There was a time not so long ago, when I was addicted to detective novels and, now and again, to those serials on television where the cops almost always catch the bad guys.
While the pursuit of criminals was based on solid detective work on the ground, one of the major contributions was the availability — legally or illegally — of databases of offenders whose histories of crime often provided the vital clue to solving the case at hand.
Later, these databases, mainly kept by the police, were replaced with computer records, also maintained by the police, but hackable by those with the expertise and the inclination. The information could be sold or given to those who needed it, usually the good detectives.
At the time, because the stories were far removed from us, I did not think anything of the availability of such records and the ways in which the police or detectives, sometimes even lawyers, used them. Perhaps because the cause was good, the means could sometimes be excused.
But these half-forgotten stories came back recently in the context of the intended move by our government to set up a registry of sex offenders, and more, to outsource this work to a private body. There are many questions, ethical, moral, personal, that we should be asking about the intended list.
Who will make such a list? Whose names will be included? How will this be judged? And to what purpose will it be used? How long will the list last? Will it carry only the names of those who have been convicted or also those against whom complaints have been lodged? If the latter, does this not take away their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty?
In India, we know very well that every move by the state to ‘control’ what it sees as criminal tendencies, ends up targeting certain sections of people: the poor, the marginalised, and the minorities. So a list such as this — work on which has begun and some 4,50,000 names have already been collected — is unlikely to include names of the rich and famous.
How long will a person stay on the list? There’s some talk of 15 years to life. And yet, as practices of justice all over the world have shown, offenders, criminals, even sex offenders, do sometimes reform. What will happen with such people if they want jobs, for example?
It is precisely because of such concerns that governments the world over that maintain such databases, thought deeply about the ethical and methodological implications of the nature of justice they subscribe to.
They’ve also thought of something else, something that in the age of the internet, is becoming an important concern — privacy, and the question of surveillance. But in India, it is being said that the list will be linked to Aadhaar, and we all know how much the Aadhaar data has been compromised. If the list is indeed outsourced to a private contractor, as seems to be the intention, then what is to stop them from sharing this data with others? It’s been done in the past and it will happen again.
There’s another question: statistics on sexual violence anywhere in the world, and National Crime Records Bureau data in India too, tell us that 90-95 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by people (mostly men) known to the survivor/victim. Often, they are family members — uncles, fathers, brothers, cousins.
If you’re a family member and someone in your family has been raped and you want to report this, you now know two things you did not earlier. One, that the penalty, if the person is found guilty, could be death. Two, that the person’s name can go on this database and stay there, ostensibly for all time to come. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that very few people will file complaints. Apart from anything else, you do not want the death of someone on your head.
Of course, statistics on sexual violence will indicate a drop and the state will congratulate itself. But it will not go down because the violence has stopped; it will because the violence has been driven into deep silence.
The past few months have once again shown us how serious and deep-rooted the question of sexual violence in India is. Rather than addressing it with the seriousness it deserves, the state has each time reacted in a knee-jerk manner, putting in place deeply problematic steps. Perhaps it is time to sit back and reflect, and take some well-considered steps. After all, we are dealing with people’s lives.
Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan