show more convictions than arrests, probably a result of error in data compilation.

The low reported rate of gender crimes in UP is, however, more likely because of the under-reporting effect rather than a relatively higher conviction rate. The challenge in UP, and indeed in the country more generally, is to get the police to respond sensitively to complaints, and to investigate them promptly. It is difficult to expect such wonders unless the police force is professionalized, and freed from political interference in day-to-day operations. What can also help as far as gender crimes is concerned is greater sensitization of the force, and possibly greater recruitment of women.

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As the chart here shows, UP has just 4.5% women in its police force, which is lower than the all-India average: itself at a low level of 6.6%. Arguably, having adequate women on the police force could generate some amount of confidence among women that they would be treated sensitively if they want to report crimes against them.

The problem of sexual harassment is a deep-rooted problem but solving it requires institutional fixes rather than vigilantism or moral policing. Or else, a measure with the stated goal of helping women ‘study without fear’ will end up robbing their freedoms. Already young women are complaining of having to deal with more restrictions, college principles are waxing eloquent on how Indian society does not permit boyfriends, and policemen have taken it upon themselves to guard ‘public morality’.

This is precisely what the late Justice J. S. Verma had warned against, in the report of the committee on amendments to criminal law which was headed by him, and which was set up after the 2012 gang-rape incident to suggest reforms in our criminal justice system.

“We do notice that this concept of shame has somehow led the police to have an upper hand,” the report said. “The police have become arbiters of honour. The police, without registering even a FIR, assume that they have the moral capacity to pronounce upon the rights and wrongs of the rapist as well as the rape victim. This is simply deplorable and it is inconceivable in a modern society, which is governed by republican values.”

The UP administration and its police force seem to have turned a blind eye to those words.

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