Victims in India see police as part of problem

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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 the man who she said had raped her and indifference from the police, she got a politically powerful acquaintance to intervene and her alleged 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 the nation 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. Overall, 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 will 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 from arresting or even bringing 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 overhauls have been proposed for decades, but few have been implemented, 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 had allegedly gang-raped her and instead pressed her to marry one of her rapists. 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.

Delays are endemic and courts are backlogged. Of the more than 600 rapes reported in New Delhi last year -- a number far below the actual number of such attacks, experts say -- only one person has been convicted so far.

Suman Nalwa, a deputy commissioner in Delhi's police force, said changing the mindset of the average constable, many of them from small villages outside of New Delhi, "is a tough process. You cannot do it at the snap of a finger."

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