By Deepika S
Earlier this week, reports emerged that 24 policewomen from a unit in the Delhi police had accused an officer and his staff of sexually harassing them in the workplace. One woman who had complained about the officer to his higher-up said she was harassed openly after the officer was let off with a warning. An inquiry was set up only after five months, when the allegations were made public. It’s only the latest in a series of incidents that highlight what working conditions are like for many women in the police force. While it’s widely known that Indian police personnel function under high levels of stress, with long shifts, pressure from superiors, low funding and low salaries, it is incidents like the one in Delhi that constantly remind us that while being in the police grants its personnel a degree of power, policewomen are as vulnerable to assault and workplace harassment as women in the rest of the population.
In January this year, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh cleared a plan to introduce 33 percent reservation for women among fresh recruits to the central police forces. But plans for it had been brewing beforehand, and Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had written to Singh in March 2015, asking for one-third reservation for women in the force to address “violence against women”. It’s an interesting line of reasoning, and Gandhi isn’t alone in deploying it: three days ago, in an article on women police in Tamil Nadu, former CBI director RK Raghavan mentioned that all-women police stations in the state were set up to deal with complaints made by women, and women personnel in various states police departments had been inducted over time to “specifically cater to the special needs of women”.
It’s commendable that women’s needs are being taken into account within the police system. But considering just over 6 percent of India’s 17.22 lakh police personnel are women, when women police are considered necessary primarily to deal with other women, it’s as if the gender imbalance within the police and its consequent limiting of opportunities for women isn’t seen as a problem in itself. And that the job of being sensitive to women victims of crime is a job only women can cater to.
According to a 2015 report on Indian policewomen by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, apart from problems like the shortage of toilets for policewomen on duty and the absence of childcare facilities, women officers were typically given desk jobs or tasks away from frontline policing, which hindered the advancement of their careers. Less than 1 percent of women occupied senior ranks within the force; almost 90 percent served as constables. The report also mentions “male culture” within the force, and how with policing being seen as a man’s job, women are seen as inherently inferior, leaving them pressured to “work doubly hard to counter negative perceptions about their capabilities.” And from interviews with junior women staff, the authors of the report found that sexual harrasment in the workplace was “considered normal”.
It affirms much of what we learned from Priyanka Dubey’s heartbreaking three-part series on India policewomen in 2014, beginning with a close examination of the incident in Latehar in rural Jharkhand where a police constable was raped, and then threatened with dismissal for not being able to protect herself despite being a policewoman. The policewoman told Dubey:
We never held a pistol in our hands. We are trained only in holding a danda (wooden stick), and not even properly. Our training was never a matter of concern since most of us are not considered capable of doing any serious work. But how can we protect others or even ourselves without any proper training?
In her piece on women officers, Dubey quotes CID Inspector Poonam Lata:
No matter how competent we are, seniors think ‘Ladies hai. Pata nahi kar payegi ya nahi!’ Even if our male counterpart is not serious about work, even if he is a habitual drunkard, he will be made station-in-charge. Not us.
In her final piece in the series, Dubey follows up on cases in which women officers complained of harassment or assault, to find little action taken in their support. It explains why policewomen might take the drastic step of attempting to take their lives while serving in the force. Cases like the death of R Vishnupriya, the 27-year-old Deputy Superintendent of Police in Tamil Nadu given the task of solving the murder of Gokulraj and allegedly under pressure from superiors, and the suicide attempt of Sub-Inspector Roopa Tembade in Karnataka after alleged harassment by a higher-up are extreme reminders of the limited options available for redressal.
In his piece titled “The seamy side of women police force in Tamil Nadu,” Raghavan expresses his disappointment at “the way women police wings have acquired notoriety for harassing men and for their lack of integrity,” and at the way women investigators “use foul language” and “often cross limits”. Though he acknowledges the challenges they face, their actions he refers to do not sound different from interactions with male police. Working honestly and with integrity should be expected of every police officer, and poor working conditions do not excuse corruption or a disregard for human rights. But it’s unfair that Raghavan seems to expect policewomen to serve as morally upright Florence Nightingales in khakhi, catering to women’s special needs. Perhaps the question to ask in Raghavan’s case is not why policewomen are disappointing him, but, to modify his phrase, who will cater to the special needs of Indian policewomen.
Co-published with Firstpost.