Standard Operating Procedure

Can the Delhi Police fix its record on crimes against women?

In the Adarsh Nagar police station in north Delhi, Usha Sanghwan (left) listens to a woman seeking protection from domestic violence. SHARBENDU DE FOR THE CARAVAN
In the Adarsh Nagar police station in north Delhi, Usha Sanghwan (left) listens to a woman seeking protection from domestic violence. SHARBENDU DE FOR THE CARAVAN
01 November, 2013

|ONE |

ON THURSDAY, 18 April, a five-year-old girl, suffering from internal bleeding, severe dehydration, and wounds inflicted to her neck, face and anus, was rushed to Swami Dayanand Hospital in Shahdara, East Delhi. Three days before, the little girl had been abducted and repeatedly raped by a neighbour and his friend. In statements to the Delhi Police, the two men later admitted that, in an attempt to control bleeding brought on by the assault, they inserted pieces of a wax candle, and a 200-millilitre plastic vial meant for hair oil, into their victim’s vagina. When the bleeding wouldn’t stop, panic set in, and the attackers attempted to kill the girl by strangling her and slitting her throat. Before fleeing from the scene, the neighbour, 22-year-old Manoj Kumar Sah, locked the unconscious girl in his room, in Gandhi Nagar, a low-income colony that flanks Shahdara. The victim’s family lived a couple floors above.

While the little girl lay passed out, her parents, unaware of how close she was, started to worry. It wasn’t unusual for her to play outside unattended, but when she didn’t return home for dinner, they began an increasingly frantic search. After scouring the area for a few hours, they went to the police. Later, the parents told the media that they pleaded with the station house officer (SHO) at the Gandhi Nagar police station to register a first information report (FIR) and begin searching for their child. The police did nothing until the following morning, 16 April, when investigating officers were sent to the apartment building. They stood outside Sah’s room for a few moments, but decided to move on, since the door was locked. The young victim was inside, and Sah was perhaps already nearing his village in northern Bihar, where he was arrested three days later. (His accomplice, 19-year-old Pradeep Kumar, was arrested two days after that.)

More than 40 hours after she had been assaulted, the little girl was finally discovered, by chance, when neighbours heard her crying from Sah’s room, late on the evening of 17 April. The neighbours alerted her parents, and they, in turn, told the Gandhi Nagar police station, who sent some officers to break down Sah’s door. According to the victim’s father, who soon voiced his frustrations to the press, the SHO and other officers at Gandhi Nagar station wanted to count this as a success, and close the case. “Be happy that she lived,” one officer allegedly told the family. “Go home and pray,” another said. Later that same night, the victim’s father said, two men from the station—one in uniform, another in plainclothes—approached him with a bribe of Rs 2,000. “What’s the big deal that they gave him Rs 2,000?” another cop told me. “Do you know how poor these people are? It was a gesture out of kindness, not a bribe.”

By morning on Friday, 19 April, the story of the abduction and rape, along with details about the poor police response, had hit newspapers. Soon, what looked like a few hundred demonstrators, many wearing white Nehru caps emblazoned with the slogan of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), amassed outside Swami Dayanand Hospital to protest against the handling of the crime, and to demand that the victim be shifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the country’s top medical facilities. (A member of the victim’s extended family had alerted AAP to the situation, a party member told me.)

Silently watching the demonstrators, although in fewer numbers, was a contingent of khaki-clad Delhi Police constables buffered in riot gear, arms folded defensively across their chests. Most of these young men and women were deployed to the scene from other parts of the city; although they had no direct involvement in the case, to the angry crowd, they were just as guilty of having failed the young victim as the SHO and investigating officers in Gandhi Nagar.

Police detain a protester outside Swami Dayanand Hospital, where the five-year-old rape victim was receiving treatment, on 19 April. K ASIF / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

As the protests continued, doctors readied an ambulance to ferry the victim and her family to AIIMS, situated roughly 20 kilometres away in South Delhi. When the vehicle, with the young girl inside, finally wheeled its way across the lot, volunteers from AAP dragooned the crowd into making way. As soon as the ambulance cleared the hospital gates, the protesters erupted with self-congratulatory jubilation. An emotional middle-aged man standing next to me pointed at some sullen-eyed male constables with an open palm and shouted, “We don’t need such a nikamma (worthless) police force!” He then wagged his wrists at them and yelled, “We’re strong enough to take care of our law and order. Ghar jaake choodiyan pehenlo, choodiyan! (Go home and wear bangles).”

Perhaps Assistant Commissioner of Police Bani Singh Ahlawat should have gone home. A little after 2 pm, just before the victim was shifted to AIIMS, Ahlawat was filmed repeatedly slapping a woman protester, who had apparently tried to enter the girl’s ward. An hour later, the four slaps were being broadcast on television channels across the country, in what seemed to be an interminable loop.

For the Delhi Police, the negative attention could hardly have come at a worse time. After the high-profile gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student the previous December, the force had become the main target of public outrage over what seemed to be a rising tide of violence against women in the capital. Negligence of the sort shown by the police in the April case was one cause of this anger. Another was the police’s agression towards protesters calling for justice following the heinous December crime: the firing of tear gas shells into groups containing middle-aged women, adolescent girls and children; the apparently unprovoked use of water cannons; and the lathi-charging of retreating college students and senior citizens.

A further source of outrage was the arrogant, dismissive attitude towards women that seemed to afflict the Delhi Police. In 2011, the commissioner at the time, BK Gupta, suggested publicly that the force was not responsible for protecting women if they were out late at night. The next April, a Tehelka investigation found that many cops in and around the capital blamed rape on the victims; one Delhi Police officer told the magazine, “No rape can happen in Delhi without the girl’s provocation.” (A similar view was later taken by a lawyer for three of the perpetrators of the December gang rape and murder, who reportedly said that he had “not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”.) Since the December crime, there had been a twofold increase in official rape reports in the capital. (The reason for this may be new regulations, enacted on the recommendation of a committee led by the former chief justice of India JS Verma, that require the police to register an FIR as soon as a complaint is made; earlier, rape complaints could be investigated and dismissed before an FIR was filed.) Although it seems likely that legitimate complaints that might previously have been unpursued are now being registered, many police officers I spoke with, including a beat cop, an additional commissioner of police, and a joint commissioner of police, told me that fraudulent accusations were a major contributing factor in the rise of reports. Although there is no reliable evidence on false rape complaints in India, evidence suggests that in other countries the rates may be as low as 3 or 4 percent.

Between December and April, the force had been working hard to refashion its image. A bevy of advertisements launched in early 2013 in the country’s leading newspapers, in Hindi and in English, touted additional safety measures the department had taken since 16 December. Much of what the department had accomplished amounted to making further promises, but those promises, if fulfilled, would have been steps in the right direction. Now, the negligence of the Gandhi Nagar officers, and the blows that Ahlawat delivered to the female protester’s face, caused fresh despair over the Delhi Police’s capacity for change.

Although the Delhi Police’s image may seem irreparably damaged, a number of earnest attempts are underway to improve the department’s interactions with women. These range from setting up women’s committees in high-crime neighbourhoods, and raising the constabulary’s awareness of gender issues, to making sure such efforts are mentioned in the press. Although none of these endeavours or the individuals behind them can put a stop to gender violence, or single-handedly dispel the chauvinism that seems so prevalent among members of the force, they all hold some small promise. But the very attitudes that make the police less than sensitive to women complainants also act as sand in the gears of reform.

AS CHIEF OF THE SPECIAL UNIT FOR WOMEN and Children (SPUWAC) for the past four years, Deputy Commissioner of Police Suman Nalwa has led perhaps the most organised efforts to improve the police’s record on women. A well spoken, photogenic officer with three graduate degrees in police management and law, Nalwa is one of only four women among the hundred or so most senior members of the force. Her unit promotes gender sensitisation lectures for fellow officers and works to enforce standard operating procedures (SOPs) that dictate how personnel must respond to gender-based crimes. It runs a counselling service for couples, and organises self-defence programmes for female students, social workers and women who live in at-risk neighbourhoods. It also has broad authority to investigative crimes against women. “Our police station has the jurisdiction to take up any case of gender violence—be it rape, molestation or cruelty,” Nalwa told me. “Our territorial jurisdiction is all of Delhi.” In addition, Nalwa acts as one of the police’s primary public liaisons on gender issues.

Head Constable Sunaina interacts with a woman in Bharolla village, in north-west Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar. SHARBENDU DE FOR THE CARAVAN

The problems that Nalwa and her unit are confronting, within both the capital and the force, are more or less inestimable. In 2012, Delhi, which was home to 1.5 percent of the national population, recorded 706 rapes—nearly 3 percent of the country’s official reports, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics. After the amended reporting laws came into effect, this number shot up—to 1121 in the first 8 months of 2013. But the real picture, many believe, is even more grim. Although the figures are impossible to confirm, some activists claim that as many as 99 out of every 100 rapes in India go unreported. And rape is just the tip of the iceberg. In total, the NCRB recorded nearly 6000 crimes against women in Delhi in 2012—ranging from rapes, abductions and dowry deaths to “cruelty by husband or his relatives” and “insult to modesty of women”. These gender-based offences accounted for 70 percent of all crimes reported in the capital last year.

The Delhi Police’s record in combating these crimes justifies the judgements of its critics. Across all categories of offence in 2012, the force converted less than 2.5 percent of complaints into FIRs, and, while the rest of the nation issued chargesheets in over 80 percent of reported cases of crimes against women, the Delhi Police managed to do so in only half. This strongly suggests that gender-based violence mostly goes uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and unredressed in the capital.

I had first interviewed Nalwa for a Human Rights Watch report on child sexual abuse, in August 2012. At the time, the police were already being criticised for the capital’s levels of violence against women, and, in the city pages of the national newspapers, there seemed to be stories of rape every other day. Nalwa welcomed the attention that was being brought to the issue. “Cases of women get reported with seriousness, because of the media, the inaction of the police, the overaction of the police, whatever,” she told me then. “So the police is under scrutiny, and that helps a lot.”

Nine months later, in the aftermath of the April gang rape, Nalwa seemed less enthusiastic about the media onslaught. “You know, when you’re criticising the organisation it is very easy,” she said. “But when you have to correct, it is very difficult. It reminds me of a story about Michelangelo placing a painting in public, and asking the public to find faults and to circle them. By the evening, the entire painting was circled. But the next day he again put the painting out and said please correct it, and nobody did anything.”

Since taking her unit’s helm, in 2010, Nalwa has pursued a number of different approaches to combating crime against women and to changing the attitudes of her colleagues. From Sudhir Yadav, the unit’s previous head, she inherited services aimed at reconciling spouses in cases of dowry harassment or domestic violence, as well as an emphasis on gender sensitisation. Although Nalwa embraced that emphasis, over time she came to feel that its effects were too slow. “NGOs would go into the police station, and they would give two hours to the men who were posted there, and talk to them about gender issues and all,” she told me in 2012. “It was a long shot. I don’t know how many years … we’ve already lost 60 years. I don’t know how many years before we can change the mindset of the society, so I’m not very positive about it.”

Nalwa began to focus her efforts more on advocating and enforcing the police department’s SOPs. Although she is by no means the only officer to subscribe to this approach—most senior police officers do, at least publicly—she is often the one stressing the SOPs’ importance, both inside the unit and across the force. “I don’t care what a constable or investigating officer thinks of the woman in front of him, how she is dressed or where she comes from,” she told me in one of our first interactions. “If she wishes to register a complaint, the officer in charge has to follow the procedure and register a complaint. He has to involve a woman constable, a counsellor, and take her for a medical examination. Period.” This adherence to the rules is meant to bypass the bias that often clogs the police’s other efforts at reform. “When you enjoy certain powers, you become all the more feudal,” she said. “Within the police hierarchy, it’s at all levels.”

|TWO |

ON A WEEKDAY AFTERNOON IN MAY, I visited the Nanakpura police station where SPUWAC is headquartered, in south-west Delhi, to speak with Nalwa and see the work that her unit is doing. It was the third of our many interviews. We were just about to begin when a young woman burst in to Nalwa’s office, tearful and agitated, her equally upset mother in tow.

The young woman’s name was Pooja. I had met her earlier in the private secretary’s room next to Nalwa’s chamber. As we awaited our turns, Pooja told me about her domestic-violence and dowry-harassment complaint—how her husband’s family threw her out around 18 months ago, and duped her of lakhs of rupees and gold jewellery. When she grimaced and said, “This unit hasn’t helped me at all. I’ve been running around for a year now,” Nalwa’s ever-loyal secretary, Harshavardhan, sternly ordered us to “Keep quiet or get out. We’re working here.” I noticed he had Minesweeper open on his computer screen.

Suman Nalwa at her desk in Nanakpura. She told me her unit was missing the “crème de la crème” of police personnel. SHARBENDU DE FOR THE CARAVAN

Pooja’s turn with Nalwa came before mine; when she left Nalwa’s office, she seemed fine. Now here she was, storming back into the room to complain that one of the officers had behaved rudely, telling her that the documents she’d brought were not enough for the court, and that her case would go nowhere if she didn’t pay attention. Nalwa summoned the officer in question, listened patiently to both sides, and then reminded them to stay calm and get the necessary paperwork in place. When Pooja left, Nalwa turned to her officer and said, partly in jest, partly in exasperation: “Come on, women who come for help to the Delhi Police are on a short fuse, unbalanced even. They’re in need of help, and you know this. Stop being so forward and curt with them.” Her officer smiled, then sighed, got up and left the room.

“Women come to us with a lot of expectations,” a tired-looking Nalwa told me after the officer was gone. “Some of them are beyond what the law permits us. They come thinking ‘hum culprit ko danda marenge, jootay maarenge’ (we’ll beat the culprits with sticks and shoes) to fast track the results in their cases. They think, ‘I’ve registered a complaint, but nothing has happened,’ but often there’s nothing I can do.”

Because dowry harassment without death is considered a relatively minor offence under the law, Nalwa could not issue arrest orders for the husband or in-laws, despite Pooja’s pitiable entreaties. “What I can do,” she said, “is to ensure that the investigating officer appears to be, at the very least, impartial and doing his duty—that he explains to her, ‘This is the law; these are the limits within which I’m working. I’m not going to make any false promises, but this is what we can and cannot do.’ Sometimes people need to be reminded that they must work as a team.”

In any another police station, Pooja might have been treated less civilly. Often, if a woman complainant comes demanding her rights, “it ruffles a few feathers somewhere,” Nalwa said, explaining the psychology of some of her colleagues. “But if she were to make a request and the officer grants her wishes—that’s different.” The Delhi Police, Nalwa said, laughing, “are not used to hearing aggressive notes, especially from female complainants.”

“Coming from a patriarchal society—you know, in households, women and children are not supposed to have a voice,” Nalwa had told me during our interview in 2012. “They are supposed to have their mouths taped.” She had experienced this sort of prejudice in her own life: her first husband, with whom she has two sons, disapproved of her career. She said she spent a large chunk of a posting to the Andamans in the early 2000s shuttling back and forth between Port Blair and Delhi, fighting petty battles at home, which persisted until her divorce, in 2006.

From what I observed, the traffic of complainants at Nanakpura station is fairly thin, and Pooja’s situation seemed typical of those that the unit handles. Although Nalwa’s cell has the authority to investigate any case requiring more attention or expertise than other police stations have, very few cases are transferred here; most are disposed of by local stations. “Many times they are better equipped to investigate the case, on account of local intelligence and resources at their disposal, and the whole district works as a team,” Nalwa said. The investigations into both the December gang rape and murder and the April gang rape had been pursued by other stations.

For her part, Nalwa always leaves the office by 7 pm at the latest, and spends the rest of the evening with her family. After her first marriage ended, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her perspective on life changed. She reconnected with an old college friend, Tushar, who supported her through her illness and introduced her to ayurveda and pranic healing. Now cancer-free, Nalwa described her relationship with Tushar as a “new lease of life”. They often meet at English Tadka, a restaurant that Tushar owns in West Delhi’s Rajouri Garden neighbourhood. Nalwa—plump, with big eyes, short hair, and a charming, boyish grin—is a particular fan of the desserts. She avoids calls and emails outside of work, unless it is absolutely urgent, and weekends are almost completely out of bounds. “Life’s too short to be away from the people and things you love most,” she said.

IF SPUWAC’S OPERATIONS are somewhat more modest than its mission, one of the reasons seems to be that it was forged in an earlier era, to respond to a narrower set of crimes. Its precursor was established in the early 1980s, when dowry deaths across the country—many of them caused by immolation—were spiking; in Delhi, at one point, such crimes averaged five per day. Protests against the Delhi Police’s inability to protect women or deliver justice to victims of bride burning led to the formation of the city’s first Crime Against Women cell, which soon spawned 20 others, in neighbourhoods across the city. The cells were meant to ascertain facts in cases of dowry harassment, and arbitrate peaceful resolutions between brides and grooms (in order to “safeguard the marriage”, as one high-court judge later put it). Eventually, 10 of these cells were decommissioned, and the one at Nanakpura, near the middle-class government colony Moti Bagh, was made the lead unit for crimes against women and children. Although the cell was renamed SPUWAC, it essentially had the same outlook as its precursor. On its website, it still describes itself as a “resolving/solving/reconciliatory body against matrimonial dispute”.

Some of the unit’s other limitations reflect larger problems in the force. Nalwa, who was referred to as “sir” by Harshavardhan, told me that she is missing the “crème de la crème”, the best sort of people within the police’s constabulary. The individuals she does have in her small unit—at any given time, there are about 20 officers under her command—are not her own considered hires, but are serving secondments from other stations. “Since this is not a mainstream policing job, very few officers want to be posted here,” she said. “It’s considered to be a lower rung of the posting hierarchy.”

Nalwa’s officers also come from a constabulary that is generally under-prepared. The Delhi Police has more than 83,700 personnel—from constables, investigating officers and SHOs up to assistant, deputy, additional, joint and special commissioners. Although compared to most of the country this is a vast force—Delhi has one of the largest urban police departments in the world—size is no substitute for sophistication. “Eighty thousand is a lot of officers, young lady,” the Congress chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, told me over the phone in August. “What’s important is that many of these people do not have adequate training.” Although senior officers are appointed only after appearing for the highly competitive all-India civil services examinations, these men and women make up less than 1 percent of the force; the minimum qualification that the other 99 percent needs to provide is a high school diploma, following which they receive nine months of drilling at the Police Training College. Junior constables from Khajuri Khas, Adarsh Nagar and Ashok Vihar police stations told me that, although physical training and parades were compulsory, they often skipped the lectures in between, one or two of which were on gender sensitisation.

The investigating officers (IOs) in Nalwa’s unit, who do the legwork to investigate crimes—interviewing victims, filing chargesheets, following up with the courts—are drawn from this pool. “All the IOs are recruited as constables, and over the ages they have risen to IO,” Nalwa said. According to her, any prejudices they harbour have only hardened after years on the beat: “You can imagine—the minimum qualification level for a constable is class 12, and he has to work on the street. What do you expect out of him? How do I change 50 years of what the streets have taught them? Now some of them are on the verge of retirement. That’s how long it has taken for them to rise to this post.”

Nalwa hopes that the protocols can help neutralise these personnel problems. On the face of it, they seem to be the sort of thing that a high-school graduate with minimal training can apply. In the event that a rape is reported to one of Delhi Police’s two dedicated helplines for women, a van from the Police Control Room is to be dispatched, and is expected to reach the scene of the crime as quickly as possible. (The Delhi government operates a third helpline that forwards calls on to the police.) The constables inside are required to take down the victim’s particulars and then forward the case from their wireless sets to the nearest police station. The station has to ensure that a woman constable and an investigating officer are available to talk to the victim, and the victim’s statement has to be recorded within a few hours. Then she (or, rarely, he) has to be sent to the nearest government hospital for a medical examination. Regardless of what the results say, an FIR has to be filed immediately. In the process, the complainant’s name cannot be revealed to the public.

Some supporters of the approach told me that the SOPs are not as easy to follow as they appear. The Centre for Social Research (CSR), an NGO that works on gender issues, was in talks for nearly six years with different commissioners of police, in an attempt to organise training workshops. (The workshops finally got off the ground this April.) Simply put, CSR wants junior officers to know this: if they don’t file an FIR in a sexual assault case according to the required procedure, they can lose their jobs. But following the SOPs is tough. “These guys aren’t geniuses,” Amitabh Kumar, head of communications at CSR, said. “You can’t pressure a head constable, with no writing skills, whose task is to deal with criminals, to write up a legal document like an FIR or a witness statement, or present evidence that even a PhD-holder would need to look over twice—and appear to be gentle, too.”


NALWA’S EFFORTS TO GRAPPLE with gender issues in the force are not the only ones underway. Across the city from Nanakpura, in north Delhi’s jhuggi-jhopdi slums (or JJ colonies, as they are widely called), the Parivartan cell has been using various forms of outreach to engage with women for the past eight years. Complaints of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, missing children, child sexual abuse, statutory rape and other gender-related issues are common in these neighbourhoods, a hub for migrants who have come to the capital looking for work and a better life. Parivartan cell statistics from 2005 showed that roughly 20 percent of all rapes and child sexual abuse complaints in Delhi originated in these northern districts.

Parivartan and SPUWAC are the only significant gender-crime prevention initiatives that the Delhi Police have in place. While Nalwa hammers away at the constabulary with SOPs, Parivartan, which operates out of 10 stations across Delhi, spreads awareness—through mimes, skits, street plays, and documentary screenings—about the dangers of ignoring (and thereby perpetuating) gender violence. The cell also organises 10- to 15-day self-defence workshops for women and girls in schools and slum areas, to endow them with a little more courage and confidence when handling harassment on the streets; they are given basic training in judo and karate, and are taught how to incapacitate an attacker. (Use your knees and elbows; go for the groin; jab him with something sharp.)

The Parivartan cell runs outreach programs for women across Delhi. "We have to do whatever we can for them," Kavita Nariwal said. SHARBENDU DE FOR THE CARAVAN

Like Nalwa’s unit, the Parivartan cell was conceived in the throes of a crisis. In the summer of 2005, the gang rapes of a Delhi University student in Dhaula Kuan and of a speech-impaired young woman in nearby Mayapuri inflamed the public and shamed the Delhi Police. (The effect the crimes had on public opinion was boosted by the memory of the high-profile rape of a Swiss diplomat, in the Siri Fort complex, two years before.) The additional deputy commissioner in the north-west district at the time, Sagar Preet Hooda, was ordered to do something—anything—to allay anger over the rapes, a former high-ranking police officer who was involved in setting up the cell told me. (Although the crimes occurred in south-west Delhi, I was told by police officers that residents in poorer northern districts are more receptive to the police’s interventions.) “Hooda got exactly five days to put Parivartan together,” the former officer said. “It was a knee-jerk reaction from commissioner KK Paul. Hooda was just told to put something together for the media, to counter the bad press.” (Hooda told me via email that Parivartan was “a significant departure from sensitization programmes in other parts of the world”. “Parivartan was not to be an ad campaign only,” he wrote. “It was meant to present a variety of activities … that would change the mindset of society, including that of the police, towards women.”)

One of Parivartan’s most important achievements was to establish community policing committees, consisting entirely of women, called mahila samiti (women’s committees). These groups, which vary in size from one colony to another, each have one or two representatives who keep in regular touch with a woman constable from the Parivartan unit at their local police station. Any woman without a pending criminal case who isn’t afraid to speak up about instances of abuse or harassment in her community is welcome to join.

In May, I accompanied assistant sub-inspector Usha Sanghwan and constable Kavita Nariwal for a midday samiti meeting in the Rani Bagh Railway Workers’ Colony, in north-west Delhi. The police officers sat on charpoys outside a one-room house, surrounded by 25 or so local women. A couple of them expressed concern that their children were about to arrive home from school, and apologised to Sanghwan for not chatting with her longer. Sanghwan—portly, with a relaxed and gregarious manner—said that if they felt like it, they could call her up later. “You do have my mobile number, right?” she asked everyone loudly. “And Kavita’s? Yes? OK, good.”

The conversation soon turned to sexual harassment. “We live in a difficult place,” a young woman named Priyanka, dressed in skinny jeans and a shirt that ended above her hips, said. “They’re morally starved, the men who roam our neighbourhood.” The other women around her, even of her age group, were in sarees and salwar suits.

“It’s all because of what they see on TV nowadays,” 50-year-old Kamla offered. “Did you see that show, Bade Achhe Lagte Hain recently?” she asked Sanghwan, tapping on her shoulder urgently. (The serial aired the first ever on-screen kiss and sex scene to be depicted in a Hindi soap.) “This comes from blindly trying to ape the West, in everything,” Kamla went on. “Issi mein, hum apni sabhyata bhool jaa rahe hain (We’re forgetting our desi culture).”

“That might be the case … I’m sure you’re right,” Sanghwan said, treading lightly. “But then there are some things about Western culture that we can learn from. For example, learning English from books or TV will help everyone. What we must do is learn to disseminate what we read, and how we interpret it, once we pick up the language.”

Nariwal, who has monitored colonies around the Rani Bagh police station for the last two or three years, said later that building up the samitis had been a slow process. “Kuchh saal pehle, pehle pehle mein, yeh auratein hichkichati thhin, humse baat karne mein (At the beginning, which is a few years ago, these ladies would hesitate to talk to us).” Nariwal managed to soften their defences by systematically visiting local women, assuring them through banter and little gestures that she was more than a figurehead and was willing to help. In time, women came to ask for her assistance with nearly everything, no matter how trivial. When we met, Nariwal had just received a request to help clear stray cattle from the railway workers’ colony. “We have to do whatever we can for them,” Nariwal said. “As part of the Parivartan cell, I have to display a degree of sensitivity towards their demands and needs, no matter how small the issue. I’m sustaining their trust.”

IT ISN’T UNUSUAL TO FIND 40-YEAR-OLD SANGHWAN, who ran the Parivartan cell at Ashok Vihar police station until this July, sitting on a charpoy somewhere in North Delhi, sipping tea along with the members of a neighbourhood samiti, laughing at the absurdities of “Haryanvi husbands”, and constantly reassuring the women that the Delhi Police is, in fact, always available and ready to help. She also doesn’t hesitate to talk about a personal history of domestic violence when speaking to women—or lecturing fellow cops—who live and work in the slum colonies. Sanghwan has served for more than 15 years in the force, but her husband, who is also a Delhi Police officer, was far from encouraging when she first took up her post. “I’d work all day—12-, maybe 15-hour shifts—then come back to his abuses and his beatings,” she told me. “My two little boys would sit alone, listening to my cries in the next room while he beat me up over little things, like not making the sabji [vegetables] the way he liked it.” (She is still married, but the physical abuse had stopped.)

Besides reaching out to women in north Delhi slums, Sanghwan also works to change the attitudes of cops like her husband, by delivering gender sensitisation lectures to fellow members of the force. It’s a task shared by a few women sub-inspectors who are willing to face the ire of their peers. “Imagine working 20 hours, and just when your shift ends, you’re asked to come and sit down for a class, a kind of moral lecture,” Sanghwan said. “Wouldn’t you be irritated too? But it’s important to keep the debate alive.”

I watched Sanghwan deliver one such lecture at a north Delhi police station in May. We waited in an anteroom for 20 minutes before a group of 15 grumpy officers, including two women, were rounded up and made to sit in the SHO’s office. Some were dressed in shirts and trousers; evidently they’d just finished their shift and were getting ready to head home. Sanghwan, a bit more formal than she was with the samiti, introduced herself, spoke for a bit about the Parivartan cell, and then launched into her topic.

Kya sabh yahaan ‘gender’ samajhte hain?” (Does everyone understand the word ‘gender’?) she asked. For a few moments, the group struggled, then seemed to collectively shrug. Sanghwan gave the Hindi equivalent, “ling bhed” (gender difference). “We’re the ones who created the difference,” she said. “Society tells women that their role is at home, and in the fields. Men go out and earn. Why are girls not celebrated along with boys? Have you watched this serial, Na Aana Iss Des Laado? Do you think it’s a crime to be a woman?”

“No it’s not,” a male constable replied. “But I’d definitely think twice about sending my daughter out alone, without protection, even to study.”

“The fact of the matter is, girls are dearer to their fathers than boys, while boys are dearer to their mothers,” another constable reflected. “That’s what they show in this serial Waah Waah Kya Baat Hai, too. So, think about it: if a woman is differentiating between boy and girl, the person to blame is the mother, not the father!”

“Here’s the truth for you, madam,” another added. “Gender discrimination doesn’t exist anymore. It only exists in a few places—where the communities are backward, and uneducated.”

Throughout the hour-long discussion—Sanghwan said these meetings usually stay focused on gender sensitisation for barely five minutes—the conversation veered from values imbibed from soap operas (apparently a very popular topic), the impact of Western culture and fashion, and changing ethics and ideals, to the availability of blue films and liquor, and the risks posed to the city’s youth by inflation and unemployment.

Although the conversation was a somewhat tedious one for all involved, Sanghwan seemed to be pinning her hopes on the Parivartan cell’s efforts to change attitudes inside and outside the police station, and not on tools like Nalwa’s SOPs. (Perhaps this was partly because Sanghwan will never rise to a rank that might allow her to enforce procedures or punish juniors who have erred.) “Gender sensitisation toh saath saath karna hi padega, logon se baat karte raho toh jaake unka nazariya badlega” (You have to address gender sensitisation side by side. If you keep talking to people about it, eventually their perspectives will change), she said.


LAST YEAR, Nalwa managed to persuade the actor Farhan Akhtar, who was spending a lot of time in Delhi shooting Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, to star in a public service advertisement on domestic violence. “I like him,” Nalwa told me. “I think most women would find him appealing, too. He was so sweet, and he readily shot the PSA for free.” In the minute-long ad, a sombre-looking Akhtar, dressed in dark colours, looks into the camera and says:

We read about domestic violence, sexual assault and rape everyday in the newspapers. And then we forget about it. Think—in our culture we place women on highest pedestal, and they play a variety of roles in our lives, as mothers, sisters, and daughters. It’s our responsibility to care for them, but an equal amount of responsibility lies with women. Bearing with sexual assault is just as bad as ignoring it. Be brave. There are thousands to support you. Call the Delhi Police on 100. The number 100 is equivalent to a thousand hands in support.

An excited Nalwa thought she’d hit the jackpot, but when the spot finally aired, some of her seniors expressed disappointment. “I was asked if I couldn’t have found a different actor, with more universal appeal,” she said, laughing. “There are only so many people one can please.”

In many ways, the disheartening episode, minor as it may have been, seems characteristic of Nalwa’s relationship with the Delhi Police high command—beginning with the fact that the spot had to be produced on the cheap. On top of its lack of capable personnel, Nalwa said her department is severely underfunded. In 2013, the unit’s budget was cut back more than 14 percent to Rs 8.9 crore. The lion’s share of this is earmarked for salaries, leaving under Rs 1 crore (roughly $155,000) to pay for essential services rendered by professionals such as counsellors, psychiatrists, or artists involved in outreach campaigns. In 2012, the police force in total spent Rs 3,514.02 crore (roughly $640 million); that’s Rs 4.6 lakh per service person—more than any other state or territory in the union bar Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Sikkim. Nalwa’s annual operations, however, were allotted less than three-tenths of 1 percent of this. Asking for anything more from police headquarters (PHQ) is an ordeal. “When my small unit proposes something new, it has to go through various channels in the finance department, and needs a final go-ahead from PHQ before we can implement something,” Nalwa said.

One thing that Nalwa’s unit, and the rest of the force, might benefit from is more women. Female officers accounted for only about 6 percent of the force in 2012, and many feel this has to change. But there’s an unfortunate trade-off to be made. “There’s a ban on creating posts, because of austerity measures—unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Nalwa said of a hiring freeze at the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the Delhi Police. “Now when we asked for recruitment of women IOs—I think we’re going to recruit 400 to 500 women sub-inspectors—we had to surrender an equal amount of male sub-inspector posts.”

This, Nalwa indicated, is not a sustainable solution. “We have to keep in mind the dynamics, the burgeoning of the city, the way things are changing, the porous borders, the requirements of the police and the expectations of the people,” she said. “How long will you stretch an elastic? It’ll break at some point of time.” Indeed, the bulk of the force appears to be grossly overworked: beat constables and investigating officers—the men and women most likely to interact directly with the community and with victims of crime—often grind through consecutive 20-hour shifts with only 8-hour breaks in between.

Constables at a lecture on gender sensitisation. The conversation veered from soap operas to inflation and unemployment. SHARBENDU DE FOR THE CARAVAN

For Nalwa’s unit, there is an upsetting paradox here. In the last financial year, it was so understaffed that it could only utilise around Rs 2 crore from its allotted budget. Because Nalwa’s staff are deputed to her from other stations by headquarters, the unit could not bring in its own recruits, even though it had the funds to pay them. Instead of being able to spend the balance on SOP promotion and other outreach programmes, it had to return the funds to PHQ.

To highlight the neglect of her unit, Nalwa compared it to another special unit, Traffic, which was recently made autonomous following a Delhi High Court order. Although Traffic is still answerable to the commissioner of police’s office in all other respects, its annual budget—more than Rs 219 crore in the 2011–12 financial year—now comes directly from the Ministry of Home Affairs. As a result, it needs fewer budgetary approvals, and was able to purchase its own printing press, to dedicate funds for outreach, and generally to access a lot more cash. In contrast, Nalwa’s unit, the city’s central cell for crimes against women, has had more or less the same staffing levels since the late 1980s. Of course, even if the unit were more generously funded, it wouldn’t be able to abolish crime against women or chauvinistic attitudes within the Delhi Police—but the paucity of funds it receives is a barometer of how low a priority gender issues are within the force.

ALACK OF INVESTMENT BY PHQ and other officers has affected SPUWAC in more ways than one. When Nalwa joined the unit in 2009, it was headed by then joint commissioner of police Sudhir Yadav, who was best known for leading an investigation into the rape of a Swiss diplomat in 2003, and for his questionable handling, in 2006, of the re-opened murder case of the model Jessica Lall. In 2010, when Yadav was elevated to special commissioner of police at Traffic, another joint commissioner (a rank two steps short of the police department’s top job) should have replaced him. Instead, Nalwa, an additional deputy commissioner at the time, took over; she was two ranks below where the unit’s commanding officer should be.

One reason that senior officers may not want the posting is that running the unit that looks at gender violence does not convey the same status that positions at the crime and counterterrorism desks do. In late 2012, there were rumours that Ashok Chand, a former additional deputy commissioner and counterterrorism expert, was asked to head the unit. He apparently claimed not to know much about crimes against women, and chose to take up a deputation in Belize instead. (The senior personnel I spoke to would neither confirm nor deny this.)

Rank aside, Nalwa was a strong choice to lead the unit. An engineer by training, she has a master’s degree in police management from Punjab University, an LLB in law from Delhi University, and an LLM in international human rights law from the University of Essex in the UK (for which she was awarded the prestigious Chevening scholarship). Much of her academic research focused on gender equality, domestic violence and the legal recourse available to female victims of crime. She once described herself as articulate, “perhaps more so than my commissioner of police” (a reference to Neeraj Kumar)—an impression I shared.

In early 2013, Nalwa was promoted one rung up the ladder to deputy commissioner; but her powers essentially remain the same. Raj Mangal Prasad, an activist who has worked for the past 16 years at the NGO Pratidhi, which partners with the Delhi police on rehabilitating victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence and other heinous crimes, told me that Nalwa “needs a senior officer of joint commissioner rank to supervise the SPUWAC and its campaigns”. He said that the unit requires more attention from headquarters than it is currently getting, and that perhaps Nalwa isn’t really heeded in the department’s upper echelons.

Prasad’s view was indirectly corroborated when I met with Nalwa’s superiors. The joint commissioner of police in charge of crime, Shiv Shankar Bhushan, nominally oversees Nalwa’s unit and the other Crime Against Women cells. Sitting in his office at PHQ, I asked him why the police’s central cell for women and children receives less than 1 percent of the Delhi Police’s annual funds. He said he wasn’t aware of the numbers, then asked that I email him so that he could do his research before replying. (Two weeks later, the replies came—sent by Nalwa herself.)

If Bhushan seemed to have little information about the unit he was supposedly overseeing, another senior officer I spoke with was full of ideas. When I asked Nalwa about her lack of funds, she suggested I follow up with Dependra Pathak, the joint commissioner of police in charge of general administration. After going to his office to request data on the amount of money spent on women-centric programmes by the Delhi Police in the last year, I found myself listening to Pathak—gracious, always smiling—as he delivered an hour-long monologue, complete with quotes from Émile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss, on crime against women, rape, and the “primordialised expression of sexual frustration” in today’s youth.

When Pathak took up the subject of SOPs, however, he focused on the ways they could be abused by women. The obligation to register an FIR promptly, without first investigating a rape complaint, was “regressive”, something that would “have the entire country bogged down in litigation”, he said. He cited an example he had heard of, in which a woman, recently released from jail after having embezzled Rs 8 lakh from her male employers, filed a case of gang rape against them. “It was a bogus complaint,” Pathak said, but the concerned police station had to register an FIR nonetheless. Pathak feared that this and other strictures imposed by SOPs would allow women to misuse the police, thereby impeding justice for genuine complainants. He also feared that, as result of this, “in the future, more and more women will not get jobs”.

Sensitising the force to women complainants also seemed to Pathak like a waste of time. “Our entire training at the Police Training College is conducted in order to sensitise,” he said. “We have to be sensitive to the public’s needs, to any complaint; it can’t be just gender-specific. We cannot become gender fearful.” No financial data was forthcoming.

When I asked Nalwa if a more senior officer was needed at the head of her unit, she calmly replied, “I’m not sure why anyone would think that. I’m heard well enough. I can do what I like with the working of my unit.” In retrospect, this struck me as a defensive, if understandable, reaction. As capable as Nalwa seems to be, even her smallest contributions are questioned by her superiors, she admitted. When she wants to push through a proposal, or at least have it noticed at PHQ, she often rings up Yadav first to secure his support. When I asked her what she could do with additional funds or even autonomy from the Delhi Police management, she refused to speculate, saying that, at this point, it is “difficult to imagine such a scenario”.


ON FRIDAY, 24 April, Nalwa chaired a discussion with representatives from various NGOs, and other members of civil society. It was the fourth in a series of “last Friday of the month meetings” that had been promised by the home ministry following the December gang rape and murder. Yadav had been appointed to lead the monthly conclaves, with Nalwa assisting him. This time he was running late, so Nalwa was the Delhi Police’s lone representative.

Sitting at the head of a long conference table, dressed in a cream-coloured blouse and trousers, her short black hair swept to one side, Nalwa listened intently for a while as the 20-odd women and a few men who surrounded her voiced their opinions on what was wrong with Delhi’s men, what socio-cultural trends were to blame, and how the Delhi Police wasn’t doing anything to reverse them. At one point, a sociologist put her hand up to silence the assembly, then sent it into a flurry of gasps and whispers by announcing that the main cause for rising crime against nubile young women was the prevalent belief amongst depraved men that sex with a virgin will cure all ills. “The Delhi Police should round up all sadhu babas who advocate sex with virgins to Indian men,” the sociologist said. “That’ll kill the problem at the root.”

Nalwa sat for over two hours listening to the cacophony of criticisms and bizarre suggestions, an increasingly weary look on her face. She interrupted every now and then to press a rebuttal. “My force is a law-enforcement agency,” she said at one point. “How can you expect the Delhi Police to change society?” Later on, she added, “Our job is not to change the way people think, but if you know of a constructive way to enforce a change that will prevent crimes from happening, please tell me what to do.”

About halfway through the meeting, a representative from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) got up to share a pamphlet that the NGO created to inform women of the helplines, commissions and special cells within the Delhi Police that could be contacted by women in distress. For a brief moment, Nalwa’s face brightened. “This is the kind of thing I’ve been looking for, looking to work with,” she said. “Can you produce more of these for us to distribute? We have these self-defence workshops. We get three, sometimes 4,000 participants. Perhaps they can be circulated at the end.”

“Yes,” the CHRI representative replied. “But we’d have to share costs for larger-scale production.” Nalwa’s face fell.

“I’m not so sure about how that will work,” she said.

“At least the CHRI folks brought us a solution,” Nalwa told me later. “I accept that there are faults within our system, and would love to rectify them. But I’m part of a law enforcement agency; my primary duty is to enforce the law. If I spend all my time coming up with solutions, who will take care of emergent cases on a day-to-day basis? And how much can my colleagues and I appear to keep pushing for gender sensitisation, when all our interactions with civil society end like this—in criticism?” Solving gender-related problems, Nalwa said, is the responsibility of our public institutions, and of society at large. “You realise that if one wing is working and the other is not, it’s not going to get you anywhere,” she told me during our interview in 2012. “I can do whatever it is in my sphere, but when the other sphere where the ball goes doesn’t respond, the whole system fails.”

After the December gang rape and murder, Nalwa’s emphasis on SOPs received a bit of a boost when police headquarters published several circulars highlighting the regulations. While finding officers who have lost their jobs for not following SOPs is difficult, several officers were suspended, reshuffled, and otherwise punished for their roles in mishandling the December and April crimes. The most notable disciplinary action was that the joint commissioner for Traffic, Satyendra Garg, who was allegedly being held to account for the fact that the bus used in the December crime went unchecked by Traffic cops for nearly an hour while it plied some of Delhi’s most important thoroughfares, had been denied a promotion. The Delhi Police also applied for Rs 73 crore from the Nirbhaya fund, a special Rs 1,000-crore purse for women-centric programmes across the country, which was established as part of this year’s Union Budget in order to honour the victim of the December crime. By the beginning of summer, CSR’s workshops, which were supposed to have been initiated in 2007, were finally getting off the ground. According to Nalwa, many of these efforts are aimed at dispelling the “havva” or common myths that the police are unfriendly and inaccessible.

For the time being, SPUWAC and Parivartan don’t coordinate with one another at all. Although Nalwa’s unit was supposed to deputise women constables as trainers for Parivartan’s first self-defence workshops, this never happened, and there is no expectation of anything similar happening now. The force’s other, smaller efforts are similarly disconnected. “Collated efforts towards sensitisation is something that eludes the Delhi police and their bosses, at all levels,” a former senior police officer and home ministry official told me by telephone. “Why doesn’t the special cell for women and children get more money for its outreach and sensitisation programmes, you ask? What is the head of the cell doing about that? If he or she cannot propose feasible programmes before the budget allocation, then someone at the management level at PHQ should. If not them, then someone who is motivated enough at the home ministry should push for more funds for sensitisation and outreach. Is there a lack of good politicians, bureaucrats or officers in this country? Yes, the Delhi police have applied for money from the Nirbhaya fund, but frankly, we don’t know what they’ll do with it.”

It seems there is little in the form of a capable and sensitive leadership that will expand on SPUWAC’s and Parivartan’s programmes. Hooda is now serving as a private secretary to the Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullapally Ramachandran, and Yadav retains his position as head of Traffic. Of the few top cops who have dedicated experience dealing with crimes against women, only Nalwa remains actively involved.

ON AN EVENING IN MAY, a friend and I sat staring at a two-and-a-half-year-old girl—fair skin, straight black hair, a Minnie Mouse voice housed in a tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt and pants—at the back of the SHO’s room in a police station in North Delhi. She sat on a plastic chair, sweaty from recently having spent several hours in the sun, her face expressionless. Swinging her legs restlessly, she dug into a plate of dhokla that was presented to her by Usha Sanghwan.

The assistant sub-inspector’s gender sensitisation lecture had come to an end in the same room only moments before. Sanghwan and I had been chatting about gender discrimination near the police station’s reception area when a man stood up from the visitor’s bench and yelled, “There is no point in talking about sensitisation with these people. For two days my family has been protesting outside, trying to get them to notice my niece, this little girl here. She’s been raped. And these police-walas have done nothing.”

Inside, several more plates of dhoklas and some glasses of Pepsi, brought to the station’s visitors from the police and members of the media, now lay half-consumed on the SHO’s large wooden desk. The victim’s parents—two wiry people who seemed exhausted and disoriented-—sat in front of their daughter, along with her uncle and aunt. The uncle continued to do most of the talking. Because the Juvenile Justice Act stipulates that a minor rape victim’s statement must be registered by a magistrate, the family had to drag the toddler to a district court in the baking hot sun, so that she could officially identify the young man who had allegedly assaulted her only two days before. The magistrate didn’t register her statement; instead, the uncle informed the room, he humiliated the female officer investigating their case for turning up late, and sent them all back home, to square one.

One of many advertisements that the Delhi Police ran in national newspapers, in Hindi and in English, following the December crime. COURTESY WWW.DELHIPOLICE.NIC.IN

The SHO dialled a few numbers, spoke in murmurs to someone we could only presume was the concerned magistrate, and then turned to console the distraught family. “Don’t worry,” he told them. “Your culprit is going to jail. It’s just that the judge-sahib wasn’t sure if such a small child will be able to make a proper statement.”

“Of course sir, she knows who it was and what he did,” the uncle replied. “She can tell you right now.”

Beta, can you come here please?” the SHO asked. The little victim pitter-pattered in her rubber slippers to his desk, then cautiously moved towards his seat as he gestured for her to come closer. “Can you tell me what happened to you? Do you know who it was that hurt you?”

She nodded and slowly volunteered the man’s name, calling him “bhaiyya”. “Ganda kiya,” she said.“Mujhe chhua tha (He touched me in a dirty way).” She then edged towards Sanghwan, now seated to the SHO’s right, who embraced her. “Don’t worry,” the SHO repeated. “We’ll make sure that this guy goes to jail. Magistrate sahib will definitely record her statement. Just give me a call at 10 tomorrow morning.”

Once the family had exited his room, the SHO turned to answer my questions. “It’s not all that simple in this case,” he explained. “You saw the father; didn’t he look mentally unstable? I believe that for this reason, the mother of the victim was having an affair with the accused. Why was the little girl assaulted? Who knows, maybe he wanted revenge, to humiliate them for some reason.”