Crime and punishment

By Sumit Chaturvedi

8 November 2019

The Polis Project dissects India’s crime data.
Calcutta High Court. Photo: Avrajyoti Mitra / Flickr

Calcutta High Court. Photo: Avrajyoti Mitra / Flickr

As the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in India belatedly published its crime-statistics reports for the year 2017 on 21 October 2019, the debate circled back around crime data and its categorisation. Even though NCRB had recorded data for newly introduced categories of mob lynching, and hate violence for its 2017 report, these statistics do not find a place in the final published document. The reason behind it, the Home Ministry states, is that the data has errors which need to be rectified.

Political Violence and Justice Lab, an initiative by the research and journalism organisation The Polis Project, has for over a year been undertaking an extensive exercise of building a database on incidents of collective violence which includes two or more perpetrators since the year 2000. This exercise aims to analyse the impact of hate and violence on Indian society and the effects of political violence on issues of justice. Violence Lab also recorded incidents of violence during the general elections of 2019, which included cases of violence near polling stations and elsewhere. Recently the initiative has also taken up the task of tabulating mass graves across the world since the beginning of the 20th century.

Vasundhara Sirnate, the director of research at The Polis Project, who is heading this project speaks about recent developments regarding the NCRB, crime statistics and their analyses, and the data set that The Polis Project is working on. The conversation also touches upon larger issues of data collection, its analysis and intelligible representation for the public, the importance of violence-related data, and its role in decoding power dynamics and politics in society.

Sumit Chaturvedi: What was the motivation behind the Political Violence and Justice Lab?

Vasundhara Sirnate: Our first motivation was that in the Indian public sphere, arguments were being made without proper evidence by both sides. As political scientists we know that the chances of an argument, made without proper evidence, being wrong are quite high. On the one hand, there were people who were saying intolerance is rising, and on the other hand, there were those saying that India has never been more peaceful, that we do not have identity-based clashes anymore. We realised that both sides were talking without data and wanted to do something about it. There was also a second motivation about the nature of the crime and the justice system itself. While NCRB collects data under Indian Penal Code sections, it does not give a sense of the nature of the crime. We only get broad data about the conviction rates and dismissals. For instance, we know the number of cases recorded under IPC sections for rioting, but we don’t know what happens to these cases as they progress through the justice system. We do not get granular analysis from the data we get from NCRB. Our objective was to see if we can build some kind of rubric to understand what happens in these types of cases: do they even go to trial, what happens after they go to trial, what is the verdict and whether an inquiry commission is set up to look into these cases. The third motivation was to build a dataset. India is an extremely data rich country but there is a problem across many fields, the way data are gathered and interpreted. It often leaves a lot to people’s imaginations which makes data very susceptible to being used for political purposes.

We started collecting data from newspaper reports [from 2000 onwards] from one publication for now – The Hindu ­– in cases of two or more people engaged in some sort of collective violence against an individual(s). We also wanted to get around the criticisms being levelled against those only recording cattle related incidents like violence for beef eating, cow slaughter or transporting cattle. There are more hate crimes than just these, which also need to be looked at. Of course, the identity of the victim is important but we need to focus on all such crimes irrespective of whether the victim belongs to a minority community or not.

SC: Was there a specific reasoning behind determining a parameter of two or more people when looking at cases of collective violence?

VS: We have a very intuitive understanding of what a mob is. But there is no clear idea of what is the minimum threshold to define it. When it’s a one-on-one crime, it doesn’t mean that it could not be a hate crime but we wanted to see at what level is this kind of violence occurring in concert with someone else. One of the reasons why we set this two-people benchmark was because we were looking at cases of sexual violence, which according to me also qualify as hate crimes because they show a complete lack of respect for the body and identity of a woman or a child or anyone who is vulnerable. When it is a case of one-on-one sexual violence it is called ‘rape’ but if there are two people involved it is classified as a ‘gang rape’. So, by setting the ‘two or more’ people benchmark, we could also pick up gang rapes in our dataset. NCRB started recording figures for gang rapes separately only since the year 2014, before which they only had the category of rape. So that was the reason behind this benchmarking, because two or more is defined as collective action. That’s why we don’t use the term mob violence but collective violence.

SC: We know that there is a systemic problem of reporting of incidents to the police in India. Does your project reveal anything about the state of crime reporting in the country?

VS: I think that there is a lot of scope for improvement in how crimes are reported and how they are recorded. It really depends on the nature of crimes as to which ones are reported and recorded by the police, and which ones aren’t. If it’s a murder and there’s a body somewhere, the crimes are more likely to be recorded. From what I am given to understand, reporting of murder is quite good as of now unless the body of the victim is disappeared suddenly. However, the problem arises when, for instance, the victim is from a vulnerable community and the murder is recorded, but not under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act). There lies the problem of invisibilisation. My work in the past [formerly with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy as the Chief Coordinator of Research] also shows that rape is the most under-reported and under-recorded crime. The problem arises at two levels. First, women don’t report because of stigma and fear of the perpetrators. Second, when they do go to the police station, we do not know how many times rapes are recorded as rapes [and not other types of sexual assault]. Although, since the 2012 gang rape incident in Delhi there has been quite an improvement in the sensitivity levels of the local police in many parts of the country, it’s still not perfect. We have to understand that the reporting of these crimes does go hand in hand with the local structures of power. Police in the city may be more independent of political influence but not so much in small towns. If the police constable or inspector in that town is from the local community and the woman approaching them is from a minority community, the chances of her crime being recorded are very small. So, the reporting of crimes is also very political.

SC: From your experience, how do you see the performance of government as well as civil-society organisations in interpreting and presenting crime statistics and data in an intelligible manner for the wider public?

VS: In India if you know where to look you will find some data. However, there are complications as to how this data is made accessible to the public and how many people are trained to read it properly. We must understand that data is not easy to work with. You need to have a special bent of mind to cut through the numbers and see the patterns. Apart from people who are working with it or are trained in it like those with mathematical or logical training, it’s very difficult to see. Non-profits also collect a lot of data by region on different issues. But they almost never release the raw data completely so that you can reach your own conclusions. They give you a graph or a pie chart and you are supposed to take their word for it. Even many governmental agencies do that and that becomes a problem. Unless the representation and description of the data comes from someone you can trust, it is really difficult to buy into what is being said. But at the same time there are also huge problems with releasing raw data because it is so huge that even if someone manipulates a part of it, they can give you a completely different interpretation of what the data is saying.

SC: NCRB last year included categories of mob violence and hate crimes for which to collect data. Do you think that this move came about as a response to the increasing visibility of such crimes in the past few years and the consequential pressure on the government? Also, what are your views on the government not releasing the data collected under these categories thus far?

VS: I have been looking at NCRB data released for the past three decades. As a researcher I was always impressed by how it has evolved as an institution. Every year, if you look at the reports for last ten years or so, they have been adding new descriptions, statistics or tables. So, there is growth within the organisation. For instance, they started bringing out separate data on gang rapes a few years back. As the years have gone by and the data collection software have also evolved, their data-collection and statistics have also become more sophisticated, which is appreciable. However, the 2017 ‘Crime in India’ report has taken two years to release. It never took so long before. They were actually very punctual with their reports. The 2017 report should have come out last year. I cannot comment on the internal functioning of the organisation but even if they made a decision to collect the data on mob lynching or hate crimes, at least we should be aware that internally there has been a discussion to push it through [for the final publication of the statistics]. However, they have not been able to release it and I think we know why. It’s precisely because, as I have been saying, people will interpret this data as they want to. If it is not being released it is probably because it doesn’t make the government look too good. Based on the data we have been collecting I know that for the year 2000 we didn’t pick up so many incidents as we did for 2014 or 2013 for that matter, before the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] came into power. There are reasons for it. It isn’t specifically linked to a political regime. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that because a particular party is in power, there are more crimes. I also wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that a certain government isn’t encouraging such crimes. Certainly, there is an enabling environment that has been provided for a certain type of crime since 2014. However, there is also the case of better reporting now, with more pages in a lot of newspapers for such reportage. The news that doesn’t make it to the print edition, makes it to the websites of most papers. So, the number of incidents that are making it to the public sphere are also more. When we try to isolate the effect of certain factors, we have to see what the other variables are that are leading an observer to see more incidents of a certain category of crime. So, it is absolutely essential that NCRB release the data that they have. I understand the concern if they are saying it’s imperfect, although I don’t know how it is imperfect, because they should ideally have the data from the State Crime Records Bureau which in turn are collecting data from local precincts. But they should release it because their entire data collection enterprise is for the public. People should know what is happening. If we can come up with an analysis and understanding of which places are more prone to crimes against women and the status of policing there, why can’t we come to a similar understanding regarding hate crimes and mob lynching?

SC: As you will come up with more analysis and interpretation on the data you are collecting, how do you see the readiness and capability of Indian society and citizenry to understand this kind of knowledge and be affected by it?

VS: Let me say that there is an immense scope in this regard. We actually teased some of our data during the 2019 General Elections on cases of electoral violence during the time that the model code of conduct was implemented. We coded about 129 such incidents across the country. I was pleasantly surprised that people wanted to see this information. No one seemed to have collected data on electoral violence. Maybe the Election Commission had the data but I have never seen it on their website. I know newspapers report it but they don’t enumerate them to reveal what electoral violence looks like state-wise. Intuitively, we know that elections are violent. Citizens are interested in knowing more. They might be cynical but they are not apathetic. Cynicism should not be confused with apathy. When I teased this data out in form of a map there was immense engagement on social media. At the same time, I realised that this could become quite political because people started reaching out to us requesting to send them the raw data. We realised that these were political parties’ cells from various states. But we wanted to collect the data for a longer period of time and release it in public interest. Putting out a graph or a pie chart or a nice-looking regression [to determine relationship between dependent and independent variables] wouldn’t make much sense to the common public, because even to read a graph or a chart you need some kind of basic training or education. Question is how do you take this information to the people, where it really matters, to villages and smaller towns and to universities. I think that is a more long-term project and that is real public education. We also need to change the way knowledge is produced and also consumed. One of the reasons that we do this is because we want to change that. In order to make the information comprehensible for common people you have to build a story around it which is fair and which talks about the rights of people. The probability of witnessing or hearing about hate crime, or being a target of it if you belong to a minority community or are a woman, are more than zero. People need to be armed; being forewarned is to be armed. If we have the data on which districts are more prone to cases of gang rapes then we can go and have a conversation with the Bureau of Police Research and Development and ask for changes in action. So, I think that there are ways in which this narrative and data and information can travel without prejudice or spinning, and that is the hope in future that we can conduct a series of lectures or just engage with the public over all kinds of media whether newspapers or social media or just interpersonal conversations with the people. That is how we hope that we can make this information travel.

SC: Can you elaborate upon the other project that you are handling concerning documentation of mass graves?

VS: It was in May this year when I tried to look for information on mass graves globally and I couldn’t find it anywhere. There was some information on Wikipedia but it wasn’t exhaustive. I found reports of different countries which had mass graves. So, I thought of tabulating all these mass graves. In June we started doing that and now we have got a baseline dataset ready. We looked at the archives of the New York Times from 1900s onwards, that of The Guardian, Observer from around the same period, and we have gone over about 60,000 articles which mention mass graves. When I mapped it, I found that there were still gaps because there were countries which came up with no mass graves about which we knew for a fact that there had to be. We realised that there was so much going on, on the ground that wasn’t being picked up. The reason that I am raising this issue, is that first, this data should exist somewhere, either with the United Nations or with NGOs, but somehow none of it is available in a single list in the public sphere. If this data was out there, think of what researchers could do with it in terms of looking at boundaries between countries, what militia do or what international state responses could be. We found so many mass graves which are centred in the border areas of countries that are in conflict with each other or facing some sort of civil war. For instance, when refugees attempt to leave their countries, they are often shot by militaries along the border trying to cross over into another country. Then they are hastily buried and accounts get more and more gory. At this point we have marked around 560 mass graves and we are probably going to get more because we are not even done with the one tenth of the countries. If such data is not made available to scholars how are they going to advance knowledge politically that could lead to something more democratic or just?

SC: Do you see a pattern in terms of frequency of mass graves being reported in different countries?

VS: In the last ten years there have been more mass graves exhumed in a systematic manner than before and that is primarily because they are using better technology such as satellite imagery or using drones to look for soil that has been disturbed. There is a whole branch of forensic anthropology that is solely dedicated to detection of mass graves and dating of the remains and it is absolutely stunning. It is something which political scientists haven’t even begun to touch. We did find that there was not a lot of reporting available on mass graves in Kosovo since 2014 [despite the continuing discovery of these graves] which was bewildering to us. We wondered if there is a direction to not report these graves. We also come across maps from RefWorld [source of information on refugee status maintained by UN High Commissioner for Refugees] according to which there should be around 50 mass graves spread over many locations, but in our dataset there were only ten. And it all becomes political because the question is who killed these people? If the political dispensation under which these people were executed is in power now, they will stop any kind of exhumation or any detection activity. A lot of graves were pinpointed and identified because of survivor testimonies of those who come out later and testify about the graves and the dead bodies buried there. And when the team goes there, they find out that the site has been cemented and tarmacked over. Then there are accidental discoveries where dead bodies were put in refrigerated trucks and driven into a lake [Lake Perućac, Serbia] and they were found only when a dam was being built and the waters had to be lowered. This is the darker side of politics and it is happening within our lifetimes. The ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanians happened in our lifetimes, then how is it that we don’t know enough about it? Similarly, the mass graves of Afghanistan have happened in our lifetime. How is it that we don’t know how many there are? I would say that because of Western media coverage in the Middle East one of the best documented set of mass graves that have come up are where the ISIS was active and that is because there is a team which does nothing else but identify these graves and publish reports on it. It is absolutely heart breaking to read those reports but then survivor testimonies were key in identifying where those massacres happened. Mass graves are not making the headlines in mainstream media. There is a way in which this dark underbelly of modern states is being completely eclipsed by softer news. I really wish that journalists could refocus their attention on these issues, but I also understand these things are too macabre for the general public to consume, even disturbing for the data collectors. But it needs to be done.

SC: So, there is an entire science and politics of covering up these mass crimes at the national levels?

VS: Absolutely. For a long time, political scientists have been trying to decipher which type of regime is the best option. Some say socialism was not that bad or democracy is good, but if you think about it there are mass graves in almost every country. It is about who controls the power what is their moral makeup and what lengths are they willing to go to, to eliminate the people they felt didn’t belong there. It is not just about exclusion. Exclusion is a very polite term. This is execution. Of course, regime type matters since it determines how the public can question its government. In authoritarian states you cannot do it and in democratic states you can to a certain extent although right now there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in some parts of the world. It’s really about who we are putting in charge of running things, in power.


~Sumit Chaturvedi is an independent journalist and researcher. He writes on politics, economy and social issues, and blogs at



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