IGP D Roopa, the officer who was responsible for exposing all of Tamil Nadu politician Sasikala’s excesses in prison, was at the ACT Times Literature Festival in Bangalore last weekend. We caught up with IGP Roopa to talk about her work, her courageousness in the face of an entire machinery of opposition, and the prospects for women in service, and her responses were as fiery as we’re used to hearing from her.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
You’ve been taking controversial decisions for a long time. In your recent TEDx talk, you were talking about actions you took very early on in your career, about recalling policemen illegally assigned to politicians as bodyguards and gunmen. Does taking these tough actions just come naturally to you?
I’ve always acted naturally, in fact my husband says I act without thinking, which is not true. He calls me a rebel without a cause [laughs]. I don’t feel like that, that was just in a lighter vein. But I have this rebel in me. I speak out. I’m a straightforward person and I’ve always been that way, so whenever I see something, I say it to people’s faces whether they like it or not. Similarly, it translates into action. When something is happening, and if I find it’s not in accordance with law or rules, I don’t hesitate in taking action, even if it invites the wrath of my bosses or politicians.
So, you weren’t afraid, even early on in your career when you took these actions involving influential politicians?
I was not scared then. Because that was my job – to deploy my boys, my men in a proper place where it is required. Therefore, where people were given unauthorised policemen to act as gunmen to politicians, I went ahead without thinking twice.
I didn’t have to bother, because I have nothing to hide from the past.
I’ve always been in average kind of postings, I’ve never been in any so-called prestigious postings. That’s also because when there’s a prestigious posting, there are a lot of vested interests involved, so it matters a lot to many people ki who is there in that post. They’ll think once, twice, thrice whether this person will listen to us or not, whether she’ll do our job or not. So, people like me who have acted independently according to law will never be given any of those prestigious postings. And I never curry or lobby for them. Therefore, I’ve got no hang-ups or strings attached. I just do my job.
You make it seem like being fearless is so easy, and that being corrupt is actually a departure from the norm. But you’re still definitely a minority. Why aren’t there more bureaucrats who speak out?
When people enter the service, they have all kinds of idealism, but as time passes, they just lose it, and somewhere get caught in the rut of the system.
Sometimes they’re confused, sometimes they compromise. When they compromise, they do things which are illegal, or in a grey area. So, they will not have the courage to act independently later, because they are constantly in fear that something from the past may show up.
Secondly, even if they’re honest, they’re unnecessarily bogged down by fear. Even when law gives you protection, they don’t take on the system. They’re not courageous enough to take action. And there are some who get adjusted to that comfort zone of not speaking up.
Because in the police and even the bureaucracy, there’s a hierarchy. An independent mind is actually curbed, so they want to be achchu bachus to the system, to their bosses. So, they would like to be somebody who’s honest, hardworking, but never speak up.
Yes, never controversial. I don’t think my acts have been controversial, they’re very much in accordance with law. So only the people who can’t take it term it as controversial. Because what is wrong? There’s nothing controversial in applying the law. And if I was wrong, they could have very well taken action against me. They didn’t, because there was nothing against me.
Do you find it’s more difficult for women to speak out?
I feel and find that women speak out more than men. They’re more courageous.
Why do you think that may be? I’m thinking maybe men are more concerned about being promoted, or see it as more likely for them. Maybe the bureaucracy is as sexist as other fields, and women feel they anyway won’t be promoted, so they might as well speak up?
[laughs] Kind of, kind of. At least, that’s there on my psyche.
But promotions in government service are not achievement-based. They are time bound. You reach a certain number of years of service in that particular post and you get promoted to the next one, unless you have any criminal case against you, or a disciplinary action proved and pending against you. It’s not linked to work at all.
But sexism is there. Firstly, they’re all in doubt ki, she’s a woman, whether she’ll be tough or not, whether she’ll be able to “manage” or not. They think okay, they [women] might have come into service, they might have a good rank, they might have studied. But they think women don’t have exposure, they haven’t seen the world. So somewhere they take, first of all, our selection with a pinch of salt.
Secondly, if there’s a woman in a position, and something goes wrong, they’ll say “look she’s a woman, being a woman, she couldn’t handle it”. Whereas if a male is there, and something goes wrong, its already taken for granted that the man is quite capable, and efficient. They’ll say “he was good, but circumstances didn’t work for him”. So, this attribution theory needs to change. Women are always more observed, and if a woman fails, it’s linked with the thought that she’s not capable, which is not necessarily true. The circumstances might not have worked for her, but that’s never portrayed when appraising women.
Do you find that gendered roles are assigned to men and women in the bureaucracy?
See for example, in the IPS there’s no women quota. We all get selected just like any other man does. We’re taught in the academy, you’re not a lady first. First, you’re an officer, then you’re a woman. But, unfortunately, that’s only limited to the academy. When we come out, we’re made to feel, from day one, that we are women.
Like “soft postings”. In police parlance, a big district that has many talukas, the population is high, which has ‘n’ number of problems like communal or caste problems, that is considered something challenging. Such challenging districts are not given [to women]. Jahan pe there’s not much crime, you know, that kind of posting is immediately given to women, those are the soft postings.
When I joined, the government order said I am DIG Prisons for the entire state. My boss gave me a list saying, look after two prisons, one is Bangalore Prison, one is Tumkur Women’s Prison. Why? I am in charge of the whole state as per government orders, but he changed it. Of course, that was illegal and I challenged it, but he changed it and said “women’s prisons”. Then he said I’ll make you in-charge of all the women’s cells in all the prisons. I said what the hell, by government order I’m in charge of all the prisons, so why do you want to limit me only to this? So that’s the mindset: Women hain, soft posting de do, jahan challenges nahin hain, problems nahin hain.
What structural changes do you think can be made to the system to make it more inclusive for women?
I think when postings are done, they should keep in mind that at least a few of the challenging posts are given to women. I’m not so much for reservation, my mind is not made up on that.
But they have to give postings fairly. Now, postings happen because of lobbying. People lobby, I want to go this district, that post.
And it is men who lobby, actually, not the women. Because men ka kya hain, they wine and dine with politicians at any time. Even at night, the politician calls them and they’ll go to their house and sit with them. But women can’t do that. Indian society is such that we have a lot of social norms we have to conform to. And why go to a politician’s place after office hours? All those conspiracies and “koot” decisions are made in those dinners. As a woman, you can’t act like chaddi buddies with male politicians. Even the male bureaucrats should not, but they do.
Would having more women in the bureaucracy help in the way we address the issues that women particularly face?
Definitely women are needed. Because men are not sensitised at all. They need sensitisation at every step. I think only women can look at women’s issues empathetically.
Then there’s nature, nature has been a little unkind to women. You know, the biological clock and the career clock. To other young women entering the service I would say, it’s your choice. If career is your priority, then go all for it. If family is important for you, go for it, get married, have kids, and come back to career. Mix it and balance it.
Is there a way to strike that balance without necessarily leaving service?
In the government, we have maternity leave, first it was three months, then it was enhanced to four and a half months, now it’s six months maternity leave. So, a woman gets that much time to go and come back.
But even when we go, men grudge it. Now see naturally, when a child is ill, the child will need the mother, so you have to apply for leave. Now that is also taken grudgingly. “Oh tum logon ko yeh bhi chahiye, posting bhi chahiye, leave bhi chahiye.” So that mentality should change. Because what do we do? It’s nature, we only have to give birth to children and rear them. This has to be put inside the minds of men.
Is this something they cover in the sensitivity training given to bureaucrats?
Sensitivity is being done in how to deal with women complainants who come to the police station. Because sometimes the men, especially at the constabulary level, can be very brash and rough with the victims, further victimising them with their words and questions. So sensitisation is being done to that effect, soft skills on how to behave and how their demeanour should be. But the sensitisation is not about how to behave towards female colleagues.
Do you think something like that is necessary?
[laughs] It’s a good idea, I think I should put this in my boss’ mind.
Do you think the landscape has changed, since when you joined the service as Karnataka’s first IPS officer to now?
Things have changed. I got selected in 2000, it’s been 17 years. In 2000 also, there were very few women in service. But now, a very large of number of women are selected and choosing IPS. In fact, in IAS, its actually women that are outnumbering men, which is a good thing. Times are definitely changing, and women will rock even more.