Behind Bulandshahr Gangrape, a History of Lax Policing, Overburdened Courts

Given the skewed prisoner-jail capacity ratio in UP, courts are often pressurised to let prisoners out on bail even for serious crimes.

Representational image. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The rape of a woman and her daughter in Bulandshahr has exposed several gaps and problems in the Indian policing and criminal justice system. The mother and daughter, along with the rest of their family, were travelling in the middle of the night on NH91 when half a dozen armed men pulled them out of their cars, dragged them into the fields, and sexually and physically assaulted them. The involvement of three men, who have been identified through police dossiers because of their previous criminal record, indicates a larger malaise about how criminals are allowed to roam free.

There was public outrage at the brazen manner in which the armed criminals targeted the family by forcing their car to a stop by throwing a piece of iron at it. They then tied up the male occupants before assaulting the women. The UP police also came in for severe criticism for its lackadaisical approach in dealing with the complaint from the male members of the family.

By the time the police reached the scene, the culprits had fled. Although the Akhilesh Yadav government later suspended several officers, including the senior superintendent of police, there has been of no solace to the family, who are now demanding that the culprits be punished swiftly, even threatening to commit suicide if the case is not closed within three months.

Long wait for justice?

Though the family is demanding speedy justice, data on gangrapes in the state shows that they will have to wait a while before the culprits are actually punished.

The most populous state in the country, UP also has the highest jail capacity, at 52,780, and the highest number of prisoners, 88,221 at of end of 2014.

These numbers reveal a skewed jail capacity-prisoner ratio, which has led to severe overcrowding in several prisons. There is pressure on the courts from the home department and the jail administration to release prisoners on bail on any possible grounds. This could be one of the reasons why three of the accused in the Bulandshahr gangrape case were released on bail in an earlier looting case. In fact, it was through the police dossier that the victims were able to identify three of the culprits.

The problems of jail overcrowding and the release of prisoners on bail seem to be interrelated. Even in Haryana, which has 18,642 inmates as against a capacity of 16,647, there is a natural inclination to grant bail to accused persons even in serious cases such as gangrape and murder. Lawyers also argue that bail is a right, while jail is an exception.

In July this year, a woman in Rohtak was gangraped by the same five men who had sexually assaulted her three years ago, apparently to teach her and her family “a lesson” for not withdrawing their complaint. Of the five accused, two had been released on bail and the other three were never arrested in the first place, despite being identified by the rape survivor. Will the higher judiciary now ask the judge why bail was granted?

The manner in which the judiciary deals with gangrape cases also leaves much to be desired. Rather than going after the state government and the police for their poor handling of such cases – as the Punjab and Haryana high court has been doing in the Murthal rape case – most states just overlook the omissions of the police.

According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data submitted before the Lok Sabha in 2015:

“the states, which have the primary responsibility of prevention, detection, registration, investigation and prosecution of crime, had been advised to “adopt appropriate measures for swift and salutary punishment to the persons found guilty of violence against women and children, set up Fast Track Courts, Family Courts, Crime Against Women/Children desks in each Police Station, improve the quality of investigations, minimize delays in investigations of crime against women and children and to undertake gender sensitization of the police personnel.”

But the data furnished by the MHA revealed that very few cases of crimes against women, including gangrape, result in a conviction. In 2014, 2,353 cases of gangrape were registered across the country, of which 1,529 were chargesheeted. Conviction took place in only 129 of these cases. Since it normally takes more than a year for a case to result in a conviction, the overall conviction rate was 36.5%. While 4,985 persons were arrested, 3,978 were chargesheeted and 307 were convicted.

Surprising as it may sound, UP has a far better conviction rate of 51%. However, the state fared poorly when it came to chargesheeting cases. While a total of 578 cases of gangrape were reported, only 382 were chargesheeted. A total of 1,083 persons were chargesheeted during the year, 1,643 were arrested and 68 were convicted.

Herein lies the hope for the Bulandshahr gangrape victims and their family members. In UP, very little crime actually gets reported and, even if it does, chargesheets are filed in only a small percentage of cases. But in cases in which chargesheets do get filed, the chances of conviction is much higher. It remains to be seen if the trend will hold for this case.