NEW DELHI — Not long after telling the police that she had been raped, a woman from South Delhi looked out her apartment window and saw the man who had attacked her laughing with an officer who had given him a ride back from the police station.
“That officer then came over and asked me why I wanted to file a complaint,” the 30-year-old mother of two said in a recent interview. “He said I would be ridiculed unless I agreed to settle things without an investigation.”
After months of intimidation from her rapist and indifference from the police, she got a politically powerful acquaintance to intervene, and her rapist was finally arrested. A court case is under way.
A far more prominent case, the brutal gang rape on a bus in New Delhi last month, and the later death of the victim, has led to an anguished re-examination in India of many of the nation’s age-old attitudes toward violence against women. But even as India grapples with the polarizing issue, a powerful force stands in the way of any fundamental change: a police force that is corrupt, easily susceptible to political interference, heavily male and woefully understaffed.
“If you’re a woman in distress, the last thing you want to do is go to the police,” said Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer based in New Delhi.
In many rape cases, the police spend more time seeking reconciliation between the attacker and the victim than investigating the facts. Over all, experts say, the police are poorly organized to deal with serious crimes, particularly those against women.
Pay is poor and opportunities for advancement are rare, leaving many police officers dependent on bribes to support their families. People without money or political connections are often ignored.
In the latest official move to deter further such attacks, the Delhi police announced late last week that constables would be stationed nightly at 300 bus stops around the city. The problem with this plan is that many women say the presence of police officers makes them feel less safe, not more.
The treatment of women by the police is such a concern that laws now forbid officers to arrest or even bring women in for questioning during nighttime hours. In case after case, the police have used their powers to deliver abused women into the hands of their abusers.
Police reforms have been proposed for decades, but few have been put in place, because many of them involve making officers less susceptible to political meddling — something politicians have little incentive to seek.
Of all the problems affecting the police, many women’s advocates point to cultural tradition as the most intractable.
Even as India has undergone an economic upheaval that has brought millions of women out of the home and into urban workplaces, a profound attachment to female sexual virtue remains deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. The foundational texts of Indian culture — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, ancient Sanskrit epics — both revolve around the communal outrage that results from insults to a good woman’s modesty.
“A woman’s body as the site of cultural purity is the predominant theme in the epics,” said Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of international studies at Brown University. “And dishonoring a woman is equal to dishonoring a family and even a culture.”
As a result, the police and village elders often see their first duty after a rape as protecting a woman’s modesty and a family’s honor, instead of giving her justice.
On Dec. 26, an 18-year-old Punjabi woman committed suicide after police officers refused for five weeks to arrest the men who were suspected of gang raping her and instead pressed her to marry one of the men. So many Indian women end up marrying their rapists that the police often squander the first hours and days after a woman reports a rape seeking just such a resolution, said Ravi Kant, president of Shakti Vahini, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“That first crucial day is almost always lost,” he said.
Delays are endemic and courts are backlogged. Of the more than 600 rapes reported in New Delhi last year — far below the actual number of such attacks, experts say — only one person has been convicted so far. In a vicious circle, police ineffectiveness leads many women to consent to marriage, but such marriages, sometimes reached after the police have gone to the effort to pursue a case, discourage adequate police investigations.
At the same time, Indian police officers are few and poorly paid, and that makes them easily susceptible to corruption. India has just 1,585,117 officers to protect 1.2 billion people, or about 130 officers per 100,000 people, the second lowest among 50 countries ranked by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Only Uganda fared worse; many nations have more than twice India’s ratio of police officers to population.
More than 80 percent of India’s police officers are constables who cannot investigate crimes or issue fines; most are assigned to paramilitary forces that do little traditional police work. Just 5 percent of police officers are women, though the government recently announced it would hire more female officers in Delhi.
“That the Indian police are performing poorly is beyond doubt,” said Arvind Verma, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, an expert on the Indian police and a consultant to the government. “The common experience is that the personnel are rude, indifferent, abusive, threatening and extortionist.”
An impermeable police hierarchy is another problem. Top leaders are taken from the Indian Police Service, an elite core of bureaucrats who never serve in front-line positions. It is all but impossible for a beat cop to rise to the top, making for a wide disconnect between police officers and their leaders.
Salaries are abysmal, about $100 per month for constables. Police stations often lack toilets and heat. Many low-level officers pay recruitment bribes of a year’s salary to get their jobs, so demanding payments on everything from routine traffic violations to major crimes becomes a way of life. Such behavior saps public trust, worsening security.
“It is an unfortunate reality that police are not trusted in this country,” said Nirmal K. Singh, a former joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Another important reason for that lack of trust is frequent political interference. Officers have few civil service protections, and politicians can transfer or punish police leaders at will.
Conspiracies between the police and politicians are common.
Hundreds of people have been killed in police shootings with political overtones, and blatantly political arrests occur frequently. Two women living near Mumbai were arrested recently for a Facebook post that politely questioned the deference given a deceased political leader. A professor in Kolkata was arrested after forwarding a political cartoon by e-mail, and a farmer in West Bengal was arrested after he asked a tough question of the state’s chief minister at a political rally.
For the woman in South Delhi who said the police had refused to take her rape complaint seriously, politicization of the police means justice is available only to the well connected.
When her rapist threatened her 12-year-old daughter, she turned to her brother to call a high-ranking politician. Belatedly, the police sprang into action.
Asked about the case, a police supervisor said he would check on details, but had not responded further by Tuesday.
“During that whole time, I lived in fear of my husband being killed or my kids being kidnapped, because I knew the police wouldn’t help if that happened,” the woman said. “I have no faith in the police. If you have money or connections, you can get justice. If you don’t, forget it.”
Reporting was contributed by Niharika Mandhana, Malavika Vyawahare and Jim Yardley in New Delhi.