The National Crime Records Bureau’s annual ‘Crime in India’ is a document whose release is widely anticipated – it was more so this year given how the Narendra Modi government did not publish the crime data for 2017 last year. But even when it’s out, the publication can ultimately say almost nothing.
Part of it is the NCRB’s fault. The report appeared with no warning on the bureau’s website Monday night and without a press conference announcing its release. Moreover, neither the NCRB nor the Ministry of Home Affairs has in any way acknowledged the release of the report. Even at non-breaking news moments, the NCRB as an organisation rarely engages with journalists or researchers to help them understand its process and make improvements in how it collects and compiles crime data. It does not release unit-level data, and for the last two years (2016 and 2017), the NCRB has not released district-wise data, for no stated reason. For these two years, it has also not made the data available in machine-readable formats.
But another part of it is the nature of crime, policing and society itself in India. A First Information Report (FIR), the basic unit of the NCRB’s annual reports, signals much more than just that a possible crime has been committed. To some extent, it signals the victim’s willingness and ability to go to the police at all, indicating that an increase in reported crime does not necessarily mean an increase in crime; the expansion of all-women police stations, for instance, increased the rate of reporting of crimes against women by 22 per cent. But an FIR is also a reflection of morality and mores; one-third of the rape cases tried by Delhi’s district courts in 2015 were filed by parents opposed to consenting young couples.
As a result, it’s difficult to know what to celebrate – an increase or a decline in reported crime.
Trends over time help us in our understanding. In the last few years, an annual increase in the number of reported crimes against women has usually led to headlines like India is now ‘the world’s most dangerous country for women’. However, there is anecdotal evidence from grassroots women’s rights organisations that the national conversation around sexual violence after the tragic December 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder encouraged more women to report the crime. That boost, however, now appears to be tapering off. The number of rapes reported nationwide in 2017 has fallen below the elevated number reported in the aftermath of 2012. Simultaneously, the conviction rate has grown.
Also indicative of the fact that there has been a reporting effect on rape since 2012 is a comparison with other violent crimes. Over this same period, the number of murders reported nationwide has fallen steadily. The murder rate (proportionate to population) has fallen systematically since 1992 and is now at its lowest level since 1963.
The brutal 2012 gangrape and murder also had a significant impact on less severe sexual crime; there was a record increase in the number of FIRs alleging sexual molestation in 2013. That number has remained as high, indicating that a “new normal” has now been discovered after decades of a suppressed number.
Where India’s crime statistics become particularly hard to analyse is when we seek to compare states and cities. Kerala has India’s highest rate of reported domestic violence and the fourth-highest rate of reported rape. Does that mean it is one of India’s most dangerous states for women? Kerala’s former DGP Jacob Punnoose, credited with ushering far-reaching reforms into the state’s policing, suggests that a better indication of true crime rates are crimes that are difficult to hide, like murder, or those that require an FIR for compensation or insurance, like auto theft. On both these crimes, Kerala features right at the bottom.
All of this, of course, is the story of reported rape. A comparison of the share of women who told the National Family Health Survey household surveyors in 2016 that they had experienced sexual violence with the number who had reported a rape to the police that same year shows that less than 0.01 per cent of the sexual violence that women experience is reported to the police.
A part of the explanation might come from the nature of sexual violence as reported by women to the NFHS. In over 85 per cent of cases, the alleged perpetrator was the woman’s husband or former husband. Marital rape is yet to be criminalised.
The author is a Chennai-based data journalist. Views are personal.