Ladies. Can They Do It? Can They Be Officers?

Priyanka Dubey
Grist Media


Here is how you reach Jharkhand's State Crime Investigation Department (CID) office: You walk through the huge corridors of Nepal House in Ranchi. You pass the revenue, agriculture, animal husbandry and state employment offices in this colonial building in the state's secretarial campus. Eventually, you reach another historic building known as Raja Rani Kothi.

Sub-Inspector Renu Gupta, CID Branch, Jharkhand, has given me clear directions over the phone and is waiting to wave me into her office. Government files - bundles of papers tied with red fabric - are stacked from floor to ceiling; the furniture includes four desks and a single computer terminal. This is the main working chamber of the state's CID police officers. Renu introduces me to the two other officers working at their desks: Sub-Inspector Sushma Kumari and Sub-Inspector Indumati, both currently posted in the CID department along with Renu.

Sushma sends a note to her colleague Poonam Lata sitting in a nearby room and then tells me, "We have one more female police officer here right now. And she is a CID Inspector. Let her arrive and then you can speak to all four of us together." While I wait quietly, they continue working. Unlike regular police stations, the CID office has no lock-ups, no khakhi wardi; only stacks of files and people investigating documents. Dressed in blue jeans and a black jacket, Sushma is on the phone, while Indumati writes in a register.

When I started reporting on policewomen five months ago, a number of policemen told me that their female colleagues deliberately chose CID postings.  A senior police officer told me, "CID offices always have a large number of women. That's because female police officers prefer CID postings. It is a 9 to 5 job and they can manage their children and homes better if they work in the CID. At regular police stations, there are no fixed working hours."

Inspector Poonam Lata arrives in a maroon salwar kameez and black cardigan. (It's a pleasant but brisk February day, and most of the women police officers I meet wear black cardigans over their clothing.) We make space in the cramped room and settle down for a conversation. Renu's colleagues, like her, are all in their forties and have all lived in Ranchi for over two decades. I ask them what they think of the notion that women deliberately pick posts in the CID. Immediately there is a categorical denial. To them, this sounds like an accusation, as if they've picked an easy life. They frown at each other, "Women prefer work in the CID?"

Indumati, dressed in a blue salwaar-kameez and a shawl, says, "Being in the police is a transferable job. I have been posted at a number of regular police stations, women's police stations, courts, and now I am here in the CID. I've dealt with all kinds of cases from robberies to murders to raids to counseling traumatized girls in women's police stations. We don't know when we will be transferred next. We just get the transfer order and move to our next posting. Saying that we choose the CID because this is comfortable for us is completely false. We have worked and proved ourselves too much to respond to these silly prejudiced arguments." 

Why did they join the police force? Each of them had different reasons, but one story overlaps and surprises me.

Renu says, "We are all '94 batch recruits. The television show Udaan was an inspiration for most of us. Kalyani was this brave IPS officer who made her way through immense odds. I still remember the scene when she tells her father for the first time that she wants to become an IPS officer. Her father tells her that the sky is her limit. She never looks back. She was so determined to make a place for herself in the police and to do good for society. She inspired our whole generation."

Like Renu, the others talk of how Kalyani in Udaan inspired them. Udaan aired from 1989 to 1991 on Doordarshan and was publicized as the first Indian television show with a women's empowerment theme. Unlike the fictional Kalyani (played by Kavita Choudhary, who was also the iconic Lalitaji in the Surf ads), this group of recruits had a tough time with their families. They don't say so in the beginning, though. Half an hour into the conversation, Renu says, 'There was a lot of resistance from my family as the job requires going out during 'un-social' hours and I had a lot of odd working hours. My parents and in-laws weren't happy initially. But I was lucky to have a supportive husband. Had he not been there, I would not have been able to carry on'.

Sushma just nods in agreement with what her colleagues are saying. Sitting in front of Sushma's desk, Indumati looks down to her register and raises her head every now and then to listen keenly to what Renu is saying. Eventually she breaks in to tell her own story.

Indumati had a very tough time convincing her family to let her join the police force. She has two children, her in-laws and her husband as her 'immediate' responsibility besides her job as a policewoman. She says that she is able to continue only because she manages both home and work well. She sums up by adding, "My identity as a woman does not leave me despite my being a police officer. I have to manage both at home and at work. At the very least I have to take good care of my in-laws, cook all the meals, buy vegetables, look after the children and also go on regular patrols. Somehow, I could never evade being a woman first and a cop second. Or may be I was not allowed to."

Over the course of the conversation, I bring up the gang rape of Neetu Kumar, a police constable in Latehar, 110 km from Ranchi, and what I had discovered there. While policewomen face violence and discrimination across India, the story of Neetu and her female colleagues in Latehar Police Station is particularly troubling. Far from being empowered by their jobs, they are forced into highly infantilizing roles at the workplace. In fact, being untrained for their work smack in the middle of a conflict zone makes their lives more vulnerable than that of other women in the region.

Here in this crowded office in the state capital, all four of the CID policewomen denied facing physical abuse themselves. But they say they all have women friends in the force who have been abused at home and 'eve-teased' on the streets when not in uniform.

From the window of our limited interactions, Sushma appears to be the toughest - emotionally - of the group. It isn't surprising to learn that her family was supportive of her decision to become a police officer and that she grew up in a very encouraging environment. It's quite a while into the conversation when she opens up. At first, she expresses her frustration over the brutal gang-rape of the Latehar policewoman, saying, "I read about her in papers and I was really angry and sad at the same time for her."

She adds, "I know some policewomen who are beaten in their own homes. I never suffered like this, but I know many who just couldn't gather the courage to say no. Even the police uniform couldn't instill in them the confidence and faith to fight for themselves. I think that we are so deeply socially conditioned to suffer that it will take many more years even for policewomen to gather complete control of their own lives."

Sushma says, "It rarely happens if I go out in uniform, but there have been times when I went out in civilian clothes and was eve-teased. But I don't take it now. I fight back every time somebody passes a comment or tries to touch me on the streets. I confront them by facing them, ridiculing them publicly, maybe slapping them or making an official complaint at the police station if they continue with their indecent and unwanted acts. I never felt the need to file an FIR. In most cases, just telling eve-teasers that I am from the police and that I am going to report them is enough. They start pleading and apologizing after that."

What about gender bias or prejudices they've faced within the police station? All of them fall silent for a moment.

I persist by politely asking them if a woman cop's looks are given more importance than the tough investigations she does. They look at each other's faces. Initially they stick with politically correct answers such as "nothing like this happens in our office". A few male colleagues pass through the room and warn them sternly and quite angrily to speak less, and "cautiously", to the media. The women ignore these interventions.

When I start citing some general examples of gender bias I've witnessed inside police departments over months of reporting for this story, they gather confidence and nod their heads in agreement. Yes, there are incidents they could talk about. 

Poonam Lata says she wants to share her story. She was originally a state football player and was directly recruited into the police under the sports quota.  Over the years she has served (unusually enough) as a station in-charge at numerous police stations and has investigated every variety of serious crime including murder, rape, kidnapping and narcotics rings. She has been quiet through most of the conversation, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders, lost in thought or nodding to what everyone has to say. As the question of gender bias inside the police department floats around in the room, she is suddenly more alert and interested.

Adjusting her spectacles, she says, "While we generally never faced any kind of explicit bias, I'd like to mention one thing. No matter how hard we work, senior officers don't have that much faith in us. For bigger responsibilities, politically crucial investigations or cases that involve pursuing, investigating and arresting notorious criminals, they prefer having a male team leader. Inside the department there are strong doubts about the competence of female police officers."

Renu nods vigorously and breaks in to add, "When the question of becoming a police station in-charge comes, we are held back. 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 March 2013, the Home Ministry released the latest figures on the participation of women in the police force. Only 5.33% of India's police force is female. Moreover, of the 15,000 police stations in the country, only 499 are all-women police stations. Despite the galloping rate of crime against women in India and the persistent demand to increase the participation of women in the police force to at least 33 percent, the gender ratio flags miserably.

In 1933, an 18-year-old woman named C. Kamalamma put on the khaki uniform and joined the Travancore Royal Police (in what is now the state of Kerala) to become the first Indian woman to join the police force. In a television interview a few years ago, Kamalamma spoke at length about her work (acting as bodyguard to female members of the royal family, escorting women prisoners) and her difficulty in finding landlords who would rent to her. When she fell in love with a colleague, she was asked to leave because newly minted rules did not permit women police officers to marry. A decade and six children later, she rejoined the police force in independent India and worked for three more decades.

Eighty years later it seems to still take a leap of faith for young women to choose to join the police. Retired Additional Superintendent of Police (undivided Bihar), Baithnath Tiwari certainly thinks so. He was a young sub-inspector when the first major mass recruitment of women in undivided Bihar took place in the 1970s. He says, "In those days, exams were not taken. Women who came into the police were generally relatives of policemen and were limited to clerical office work. Whenever there was a need for a woman officer (for a raid or arrest which involved women) the station inspectors would write request letters to the headquarters. Women officers were escorted to the spot and were then dropped back. But I must say, even then, women officers were very sincere, dutiful and punctual about whatever work they were assigned. With time, policewomen really grew and came out with flying colors. But unfortunately, the police department has not matched their pace in this change."

In February 2014 some of the changes are apparent. Far from being stuck in a Latehar-like zenana, at 9 pm Inspector Shiela Toppo is still on duty, patrolling in a police jeep through a busy street of Ranchi, when I meet her. This is a routine evening patrol, part of her everyday schedule. In Toppo's career, she has investigated all kinds of crime. She has worked as a police inspector for over 25 years in different police stations across Jharkhand, including a posting as the station in-charge of Ranchi's women's police station and at the district courts.

"When I came in around 25 years ago, things were very tough," Toppo says. "There was stiff resistance to female cops. Nobody was ready to accept a woman working as a police officer. Young girls who are joining now are seeing an improved environment, whatever little it has improved. Maybe it's just that our male colleagues are now slowly becoming used to seeing women working with them and so the resistance has diluted a bit. But we are still not accepted. Men and society in general can't digest the idea of me standing by the side of a busy road in pant-shirt, with a wooden stick in my hand, walking with other male officers. They are still uncomfortable with this sight."

While reporting from Jharkhand, I came across a number of cases involving compensatory appointments of women constables, like those of Neetu Kumar and some of her colleagues. Their situations were nearly always startling, but Ranchi-based journalist Sushil Kumar Singh had one of the strangest bits of news I'd heard.

Sushil's father was in the Bihar police force when he died in an accident. Sushil's mother was 26 and had four small children to bring up. She got a job as a police constable 'on compensatory grounds'. Every year for thirty years, she filled a form called a 'living certificate' in order to retain her job and get her husband's pension. Sushil's mother didn't know how to read or write, so Sushil's elder brother filled the form on her behalf every year. Sushil says, "This year, I filled it in for the first time and was shocked. The living certificate stated that she was alive, not married and was taking care of her deceased husband's family. Women can keep their husband's pension and compensatory job only if they don't remarry for the rest of their lives. I was outraged at this medieval policy depriving women of their basic right to start a new life." 

Today, Sushil remembers his mother getting dressed and going to work every morning after finishing daily chores at home and cooking meals for the children. He can't help the bitterness that shadows these memories, especially because he is convinced that the work destroyed her health. She's been ill for years now. Sushil is particularly concerned, therefore, about the condition of widows in the police force. He says, "The fact that widows can't marry again makes widowed women constables the most vulnerable species at any police station. Policemen know these women have heavy compensation, get pension and a salary every month. Besides, they are young. The men fight amongst themselves to emotionally and physically control these women. Once they come 'under' one of these policemen, they are eternally emotionally, physically and financially exploited. This regressive policy has destructive impacts on the lives of women constables."

We still don't have exact figures for the number of women constables in India appointed to the police in place of their husbands who died on the job. But every year, in Jharkhand and Bihar, all of these invisible officers sign 'living certificates' promising that they are unmarried and taking care of their in-laws, in return for a miserable existence.

After Latehar, I was keen to meet senior officers, like the four women in Jharkhand CID, and understand their working conditions.

Several people told me that I should meet Nisha Murmu, Deputy Superintendent of Police at Hatia in Ranchi district. She is well-known, and not just because she is one of the first women to be directly recruited as DSP after Jharkhand was formed in 2000.

I miss her at her office. She has just left for lunch. On the phone, she asks me to come to her home in Jagganathpur Chauk.

As Nisha eats lunch, I wait in the drawing room of the bungalow browsing through the trophies she won during police training, and some literature on the Jharkhand government lying on the center table. In a few minutes, a smiling Nisha appears in a black tracksuit. Over the course of the afternoon, she speaks at length about how her father, Salkhan Murmu, was determined to educate her despite financial constraints. Born in an Adivasi family in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand, and educated in Ranchi, Nisha was recruited in October 2011. Today, the only thing that worries her father is the extreme amount of hard work that she puts into her job. She says that her father is constantly worried about her shifts and not being able to take any rest.

Nisha has been making headlines since the time she was going through training. As part of Ranchi's squad to curb 'eve-teasing', she achieved remarkable success in curbing crimes against women by active patrolling, sensitively addressing complaints and by laying traps to catch men who were harassing women with unwanted obscene calls.

Nisha has the high achiever's classic and muddled response to questions of structural bias. "I never faced any straight bias," she says, adding without seeing any contradiction, "But I work more than 18 hours a day as I do not want to give anyone a chance to question my work or capabilities. I think all women officers are equal to men cops, if not more. I once solved a murder case within 22 hours of filing the FIR. I worked hard and pushed my way through. If you repeatedly prove yourself, no bias can stop you." 

* * *

While researching the working conditions of policewomen, I meet DN Gautam, former Director General of Police, at his residence in Patna. He starts the conversation by narrating anecdotes about the perennial lack of toilets for women in the police machinery of Bihar. He adds, "When I was AIG-intelligence, I used to see that all women constables and officers would go to a building down the street every evening. They would go in groups, all together. I asked other male officers about where these women go. Some of them laughed and others said they didn't know. I later found that they used to go to the washroom there because our Patna Police headquarters had no toilets for women. A few years ago, when the whole office was being renovated, I gave instructions to make toilets for women on every floor. This (lack of toilets) was shocking to me, because if this was happening in Patna, you can imagine the situation in other far-away districts."

One of the first women officers I speak to in Patna is Mridula Kumari. In 2013, she became the first woman to be put in charge of the first women's police station in Patna, which opened in 2012. The police station had male in-charges before Mridula, and the Bihar government faced criticism for appointing male in-charges in an 'all-women' police station. Mridula has been very busy since she took over. She says, smiling, "When I took charge, we were flooded with cases. Every morning, there would be lines of women standing in front of the station. Some wanted counseling. Some had complaints. They were very comfortable now, as for the first time they could tell their problems to women officers."

When Mridula sat for the Sub-Inspector exam in 1984, she was terrified someone would find out. She says, "In those days it was considered a bad job for women. I filled the form without telling anyone and went to the exam center hiding my face with my dupatta. I was the only girl selected from North Bihar. All hell broke loose back in my village. I still remember, the elders saying, 'Gaon ke ladke to daroga bane nahi abhi tak, is ladki ko kaise ban jane den? Badi badnami hogi. (The boys in our village have still not become cops. How can we let this girl become one? This will bring us great shame.) I had to fight a lot at home to take up this job. But I wanted to become a police officer. I was also inspired by Kalyani from Udaan."

Mridula says, "I wanted to teach a lesson to those men who abuse women and think of them as lesser beings. So I worked hard. I was hugely detested, hugely resisted by my colleagues and peers. But luckily, my seniors encouraged me. Looking back, I think my fellow male officers disliked me because I was the only woman riding a Rajdoot bike and chasing criminals like them. They detested the sight of a woman cop working - and then seeing one working efficiently!"

Patna is also home to another path-breaking police officer. In Bihar's Economic Offences Wing (EOW), I meet Inspector Gauri Kumari. The DSP of the EOW, Sushil Kumar, describes her as one of the bravest officers in Bihar. He says, "I am a '99 batch officer. After '94, the first woman candidate was selected in my batch. So the process is slow because the thinking of men has not changed. They treat women in the police like they treat women in their own home. But officers like Gauri Kumari are strong examples of what a woman police officer can do."

Gauri Kumari was posted as a sub-inspector in the Aandar Police Station of Siwan district of Bihar when she was selected by the then Inspector-General (Intelligence) Rajwinder Singh Bhatti to trap the biggest don in north India, Mohammad Shahabuddin. Within a month of laying the trap, Gauri Kumari arrested Shahabuddin from his residence in Delhi in 2005. This was a daunting task that top-notch officials in Bihar had not been able to execute after trying for two years. At the time of his arrest, Shahabuddin was facing charges in more than 30 criminal cases including eight murders and twenty attempts to murder, rioting, extortions and kidnappings. He also had non-bailable warrants issued against him in relation to the seizure and recovery of foreign firearms, ammunition and unaccounted-for foreign currency from his house in Siwan in April 2005.    

I meet Gauri at DSP Sushil Kumar's chamber on the ground floor of the EOW. Recalling the arrest of Shahabuddin, Gauri says, "I was not afraid. I did not think about any threats. We are trained to steel our minds to achieve our goals. I just had one target and that was to arrest him." Gauri was chosen for the task because of her background - she had made a record number of arrests during her time at the Siwan Police Station, and her work had involved investigating tough criminal cases such as murders, robberies, land issues and rapes. 

Unconsciously having a Lean In moment, Gauri says, "Women should work harder to carve their niche in the police department. When I use to run [for practice] on the roads of either Sivan Police Station campus or while chasing criminals, people would say to each other: look out, that police officer is coming. Policewomen should bring that high level of professionalism to their work so that no one can take them lightly."

* * *

Back in the Ranchi-based CID Office, officers like Renu, Poonam, Sushma and Indumati are trying to make their mark, working hard and still struggling with the subtle but deep-seated gender bias in their homes and inside the police department. Before leaving, I thank them and ask if they'd mind being photographed. The Good Samaritans from next door who had earlier instructed them on how to handle reporters now return. They now try their best to tell the four officers that they shouldn't get their pictures clicked. "She might upload them on Facebook" is the dire threat that they issue.

But Renu and her three colleagues are quite happy to be photographed. One of them retorts, "What is your problem? That she is talking to us and taking our photograph?'

But even this rude reply doesn't stop their male colleagues from standing in the doorway and staring while I click away.

This is the second story in a three-part series on policewomen in India. Read Part I: Why No One Wants Policewomen in Latehar here.

Priyanka Dubey is an independent journalist. Visit http://www.priyankadubey.in or write to her at priyankadubeywriting@gmail.com.