Why is there less heinous crime against women in South India?

“This is not to say that patriarchy does not exist in the South but it does not do so in such a toxic fashion.”

ByRashme Sehgal

Published Mar 30, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMar 30, 2024 | 5:43 PM

Representational image. (iStock)

Why is there a marked North-South geographical divide as far as heinous crimes against women are concerned? If we take the example of rape, this accounts for 12 percent of all crimes against women but the NCRB data shows that while Delhi accounts for 22 percent of rape cases- three reported every day- Tamil Nadu has a rate of less than one percent having reported twelve cases in a year.

According to the latest NCRB data, Uttar Pradesh has recorded the highest number of crimes against women, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, while Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are way behind in the area of heinous crimes.

Madhu Bhushan, activist and writer who has worked with the CIEDS Collective and Vimochana for three decades, believes, “The kind of patriarchy that exists in the north is far more brutal, legitimised as it is by caste and religion. This explains why there are honour killings, dowry murders and rape. This is not to say that patriarchy does not exist in the South, but it does not do so in such a toxic fashion.”

According to the 2022 NCRB data from the 19 metro cities, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, like Kolkata, has not reported a single sexual harassment case. The national capital city, on the other hand, accounted for a staggering 29 percent of the 48,755 crimes against women reported in these metros. Jaipur, Lucknow, Kanpur and Mumbai also reported a large number of crimes, including kidnapping, insult to the modesty of a woman and dowry deaths.

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Levels of policing

Other women activists working in the field of violence against women believe that levels of policing are better in the South as compared to the North. “There is a much more collaborative approach vis-a-vis the cops. NGOs in the South hold the police more accountable, and the latter, too, reach out to us, which does not seem to be the case in the northern states where the police seem to adopt a much more heavy-handed approach,” said Bengaluru-based Sumithra Acharya, lawyer and women’s rights activist.

However, Acharya points out that this is not to say that women do not face harassment and criminal intimidation in the South, which, too, can vary from state to state.

“Women face moral policing, and there are political organisations which, in the name of culture, impose a dress code and do not want women to go to pubs or celebrate Valentine’s Day. Even in Kerala, we find that despite high literacy levels, women face several sexual taboos,’’ she said.

Not only are the cow-belt states reporting one rape every hour, but they are reporting rape followed by murder, gang rape, kidnapping and rape, and even worse. Rapists do not hesitate to post online videos of the rape to shame the victim and her family. Families unable to bear the shame often have fathers, victims and sometimes other members committing suicide. The trend of gang rapes in the North has seen an exponential rise.

The police would like us to believe that the crime rate is much higher in the North because of better crime reporting. However, statistics confirm that women in the South are better educated and enjoy more autonomy than their northern counterparts.

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Reformation movements

Dr Nagalakshmi Chaudhury, chairperson of the State Karnataka Commission for Women, offers two explanations for the lower crime rate in the South. She maintains, “There have been several reformation movements in the south which have helped raise the status of women matched only by their early access to education given to women.”

She cites the example of the former Maharajah of Mysore, who started a separate college for women in Mysore in the nineteenth century to allow them to pursue higher studies. “The other plus is better policing in the south than in the North. The police in the South have to act immediately on a woman’s complaint,” said Chaudhury.

Horrific crimes do take place in the South. Nalini Shekhar, founder of Hasiru Dala (Green Force), cites a recent example of a boy and girl from different castes running away together. “The girl’s family members stripped the boy’s mother and tied her up to shame her,” she said. Domestic violence and alcoholism are also rampant in the South, said Shekhar.

Because all three women activists have been working with a cross-section of women in the South, they offer broad comparisons between the North and their southern counterparts.
Dr Alice Evans, a King’s College, London lecturer, has extensively researched gender disparity between India’s northern and southern states. She insists that data from a woman with the same amount of household wealth, caste and religion as her North Indian counterpart would enjoy more autonomy, whether it is in education, marriage or ownership of assets if she lives in the South.

She attributes the North’s poor treatment of women to a variety of factions, including a legacy of wheat cultivation, deep tillage, pastoralism, caste-based policing and invasions.

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Historical reasons

The NCRB crime figures bear this out. Way back in 1978, when 7.8 lakh criminal cases were registered under different sections of the IPC for the eight northern states, the four southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka accounted for 20 percent of the crimes reported that year. There was one in the South for every three crimes committed in the North every two minutes. Sixty percent of all murders and rapes occur in northern India, as per the NCRB data.

This picture was very different fifty years ago when a study conducted by the Public Affairs Centre showed greater rural poverty in the southern states, slated at 66 percent compared to 55 percent in the Hindi cow belt. Interestingly, people from the South would migrate to the North for jobs. The reverse is happening today, and the northerners move south looking for employment.

How did this turnaround take place? The quality of governance, better leadership and political stability ensured the southern states surged ahead, resulting in a decline in poverty and a consequential increase in the per capita incomes in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Acharya believes the “percentage of violence in the North can be attributed to a lack of education, poverty, child marriage, lack of freedom for the girl child who ends up leading a very suffocative life”. She also pointed out, “Many of the women, when they come south, tell us such sad stories about their upbringing. The challenges they face are enormous. “

Because the southern states have outperformed the northern states in the areas of health, education, and economic opportunities, they may be seeing fewer heinous crimes than the North. A combination of conservatism and tolerance could be paying off.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author.)