Earlier this year, I woke up to news of two brutal cases of rape and murder in India. The news was made more devastating for the fact that both victims were minors. In the following weeks I observed a familiar pattern unfold — public anger, media frenzy and promises of stricter laws by legislators. There was a strong sense of Déjà vu in the air, accompanied with a sinking feeling that the needle hadn't moved forward in all these years.
The death penalty is easy political candy to hand out to angry and upset citizens, but it’s much harder to work on justice systems that guarantee swift, certain punishment for sexual assault or to limit the violent patriarchies that cause rape in the first place Karuna Nundy
The following interactive is the record of a citizen’s inquiry. It uses data from the National Crime Record Bureau’s 2016 report to visually explore some facets of reported rape crime as well as the systemic dysfunction of the Indian justice system in tackling reported rape crime. A conversation is a prerequisite for solving a problem of this scale, and I hope that this piece can serve as a visual framework to kickstart civic discourse about the issue with our families and everyday friends, whether it be at the dinner table or the local cafe.
Before we dive into the visuals lets look at the Indian law that defines what a rape crime is. Here is section 375 of the Indian Penal Code.
§375. A man is said to commit "rape" if he
- penetrates his penis, to any extent, into the vagina, mouth, urethra or anus of a woman or makes her to do so with him or any other person; or
- inserts, to any extent, any object or a part of the body, not being the penis, into the vagina, the urethra or anus of a woman or makes her to do so with him or any other person; or
- manipulates any part of the body of a woman so as to cause penetration into the vagina, urethra, anus or any part of body of such woman or makes her to do so with him or any other person; or
- applies his mouth to the vagina, anus, urethra of a woman or makes her to do so with him or any other person
under the circumstances falling under any of the following seven descriptions
- Against her will
- Without her consent
- With her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested, in fear of death or of hurt
- With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married
- With her consent when, at the time of giving such consent, by reason of unsoundness of mind or intoxication or the administration by him personally or through another of any stupefying or unwholesome Substance, she is unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she gives consent
- With or without her consent, when she is under eighteen years of age
- When she is unable to communicate consent
- For the purposes of this section, "vagina" shall also include labia majora
- Consent means an unequivocal voluntary agreement when the woman by words, gestures or any form of verbal or non-verbal communication, communicates willingness to participate in the specific sexual act; Provided that a woman who does not physically resist to the act of penetration shall not by the reason only of that fact, be regarded as consenting to the sexual activity
- A medical procedure or intervention shall not constitute rape
- Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape
Some observations here: Firstly, in 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that since the age of consent is eighteen, any sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife aged between fifteen to eighteen years, Section 375 exception not withstanding, is indeed rape. Secondly, the Section 375 exception still stands for victims of marital rape above eighteen years unless the couple has legally seperated. This is understandably one of the most contentious parts of the existing legal framework. Despite popular support for outlawing marital rape, the government in power at the time of writing has filed legal papers to prevent such a change.
Thirdly, the law is gendered — it assumes that rape crime is commited by a man against a woman. As it stands this law fails to protect people who have been sexually assaulted by members of the same sex. Sexual acts between members of the same sex, forced 🏳️🌈
or consensual 🏳️🌈, are charged as an offence under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Fourthly, it is worth noting that Section 90 of the Indian Penal Code, reproduced below, may invalidate consent given under misconception of fact. This section seems to be the basis for a fair number of reported rape crimes in which the accused is a person who allegedly obtained consent under the pretext of marriage.
§90. Consent known to be given under fear or misconception
A consent is not such a consent as is intended by any Section of this Code, if the consent is given by a person under fear of injury, or under a misconception of fact, and if the person doing the act knows, or has reason to believe, that the consent was given in consequence of such fear or misconception;
This is a choropleth map that shows the number of rape cases reported within Indian states. Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of rape crimes (4,882) followed by Uttar Pradesh (4,816), Maharashtra (4,189) and Rajasthan (3,656).
Now, this is admittedly not the best map to visualize the situation. The area and population for each Indian state can differ greatly, so states with large population sizes will always come out for the worse by this yardstick. Its imperative that we normalize our data for population to get a ‘better’ picture.
Now, this is a slightly better map that normalizes the data for population and depicts rate of rape crimes per lakh (100,000) population. We can see that Delhi and Sikkim have some of the highest rates of rape crime, but this map still doesn’t reflect the ground reality for most states.
The elephant in the room happens to be the sheer number of rape crimes that go unreported every year. Estimates of unreported sexual violence are as high as a staggering 85.2% and that’s excluding marital rape/assault.
Limited as it may be, this data is the only yardstick we have to survey the present state of affairs. We move forward knowing that the data and graphics presented here represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Under present laws minors, aged below eighteen years, are protected under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) of 2012. The punishment for the rape of a minor is described clearly in Section 4 & 6 of the POCSO Act, read with Section 376 of the IPC which describes the punishment for rape. Furthermore, in 2018, Section 376 of the IPC was amended by the Criminal Law Ordinance of 2018 to impose the death penalty for the rape of a minor below twelve years of age, among other changes.
Just under half of all reported rape victims are Minors
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, all data for its ‘Crime in India’ report is entered by State/Union Territory Police at the Police station/district level and consolidation of the District/State level data is conducted by State Police Agencies (SCRB/ CID). The report also states that “Steep variations noticed over previous year both through application as well as manual screening are communicated to the respective State/UT for verification and rectification”.
The fact that the charts for West Bengal and Tamil Nadu record no minor victims and look radically different from states of similar size and socio-economic make up raises questions about the integrity of this dataset. Both states also reported no minor victims in the year 2015 and West Bengal reported no minor victims in 2014 either
The ‘Treemap’ charts below represent each category of the offender’s relation to the victim as a rectangle of area proportional to its percentage of total cases. All offenders known to the victim, depicted in colors other than grey, account for 94.6 percent of all reported rape crime in India.
An interesting demographic that accounts for a significant percentage of all cases is ‘Known persons on promise to marry the victim’. There is a fair bit of nuance in these sort of cases that is well documented elsewhere.
If you're like me, you probably want to know more details about these cases. Unfortunately, this is all that the NCRB collects. However, some stellar reporting by Rukmini S sheds light on the kind of rape crimes that came before Delhi’s six district courts in 2013. Among the key findings in the article is that “a third of all the cases heard during one year dealt with consenting couples whose parents had accused the boy of rape”.
Rape victims in India face significant barriers in their fight for justice, a fight not made easier by unempathetic systems that blame victims for their misfortune. Victims may encounter hostile conditions in police stations where they are often pressured to withdraw their case. In some cases the police may find its own authority undermined by people in positions of power. Threats of transfers impede officers from carrying out their duties in such cases.
Once a case is chargesheeted by the police and sent to trial, it can languish in the court system for decades. Rape cases face an incredible backlog in the courts, more new cases were sent for trial in 2016 (33,628) than the number of cases disposed by the courts in the same year (18,792). The arduous process only adds to the victim’s trauma who often buckles under pressure from her own family or that of the accused, and turns hostile. Getting past all these obstacles still does not guarantee justice for the victim — the national conviction rate for reported rape crime stands at only 25.5 percent. A big factor behind this low conviction rate is the poor collection and mishandling of evidence.
The Sankey(ish) graph below depicts the outcome of all 1,73,608 rape crimes in 2016 that were either reported to the police, pending with the police from 2015, or pending with the judiciary from 2015. Every single reported rape crime in the justice system is depicted as a red dot
I was surprised to find out about NCRB’s practice of basing data collection upon the “principal offence” rule. In short, if a rape also involves the murder of a victim then the crime is recorded as a murder and not a rape. This means that some of the most brutal and high profile rape cases in recent memory would not be a part of a dataset such as the one under examination here.
I hope that this piece has helped you visualize the broken state of the Indian justice system and the enormous challenges we face in our dream to build a safe and equitable society. If you’re a data literate citizen, I encourage you to conduct your own data-driven inquiries into issues that impact our civic life using open-data from public institutions.