The discourse on caste posits that there is disproportionately more violence against SCs and STs, and that the government, the police and justice systems are failing to contain it. Fact-checking tells us that it is not just a few media outlets, but groups like Amnesty and even the US State Department have manipulated data and employed major fallacies to advance these claims. Such propaganda is leading to skewed policy measures and, therefore, a discourse in empirical data and scientific rigour must be established.
In an earlier article (goo.gl/54m5mi), we had analysed the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) 2016 statistics on crimes against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), and seen that, if anything, it indicates SCs and STs face far lesser violence than the average population. We had also questioned claims made on the behalf of NCRB’s data that crimes against SCs and STs had disproportionately increased.
After my article—which showed major errors in Indiaspend’s story—Indiaspend’s founder Govindraj Ethiraj appeared to offer an apology, pointing to a regret they had published and the two errors that were corrected. But he blamed NCRB’s methodology for the story’s errors and said nothing about the many problems (including numerical errors) that still remain uncorrected in the story, as of writing this. Also, an older version of the problematic story with all the hoaxes intact is still being brazenly hosted at ThePrint run by eminent journalist Shekhar Gupta, carrying a cynical heading ‘Crimes against Dalits rose 746% in 10 years & the police are half as likely to help’ (italics mine).
In this article, we analyse additional data and claims made by some media outlets and activist groups such as Amnesty. We discuss how a complete disdain for data and facts is driving the discourse on caste today, and how the hoaxes and errors are only instances of this larger problem. It should concern us that such reports with erroneous data and fact-free ideological assertions have been published not just by some fringe media and activist groups, but also by foreign agencies, who together form a mutually reinforcing ecosystem. The US State Department, for example, makes claims on the behalf of “NGOs” suggesting there is excessive violence against Dalits in India. It resorted to a similar hoax in its 2014 report on human rights in India. It claimed that the “National crime statistics indicated that, compared with other caste affiliations, rape was most often perpetrated against Dalit women.” No data from any NCRB yearly reports can be used to make this preposterous claim. In the 2013 NCRB report, for example (which was possibly the one available with the US State Department when they created their 2014 report), the number of rapes reported against SCs was 2,073, while against the overall population the number was 33,707, implying that Dalits (who form about 16.6% of the overall population) faced at least three times lesser rapes than others in India. But as we shall see, such errors and fallacies do not just aid the creation of atrocity propaganda against India, but the discourse based on them has even come to influence public policy on crimes.
The data on violent crimes
Every year when the annual reports on crimes are released by NCRB, activists and journalists flock to it and cull numbers to eloquently narrativise about the alarming caste violence. Every rising curve of fluctuation is presented as a confirmation of their anxieties that it has reached a tipping point. But let us check what the data tells us.
The accompanying graph plots the rates of violent crimes reported against SCs, STs and the overall population from the time such data was made available. But, in doing so, we face one limitation: not all the numbers in the yearly reports have the same classifications of crimes for all the years and populations considered. For example, the 1994 data does not have some categories that are available for the subsequent years. Similarly, many classifications were changed in 2014 that are completely incommensurate with earlier years. Therefore, rather than making too many assumptions and approximations to include these years, let us, for the moment, consider only the period between 1995 and 2013 when all the classifications of important indicators of violent crimes are commensurate. The crimes include murder, rape, kidnapping and abduction, hurt, dacoity, robbery, and arson.
From the data, we see that the rates of violent crimes reported against SCs and STs are fluctuating, but within a small band. The rate for overall population too is fluctuating, but has seen an increase since 2008. As the data indicates, construing every rise or fall of the fluctuation as some significant trend to draw sensational conclusions about them is not only simplistic, but also fallacious. However, there are observations that can unequivocally be made from the data. Firstly, there is no significant increase in the rate of violent crimes against SCs and STs in the considered period. Secondly, as we had seen in my earlier article too, the data suggests that rates of violent crimes against SCs and STs are significantly less compared to the rates of violent crimes against the overall population, a trend that can be seen for all the years in the period considered.
But when activists and journalists who further the skewed discourse on caste violence encounter contradictory data, they either brazenly ignore it or resort to ad hoc arguments to avoid the falsification of their claims.
For example, let us consider the claims made by Amnesty India and its head Aakar Patel in a statement released recently. The group questioned the Supreme Court for relying on NCRB data, calling it “cherry-picking statistics to reach dubious conclusions.” They were talking about the Supreme Court’s observations on the misuse of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act which appear to be based on the data compiled by NCRB. The data had indicated that a large number of cases under the Act were reported to be false after investigations. So what data was the Supreme Court not looking at or deliberately overlooking when it was “cherry-picking”? Patel does not tell us anything about that. Instead, Amnesty’s statement argues that there is excessive violence against SCs and STs. And, in supporting this, it manipulates data, appeals to anecdotal evidence and employs major fallacies.
Amnesty’s fudging of the conviction rates
Amnesty makes the claim that the conviction rates for crimes against SCs and STs are disproportionately low. This claim is often made by many activists and is sometimes also held as the reason why crimes against SCs and STs are under-reported and hence hidden from crime data. The statement by Amnesty says, “According to the NCRB’s 2016 data, the conviction rate for crimes under the Act is only 15%, compared to 47% for all crimes under the Indian Penal Code.” But when we cross-check against NCRB’s 2016 yearly report, this alarmist claim comes out to be completely false. For the total crimes under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, the conviction rates are reported as 25.8% and 20.8% for SCs and STs respectively, not 15% as claimed by Amnesty.
But aren’t these numbers too not considerably less than the 47% for all crimes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC)? This disparity is not because of some “caste bias” in judiciary or police or due to some “caste oppression”. It is because of Amnesty’s erroneous comparison between two entities that do not have matching crime-headings within them. The IPC has many different crimes under it with different conviction rates. For example, the conviction rates for cheque bounces and murders may be vastly different. A useful comparison can only be made when we have matching crime-headings for all the populations considered. The accompanying table compiles the numbers for all the crime-headings that match. And they happen to be the most important violent crimes. The conviction rates that we get when we combine these violent crimes are 29.3% for SCs, 22.1% for STs and 24.8% for the overall population.
So how did Amnesty arrive at the conviction rate of 15%? It appears to have considered only part of the crimes under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act which possibly are less severe compared to the violent crimes that are booked under IPC also. This throws up an interesting question: Why are the conviction rates for less severe crimes against SCs and STs significantly less compared to the violent crimes against them? Is it because the former crimes are difficult to prove? Is it because they have a large number of false cases? These may indeed be questions worth pursuing.
The claims about under-reporting of crimes
Amnesty’s cleverly worded statement also furthers another oft-repeated claim that cases against SCs and STs are under-reported and hence that the crime data from NCRB should not be relied upon. This claim is attributed to unnamed “rights organisations.” As Dunkin Jalki and Sufiya Pathan point out in their research paper on the subject published in 2017, this claim is often used as a ‘caveat’ to salvage the unfounded conclusions about excessive violence that are said to be based on NCRB data.
Crimes are indeed known to be under-reported in all populations, serious violent crimes like murders to a lesser degree than the less severe ones like altercations. But it would be extraordinary if one were to imply (without any evidence whatsoever) that there is disproportionately more violence against SCs and STs and that under-reporting hides this from the crime data. For example, the total number of murders reported in India was 32,127 in 2015. Of these, in 813 cases the victims were SCs and in 316 cases the victims were STs. So if you claim that SCs (with about 16.6% of the population) and STs (with about 8.6% of the population) are more likely to get murdered than others, you will have to show that at least 7,000 murders of SCs and STs have gone unreported in India in 2015 alone. This amounts to more than a hundred thousand unreported murders of SCs and STs since 1994. Amnesty may want to castigate the whole of India as a perennial war zone like Syria to make such ludicrous claims plausible. But at least those who are not under the spell of such atrocity propaganda may demand evidence. As Carl Sagan would put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They cannot stand on extraordinary assertions.
Yes, the data on crimes may not be perfect, may have ambiguities, may need to be more robust to aid crime reduction and may not be a panacea. But the data is not unreliable in the sense that it needs to be substituted by fact-free ideological assertions or anecdotal evidence.
Nice tries Amnesty!
Politicisation of policy-making on crimes
Accompanying the propaganda on caste violence is often the clamour for harder and draconian provisions that are said to be required for curtailing the spiralling violence against SCs and STs. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act already provides very strict provisions like automatic arrests and denial of anticipatory bail for even very minor crimes without graduating them based on the severity. As the Supreme Court recently noted, even in the dreaded Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA)—which has been repealed as it was considered too draconian—or in the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) which deals with organised crimes, such provisions exist only for very serious offences. But, in spite of that, there have been concerted efforts by political activists, even through manufactured instances of political unrest, to make the case that the violence has been spiralling out of control and more draconian measures are needed.
While strict punishments and measures can indeed be prescribed for serious crimes, the propaganda has completely drowned reasonable pleas such as for graded measures based on the severity of crimes—a feature that is inherent to every mature justice system. Agencies like the Amnesty have even taken it upon themselves to browbeat the Supreme Court into reconsidering its order that seeks at least a preliminary inquiry before arrests are made, especially for minor crimes under the Act. Even the government and the political parties seem to have completely succumbed to such demands due to the influence of this propaganda and the exigencies of electoral politics.
But, as we have seen, the discourse behind such demands has no basis in fact. Rather, it seems to be driven by an extreme sense of vengeance, ideological assumptions and political considerations. Criminal justice systems, the world over, no more view punishments as retributions, but as a means to deter crimes. In many parts of the world, robust data is also being used to make effective policies to reduce even the most violent of crimes. But, in India, it appears that even policy-making on crimes has become politicised and outsourced to ideology.
Imagine using a hacked thermometer that faultily reports high body temperatures, creating anxiety and calling for popping more and more paracetamols every time. Should we not pause for a moment and look at the horror that this thermometer (or the quack employing it) may be inflicting? It is a tragedy that policy measures are being forced into becoming blunt instruments trying to solve a wrongly diagnosed problem. The claims that such uncalibrated measures are somehow in the interests of Dalits are also completely unfounded. In fact, as some studies suggest, such draconian provisions may also be creating a fear psychosis among other sections of the society and making economic transactions difficult, leading to loss of livelihood and economic opportunities for Dalits.
Establishing the field in scientific rigour
If we are genuinely concerned about the problems of discrimination and crimes against the underprivileged in India, we need robust data and targeted measures to address them.
While activists and other interested parties including foreign agencies may be blatantly misusing the crime data to further their political and ideological narratives, the government too is to blame for this. The government has not been professional in dealing with the crime data and its implications. The data that is published by NCRB is in a raw format and not enough care has been taken even to present it in the proper statistical context. In fact, NCRB’s data on crimes against SCs and STs from 2016 is not even fully commensurate with the overall numbers and requires normalisations to even be compared. No wonder, then, that this opens up the data for misrepresentation.
It may be tempting to view all the manipulations, errors and fallacies that we have seen, as due to malice or reckless activism. But while not denying their role, it is also important to understand that common cognitive biases (or what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘intuitive statistics’) form an important part in their making. In fact, they work in tandem. And while healing the blind-spots due to ideology may be hard, at least the statistical errors due to cognitive biases could be addressed by taking a few very simple steps. For example, even the standing committee of Parliament which deliberated on the amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in 2015 seems to have made serious errors in statistical judgment. This includes using absolute numbers from NCRB data to conclude that atrocities are at a “disturbing level,” without even looking at similar rates for the overall population. Wouldn’t it help in accurate policy-making if NCRB itself could provide a proper analysis of these numbers and explain them in a contextualised manner?
The government could even consider soliciting help from independent analysts or the NITI Aayog, to use the latest methods and technologies to not just analyse and present these numbers but to suggest policy measures, evaluate effectiveness, bring in best practices from around the world, and track progress—similar to how the Economic Survey of India is doing, for example? This will not only help in depoliticising the discourse, but also in guarding policy-making against the frenzy of atrocity propaganda. These would also be good first steps in establishing the discourse in empirical data and scientific rigour. Does the government of India not owe its people these very simple but critical reforms?
Reproduced (goo.gl/Z6Yikv) with permission from Swarajya (swarajyamag.com)
By Nihar Sashittal, independent researcher with a keen interest in science, philosophy and the study of Indian civilisation.