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State Scan

Blood by the backwaters

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BODY OF EVIDENCE: Cops maintain that most of the charges cited by NCRB relate to petty traffic offences

Statistics seldom tell the whole story. Especially when it comes to crime, where complicity takes many forms. Often an act of violence yields its gruesome meanings only when broken down to its intimate parts. A few months back, in a packed Thrissur courtroom, a government lawyer, summing up the arguments for the prosecution, began graphically illustrating the rape of 23-year-old Soumya, a salesgirl working in a Kochi mall who commuted daily from her home in Shornur, and the various ways incriminating DNA evidence related to the offender had been collected from the victim's body. Practically everyone in the courtroom was squirming but in a far corner a middle-aged woman sat through the sordid narration stoically. There were no tears and it was clear from the rapt attention on her face that she was taking in every minute detail.

It was not enough for Soumya's mother to know that the rapist, a one-armed man, had entered an empty woman's compartment late one evening and thrown her daughter out of the running train when she resisted his advances. Then, even as she lay bleeding and semi-conscious next to the tracks, the man forced himself on her repeatedly.

On that day in the courtroom, Soumya's mother listened to the gory details to understand at least part of the suffering her dead daughter had gone through and to achieve some sort of closure. For all the others in the room, it was an act of atonement to force themselves to listen.

The Soumya rape and murder became a cause celebre in Kerala, not because of the heinous nature of the incident alone, but because it was also a stark reminder of society's complicity. When Soumya was thrown out of the train by her assailant, a pastor sitting in the adjoining compartment thought he had heard a woman scream. He told his fellow passengers and suggested that they pull the chain to stop the train, but after a heated argument they decided it was not worth the trouble.

The latest numbers put out by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) make Kerala the crime centre of India. Of course, these numbers need to be parsed carefully, even sceptically, to reveal the extent of violence in a society rightly recognised for advances - particularly in education, health and political awareness - unmatched by the rest of the country. For sure, crimes have increased dramatically in the state but the numbers are also a reflection of the alacrity with which crimes get registered, an act that implicitly is a measure to control it too.

Figures compiled till 2010 show that Kerala has a crime rate - number of crimes committed per 1 lakh population - of 424. 1, more than double the national average of 187. 6. Madhya Pradesh is a distant second at 297. 2 offences per lakh population, and Delhi ranks third with a rate of 279. 8. UP belies its notoriety in this respect with a crime rate of just 87. 5. Kerala also ranks highest in the country for crimes against women and for destruction of public property.

Kochi city police commissioner M R Ajith Kumar, however, rubbishes these stats. He points out that that only four murder cases were reported in Kochi - the NCRB report branded it the most dangerous city in the country - in 2010 as against 228 in Mumbai, 103 in Chennai, 49 in Kolkata, 453 in Delhi, and 266 in Bangalore. It was 15 in Thiruvananthapuram and seven in Kozhikode. "Most of the criminal charges cited by NCRB relate to sections 332, 279, 332 and 353 which are petty traffic offences and rash driving. It is ridiculous to state that Kochi is the crime centre of the country by looking at the cases registered under these sections, " fumes Ajith Kumar.

Contestable as the stats are there is no denying that Kerala has become a more violent place. Supply side criminology has a readymade answer for this. The state is fast modernising, its society is in major churn and a certain amount of crime thus becomes inevitable. Noted criminologist and lawyer James Vadakkumcherry believes that the family, especially women, who traditionally acted as a deterrent and corrective force no longer do so. "The family as a unit is no longer a bulwark against crime. Whether it is traditional crimes like murder, rape and robbery or modern crimes like cyber and investment fraud, criminals are getting the support of their family. If a son or husband returns home and says that he has been booked for murder or immoral trafficking, the first thought that comes to the mind of the women at home is how to fight the case legally and get him out, " he says.

Not everyone would agree to this and some would add a caveat. "Most women here are still dependent on their husbands. Even if the husband commits a crime, a woman stands by him in order to safeguard the interests of her family. She is solely concerned about the interests of the family and is forced to go to any extent to protect it, " argues Beena Sebastian, noted activist and chairperson of Cultural Academy for Peace.

Vadukkumcherry points to another interesting development, what he calls the JEL (judiciary, executive, legislature) phenomenon, of how growing crime in the state is a direct consequence of the way these three pillars of society have compromised their basic responsibilities. "The main branches that uphold values in a democratic society have become highly corrupt. And such systemic corruption indirectly conveys a message to individuals that crime is tolerated, that it is not the end of the world, " he explains.

The last decade in Kerala has seen not just crime's ubiquity but also its disconcerting variety. Sex scandals, involving teenage girls passed around a well-oiled circuit and often, alarmingly, with the connivance of close relatives, keep proliferating. Armed robbery has risen dramatically, with gangs specialising in niche crimes like theft in jewellery stores or attacks on elderly citizens.

But perhaps the most noticeable development has been the rise of the so-called 'quotation' gangs, criminals for hire ready for anything for the right price - from murdering a lover's spouse to leaning on a business rival. Originally nurtured by politicians and big business houses for the sake of muscle power, quotation gangs these days have spread like spirochete in every city and town of Kerala, distinguishing themselves by the ruthlessness of their operations and the utter lack of remorse its members exhibit when apprehended. However, of late, due to the introduction of the Goonda Act and its rigorous implementation the influence of quotation gangs has indeed decreased.

Strangely, organised crime - syndicates in the flesh trade, human trafficking, drugs etc - is conspicuously absent in Kerala. There are no neat answers for this, but possibly, it could be related to the fact that crime, especially big crime, thrives only if it is allowed the necessary space. As Franklin E Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law, so convincingly argues in his new book, The City That Became Safe, "Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances;it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry. " It's a view echoed by inspector general of police K Padmakumar. "Changing crime trends are the result of changing social dynamics. Police, who too are part of society, reflect this. Police can never be a corrective force per se, they can only seek to prevent things from worsening, " he says.

(With additional reporting by Ajay Kanth)

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