Policing the police

Policing the Police

Souvenir 1988


The first nationwide campaign carried out by autonomous women’s groups was directed against the police. The Mathura Rape case (a minor girl, Mathura, was raped in police custody) led to public protests against police atrocities and demands for changes in patriarchal laws which victimize innocent women. As a result of the nationwide stir, the government was forced to bring about changes in the laws relating to rape. In spite of increased vigilance and public protest police atrocities have been rising at an alarming rate. In collusion with anti-social elements, the police continue to perpetrate violence not only against women, but also against political activists, ordinary law abiding citizens and the poor.

Saheli’s first encounter with the police highlighted their high-handedness and lawlessness. A young woman had sought shelter in Saheli. While we wanted to discuss the matter with her family, the police acted on a verbal complain and accused Saheli of running a brothel and charged us with kidnapping and abduction. They entered our office illegally, snatched our registers and records. When a journalist came to investigate the matter, he was beaten and locked up. Due to vehement public protest, the Station House Officer of the police station was transferred. Our minor victory was possible because the national press highlighted the issue.

In spite of public protest the police continue their high-handedness. The recent beating up of a woman activist on March 15, 1988 while observing Bharat Bandh has been actively condemned by women’s groups in Delhi. Joint appeals made to the Delhi Police and Administration have gone unheeded while the Home Minister has justified police brutality. Needless to say, higher government officials do precious little to take action against errant policemen. In an effort to cover up, a wall of bureaucratic silence is presented to frustrate any efforts at securing justice.

Our experience of dealing with the police on a day-to-day basis is equally frustrating. In helping individuals overcome crimes committed against them, such as family violence, we are forced to deal with the police. Our attempts to lodge a complaint, to get an investigation started or to seek police intervention in crisis situations are invariably met with apathy and non-cooperation. Police behaviour with working class women is even worse, as can be judged by Kamlesh’s case for whom we are trying to secure justice at present. Kamlesh has been involved in a dispute with her landlord, but in spite of a stay order against eviction, the police in collusion with her alleged landlord threatened, attempted to bribe and finally beat her and her minor children. They slapped a false charge against her and kept her in police custody where they molested her. One of her children, a nine year old boy, died a few days later due to the vicious beating he had received. His post-mortem report has been falsified to show that he died of pneumonia. A crime branch report clearly indicated that the boy had been murdered, however, this report has been set aside. Repeated appeals by Saheli and other organisations to the Police Commissioner, the Lt. Governor and even the Home Minister have led nowhere. Finally after running from pillar to post, we have had to appeal to the Supreme Court to get access to the complete records of the case. Even in such a clear case of police connivance with goondas and police brutality which has led to the death of a minor, the police is neither implicated for administrative lapses nor for the criminal offence.

Police Insensitivity

The police remain extremely insensitive to women’s needs. When a woman goes to a police station to lodge a complaint against her violent husband, invariably the police, instead of writing down the complaint, give her a moral discourse on how she should behave. They also undermine her confidence by telling her that she herself will change her mind and it is not easy to live alone. In the case of rape victims, they traumatize the woman further by asking her a series of senseless questions and openly derive vicarious pleasure from the situation. In one case the police actually turned a rape victim into a hostile witness.

Emergency response by the police is a myth. When we dial 100 we have to wait eternally and on occasions when we have asked the police to accompany us to rescue women in distress, they have flatly refused. This is in spite of a government order that the police must cooperate with women’s organisations and provide them with transport to rescue women in danger. In the case of investigating dowry deaths, we find that the police adopt questionable means. They usually choose easy options. For example, they often register a death as suicide instead of murder. In one case, a woman who was supposed to have committed suicide in a bathroom at 7 AM in a house with only one bathroom and six family members getting ready to leave the house. Such glaring omissions in their investigations are common.

Crimes Against Women Cell

As a response to continuing pressure from women’s organisations, the Delhi Police set up an anti-dowry cell and later expanded its scope to cover other crimes against women. The cell functioned with a skeletal staff for several years and even today lacks sensitivity to women’s real life needs. The statistics tell their own story. Out of more than 3000 complaints made last year, less than 10% were registered as criminal cases, and not a single conviction has taken place.

While district cells have been set up to look into complaints, the officials are not sensitised in any way. Some districts flatly refuse to help even when we provide information about women who are being harassed.

Overall, this cell is another weapon to convince the woman that her place is in her husband’s home. Having usurped the role of counsellors, a role for which the police are particularly unsuited, they harass the woman by asking her to make numerous visits, and proceed to make her bear the responsibility of the crime committed against her. They tell her to end and bow to her husband or in-laws, and convince her that even going back to a violent family is better than seeking police help to bring the guilty to book. Women are thus compelled to withdraw their complaints and return to husbands after a ‘compromise’ has been engineered by the police. No attempt is however made by them to follow up on these reunions and local police stations have no instructions to check on the security of these women. By their actions, the police in effect deprive women of a simple form of redressal, i.e. using Section 498A to press charges for perpetrating mental and physical cruelty.

Positive Experiences

We have had a few positive experiences also in dealing with the police. Prompt action by a few sensitive and upright officers has highlighted the possibility of implementing existing laws. Once in a while the police has provided transport to rescue women in danger of their lives. Occasionally we have received help from officers who uphold the women’s right to enter her own home and retrieve her dowry. The police has also shown sympathy and helped restore breast-feeding infants o their mother (Husbands use children as bait to trap women into violent situations). However, these instances are few and far between.

The police have to be dealt with at two levels. We need to be vigilant so that no case of police atrocity goes unnoticed and unpunished. We must also monitor the activities of the crimes against women cell to increase our own understanding of police procedures. From the flood of cases coming to the cell it is clear that increasing number of women are being subjected to violence in their homes. Women’s groups must develop training packages to sensitize police officials at all levels. Training by itself will not solve all the problems but will be a small step towards increasing the pool of cooperative police officials. Issues of corruption and inaction need to be confronted militantly.