Is the Indian Policewoman A 'Showpiece?'

Priyanka Dubey
Grist Media

On the morning of September 9, 2012, Sandhya Dharma More returned as usual to her room after serving on the night shift. Sandhya was a constable at the Karmad Police station in Aurangabad district, Maharashtra. Her father had traveled from their home in Dhule district to meet her the previous night and stayed over at Sandhya's rented accommodation right in front of the police station. She turned 22 that morning.

Back from work, Sandhya said goodbye to her father who was to leave for Dhule at 8am. After sending him off, she wrote a two-page-long suicide note and hanged herself. In the afternoon, one of her colleagues came into her room to wish her a happy birthday, only to find her hanging from the ceiling fan. At the Government Medical College and Hospital, Sandhya was declared dead on arrival.

Sandhya was recruited as a constable and posted in the rural police station of Karmad around a year before her death. In her suicide note, Sandhya explained how she was being sexually abused and mentally harassed by sub-inspector Yunus Shaikh for some weeks. She also wrote that constable SV Bandale had helped Shaikh torture her. Both Shaikh and Bandale were posted in the same police station and were Sandhya's superiors  at work.

Immediately after Sandhya's death, Shaikh and Bandale were suspended from their posts. A FIR was also filed against them for abetting her suicide and for sexually and mentally harassing her. The case is under trial right now and chargesheets have been filed against both. Aurangabad-based journalist Mohammad Akeef, who has covered this case for local media, says, "My sources inside the police department informed me that Sandhya did tell her seniors in the department that she was being harassed at the Karmad police station, but nothing happened until she committed suicide." 

The circumstances leading to Sandhya's death form just one of the many dark stories that have become a common and invisible part of being an Indian policewoman.

Over months of reporting on women in the Indian police force, I interviewed a number of male and female police personnel cutting across the ranks from constable to Inspector-General. As in the cases of Sandhya and Neetu Kumar (the constable who was gang-raped by strangers in Jharkhand in 2013 and now faces harassment from her colleagues), incidents of policewomen being sexually harassed or bullied at work are extremely commonplace. Sometimes these stories make it to the papers. Mostly they don't. There are a few success stories among the women in the police, who form 5.33 percent of the force. But even those women who are lauded as unequivocal successes speak (grudgingly or otherwise) of working twice as hard as their male counterparts to 'just survive with dignity'.

In 2013, Amrita Solanki was posted as a sub-inspector in Rajgarh district, Madhya Pradesh. At 10pm one night during state elections, she stopped a vehicle for a routine check. The senior election officer who was in the vehicle was affronted that she was checking an official vehicle. On the phone, Amrita tells me what happened next. "I told him I had orders to check the vehicle. Then he started abusing me and said all kind of things. That I don't deserve this uniform. That I paid a bribe to come into the police. That I am a stupid woman and not competent to be here and that he'd immediately get me transferred. That was too much public humiliation. Besides, he insulted my uniform, which I have earned through immense hard work. Who has given men the right to discredit a woman's hard work and dignity like this? I resigned and complained in the state commission for women. Now I am going to court against him. I am determined to fight this till the end."

Why did she resign? Amrita says that it was impossible for her to fight while still retaining her official position. Clarifying the motivation behind her resignation, she adds, "I had to resign. Otherwise, with the uniform protocols and official responsibilities I could not have taken my fight forward. Being an on-duty officer, I could not have spoken to the media freely or could not have spoken openly against the biased departmental behavior I faced. I resigned because I wanted to speak freely about what happened to me." The election officer's contemptuous allegation that Amrita didn't deserve her job is fairly representative of how policewomen in India are treated. And Amrita may not be wrong in believing that she had to resign to get justice. Take D Padmini's case.

D Padmini is a traffic police warden who works in the city of Kochi, Kerala. On November 2, 2013 she was on duty at a busy traffic signal near St Francis Chapel at Kathrikadavu. At 11am, she was attacked by a man named Vinosh Varghese who suddenly got out of his car to verbally abuse her, punch her on her chest and pull off the name badge pinned to her shirt. According to a human rights agency's report on the incident, this is what happened next: "While officially reporting the case, Ms. Padmini has met the fate of other complainants in India. The police officers first ordered her to go to the Traffic Police Station to lodge her complaint. While on her way there, she was ordered to make her report at the Kadavanthara Police Station. When she arrived at the Kadavanthara Police Station, she was ordered to make her report at the City North Police Station instead. To report a crime that occurred at 11am, the officer had to wait for three hours and was made to run between police stations."

Twenty days later at a press conference, Padmini said that the police department did not support her in making a case against the man who attacked her. Her senior officers had summoned her four times for interrogation. In her press statement she said, "I was hopeful of getting justice but now I realize that I won't get justice. Police think that I will withdraw my complaint if I am tortured. Despite the harassment, I won't withdraw my complaint as I don't want any other woman to undergo such an experience. It appears that the police are trying to frame the complainant instead of arresting the culprit." A court had granted anticipatory bail to the man who attacked her. During the press conference, Padmini said the state police's attempts to dilute her statement had helped the accused obtain anticipatory bail.

While the stories of abuse and discrimination within the force are terrifying, as in the cases of Neetu, Sandhya and Padmini, policewomen often live through huge battles at home.

Veteran crime journalist Gyanenshwar Vatsyayan says the situation of women officers has not improved in Bihar and Jharkhand in the 30 years that he has been on the job. He adds, "Women are still given softer beats or kept limited to women-related cases. This limits their exposure and their chances of moving ahead on the ladder. For example, the 1991 batch IPS officer Shobha Ahotkar was one the fiercest police officers in Bihar. She was known as 'Lady Hunter', the woman who took on criminals and politicians. She married an IAS officer. They had fallen in love during their training in Mussoorie, and both husband and wife were posted in Deoghar district of undivided Bihar. One night there was a huge attack by dacoits and Shobha went in the middle of the night to investigate. When she got back home, she told me later, she had a huge fight with her husband. They actually hit each other. Her IAS husband wanted to know why she was going out to work with other men in the middle of the night!"

In Ranchi in March 2010, Inspector-General Nirmal Kaur filed a case of abuse and domestic violence against her IG husband Amitabh Choudhry. I read the complaint filed by Nirmal Kaur (an officer in her fifties), at the women's police station of Ranchi, in which she says her husband verbally and physically abused her on different occasions. I tried to contact Nirmal Kaur several times through emails and phone calls, but she did not respond.

Yogesh Kislay, a Ranchi-based television journalist who followed the case closely, says, "At that time I spoke to both Nirmal Kaur and her husband. While Nirmal asserted that she was being continuously mentally and physically abused by her husband, Amitabh did not comment. Insiders told me that there were severe ego problems between the couple and insecurity over Nirmal's [good] looks. But after initial reporting, the case was locally managed in the media and was immediately hushed up. A case was registered in the women's police station but no FIR was registered, and no trial took place. After a few days, Nirmal Kaur was hospitalized for a few days for psychiatric treatment [her husband tried to make out that she was mentally ill and is said to have sent her in for treatment in Ranchi]. Then she was transferred to Delhi on deputation in the special police division where she now works. Despite being an IG rank officer, Nirmal could not carry her own fight through."

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In early March, I went to Nizamuddin (West) market on New Delhi's Yamuna Road to meet Sheeba Aslam Fehmi. A long-time activist, Sheeba has been a member of teams involved in planning and organizing gender sensitization programs in the Delhi and Haryana Police for five years now. She has done gender sensitization programs for the Haryana Police Academy, the Border Security Force (BSF) Academy in Tekanpur, Madhya Pradesh, and Eastern Theater (India-Bangladesh border) in West Bengal. She has also conducted gender sensitization workshops and delivered lectures at the Hyderabad-based Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (around 150 IPS rank officers are trained here every year) and at the Haryana Institute of Public Administration (HIPA), which conducts research and consults in addition to training.

While I assumed Sheeba would have insights into the lives of policewomen, I didn't quite anticipate the story she told me.

Sheeba's work has always taken her out of the home into difficult and highly politicized situations. Her husband, a businessman, didn't like the directly confrontational and political nature of Sheeba's work, or the fact that she spent so much time away from home, and the couple had many arguments. Remembering one such fight, she said, "I had just returned from a conference in Shimla and we had this fight. My husband hit me. I decided to go to the police."

"My family is quite known in the old Delhi area and the station in-charge also knew me. It was still very tough. I was anxious, crying and trying to understand what had happened and also trying to justify my action [of going to the police] to myself. The SHO asked me why I was complaining about just a slap and a push. He told me that just one slap would make a very weak complaint. But I wanted the law and families in this country to take serious cognizance of just one slap on any woman's body."

"The SHO finally said that since I have marks on my body I should get a medico-legal examination. I was sent to a government hospital with a woman constable in the police jeep. That constable was with me for the next two hours. She too wanted to know what had happened with me. When I told her that I was filing a complaint against my husband who'd slapped me, she almost laughed. Then for the next two hours she kept narrating stories of how her husband beats her daily and how it is a regular thing and how stupid I was to complain against my husband for just one slap! I was aghast to see her condition. I started wondering how I could expect any justice if the policewoman sent with me for my security was beaten daily and finds that okay? I told you this story because I believe violence should never be kept personal. Today I share a normal relationship with my husband and I believe that it is because I fought for my dignity in that very first instance."

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The kind of gender sensitization programs organized for the different Indian forces (a mandatory part of the exhaustive training programs before joining) are usually planned and executed by a team of resource persons. This team normally includes an IPS-rank senior police official, a legal expert, a human rights expert and a social activist with expertise in gender issues such as Sheeba. Over the years, Sheeba's experience with the different forces has been very varied.

Sheeba says, "The police. They are the toughest lot. They are very explicit in their resistance towards female cops as well as women in general. For example, in every training session, I start with asking them to introduce themselves. They will give details of their dogs, children, property...everything except for their wives.  I have to ask them to mention their wives. In one of my earliest training programs in Haryana, I asked male officers to tell me what they thought about the women working with them. Most of them started laughing and then there was this buzzing in the hall. All of them complaining that women officers do nothing. When I asked them to speak to me and give me specific answers, one sub-inspector stood up and said bluntly that a women cop is 'like a showpiece'. He said that on tough assignments they become liabilities, as they need to be guarded and looked after. Another officer, an inspector, said that the police department does not have proper infrastructure for female staff. He complained about the lack of women's toilets and other necessary infrastructure. Most of them were of the opinion that female cops are an unnecessary burden, not worth employing."

During her gender sensitization programs, Sheeba has a method for dislodging stereotypes, training and sensitizing male officers. Explaining her intervention process, she says, "In the first session, I let them speak openly. It is important for me that they open up frankly and tell me what they think about policewomen and women in general. I need to know where they are standing in order to take them forward. After the first session, we have interactive classes where I talk to them. I explain the difference between sex and gender. I have to explain why it is important to respect, acknowledge and co-exist with women. I do this by explaining it to them through examples, narrating anecdotes, through real life stories, explaining basic theories on gender and some of the legal aspect of it. I also place a lot of importance on giving them examples of the work of some excellent women officers. The whole idea is to slowly try to make them understand that their opinions are actually their prejudices. And that woman cops are proving themselves whenever they are given chances to do so."

Sheeba's experience with IPS-rank officers also throws light on much more deep-seated prejudices against women. She says, "I normally get on the nerves of higher rank officers in the second session. The moment I start asking them questions about giving their sisters and their daughters equal share in property, they say things like, 'my family is very good, my sister is very good, she never asked for property'. If I persist, they will add, 'We have married her off. We have given dowry. Why do we need to give her share in property?' And there you are. IPS rank officers endorsing dowries and resisting property rights to their own daughters and sisters."

Having worked for years with other forces, Sheeba says the gender bias is not limited to the police. The Border Security Force (BSF) has something of reputation for its resistance to having women officers. Women were recruited into the BSF for the first time in July 2009. After four years of keeping women confined to the constabulary, the Indian government finally opened its doors to inducting women officers directly at the rank of assistant commandants in July 2013.

Sharing her experience of training BSF forces on the India-Bangladesh border, Sheeba says, "I found even bitter resistance against women officers in the BSF forces. They all strongly and openly condemn women recruitment in the border forces. Their common complaint is, 'What are women going to do at the border, except for adding to our burden? It's not their job to be on the frontlines. There are no bathrooms here at the border. And women don't fight wars'. The men were just not ready to listen."

Forget the idea (and constitutional guarantee) that women should be able to choose work wherever they want to. Forget even that the reckless, toiletless peripheries of the nation are not so different for women from the reckless, toiletless heart of the nation. The BSF needs women officers on the border to frisk female travelers, investigate the exponentially increasing trafficking of women at the border and to check the increasing number of cases of sexual abuse at locations such as the India-Bangladesh or the India-Nepal borders.

Sheeba adds, "Through media reports and NGO research, we know that trafficked women are further sexually abused by border forces. An increased female presence in these border forces will help in putting a check on it. And legally, only female officers can carry out frisking operations on female trafficking victims. What is going on now is a different story. The pimps of these trafficked girls first sell them to the forces to get easy entry into India. It's an open secret".

Far from the borders, in the heart of the country, crime journalist Shams Ur Rehman Alavi says the condition of policewomen is much better in Madhya Pradesh than in Bihar and Jharkhand - the basic infrastructure there is better in terms of having proper toilets for women and transport facilities. Besides, Madhya Pradesh is home to some brave women cops such as Inspector-General Anuradha Shankar and Inspector-General Aruna Mohan Rao, known for their exemplary investigations. But Alavi points to another, not so rare, phenomena: the participation of policewomen in sexist behavior. He adds, "They deal with young couples, especially with young girls with more vengeance than most male officers. They are increasingly resorting to very venomous moral policing and are replicating the mental make-up of their male counterparts."  It is not difficult to imagine that women officers in different parts of the country share the particular values of their male colleagues - values that may or may not go against the well-being of women - and believe that they are only enforcing natural justice by being very hard on women.

It is also not difficult to imagine that in a deeply patriarchal set-up policewomen do things like harassing young couples and arresting college-going women for wearing fashionable clothes and having make-up kits to feel more accepted among their peers in a deeply patriarchal work environment.

Sheeba says, "Our research shows that 80 percent of the women are anemic when they join the Indian police force. They are anemic and underweight. They can't run. They have never had to run. They also also face discouraging remarks from their male counterparts everyday. But during the first six months of their training, these girls close the gap with tremendous zeal and energy. Later, when they start working most of these women become victims of Stockholm Syndrome and end up being protégés of other officers. At times, they resort to moral policing to feel accepted among their peers and other officers. The whole environment of police stations encourages this kind of violence."

Sheeba says, "The Indian police is patriarchal at its core. So of course the system does not focus on empowering individual women officers. Instead the women are moulded so that they are eventually and unconsciously strengthening this patriarchal set up."

As I leave, she says that despite all the annoyances she looks forward to conducting the next gender sensitization workshop. As if she still believes change is possible.

Eighty years after the first woman donned the khakhi uniform, many policewomen still have to struggle for equality and basic human dignity. Instead of empowering them with a sense of belonging within India's largest public welfare structure, the apathy and hostility of their peers, the government and society at large often places India's policewomen in a position of vulnerability. Eighty years on, women form less than 6 percent of the police force. But despite every setback at home and at work, the Indian policewoman maintains her foothold. Every time she steps out at night on a regular patrol, she moves towards her destiny.

This the final story in a three-part series on policewomen in India. Read Part I: Why No One Wants Policewomen in Latehar and Part II: Ladies. Can They Do It? Can They Be Officers?

Priyanka Dubey is an independent journalist. Visit or write to her at