Urban-Rural Incidence of Rape in India: Myths and Social Science Evidence

LGDI Working Paper No 2013-1

The gang rape of a Delhi physiotherapy student in December 2012 has sparked a national debate on the incidence and causes of rape and other sexual offences in India. One strand of this debate is the assertion that acts of rape and sexual violence occur with greater frequency and intensity in urban rather than rural India. Mohan Bhagwat, Sarsanghachalak (Supreme Chief) of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) observed that: “Where Bharat becomes India with the influence of western culture, these type of incidents happen. The actual Indian values and culture should be established at every stratum of society where women are treated as mother”. Statements like this rest on two distinct claims: first; the empirical claim that the incidence of rape in urban India is higher than rural India, second; the sociological claim that culture best explains the differential rate of incidence of such crimes. The second claim that culture best explains higher rates of rape and that ‘westernisation’ displaces the morals and values of rural India results in a divisive political debate.

While both these claims deserve intense critical scrutiny, the response so far has been modest and misleading.A useful beginning can be made by noting that the second claim of the causal influence of culture depends on whether we can establish that there exists a higher rate of rape incidence in urban rather than rural areas. The Times of India ran a campaign seeking to establish that rapes in India were in fact, a predominantly rural phenomenon. It appears that these reports were based on research into the rates of conviction in cases of rape and gang-rape reported in the Criminal Law
Journal from the High Courts and the Supreme Court.

In this essay, we show that both these arguments adopt an unsatisfactory approach to the empirical question on the rates of rape incidence in India.We argue that the claim of a higher rate of rape incidence in urban areas is not sustainable on three grounds. First, an analysis of data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the Census of India at the district level does not show any positive correlation between urbanisation and rates of reported rape incidence. Second, we cannot use data on appellate court outcomes such as that from the Criminal Law Journal to establish rates of incidence of crime. Third, accurate claims of crime incidence cannot be made in the absence of crime victimisation surveys. The paper addresses each these grounds in turn below.

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Sudhir Krishnaswamy, Shishir Bail and Rohan Kothari, Urban-Rural Incidence of Rape in India: Myths and Social Science Evidence (LGDI Working Paper No 2013-1, 18th April 2013)