Delhi has been shaken by the gang rape last weekend of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus. Demonstrations have been taking place across the capital, and much of the public’s anger has been directed at the police.
Suman Nalwa, an additional deputy commissioner, is in charge of the Delhi police’s special unit for women and children. Ms. Nalwa, 43, previously served on units focused on anticorruption and crimes against women. She holds a degree in international human rights law and has co-authored three books on domestic violence and cruelty towards women.
For four years, Ms. Nalwa has worked on a police campaign to promote women’s safety in Delhi. Called Parivartan, or change, it was started in 2005 after several highly publicized rapes in the city. Its goals include promoting discussion of sexual violence in slum areas and training junior officers and constables, who are usually the first responders, to deal with women’s complaints appropriately.
Such concerns have come to the fore again in Delhi in the wake of the attack Sunday. “It is imperative that the police and other agencies concerned are sensitized to the danger that our daughters, sisters and mothers face every day,” Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party, wrote in a letter Wednesday to Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dixit. “The security agencies must be motivated, trained and equipped to deal with the menace,” she wrote.
In a conversation with India Ink, Ms. Nalwa talked about how the police handle cases of sexual violence, about gender bias on the force and about the challenge of changing police officers’ attitudes toward women. She also defended the Delhi police in connection with declining conviction rates in rape cases.
Q.Can you tell us more about the Parivartan program, and how you are working to make the Delhi police more sensitive when they deal with women who have been the victims of sexual violence?
A.The Delhi police have an ongoing program on gender sensitization. Our police training college is also doing a similar exercise. We have associated with a lot of nongovernmental organizations. They go to police stations and talk about these issues, rather than a police person talking to another police person.
However, now I think we need more than gender sensitization. There is a need for the police just to be citizen-friendly so that people have faith in the organization, so that they can approach the police and know that action will be taken on their complaint and that they will not be harassed.
Q. Are discrimination and gender insensitivity major issues within the Delhi police force?
A.I would not say there is discrimination, but yes, we do need gender sensitization. That’s because most of my force, from wherever they are coming, are carrying their ideas of gender-specific roles. Based on their background, they have a certain idea of the role of women. For that to change, it’s a tough process. You cannot do it at the snap of a finger. We have started it. But then, our police person goes back to the same society.
Also, most police officers are crime- and criminal-oriented. That’s how they are. Any other way, they have to be taught, like how to talk to a woman, or how to have good communication skills.
You have to look at the education level as well. A person who is recruited at the constable level is just 12 pass [a high school graduate]. He might be coming from a village on the outskirts of Delhi, or from outside Delhi. So he is carrying those values with him. He might have never seen a woman in a short skirt, so he might be quite disturbed by this. He might be ogling. So he has to be taught how to behave. It will take time for these mind-sets to change.
Q.One report found that many Delhi police officers believe that when a rape happens, it’s often the woman’s fault, that she “asked for it.” How do you deal with this?
A.At our level, we don’t come to hear of this directly, but I do know it exists.
People do try to justify that nothing would have happened in their area if the woman had dressed differently, or if she was not out late at night.
I think if we have strong supervisory mechanisms, these things don’t matter. I am not bothered about somebody’s personal views in any situation as long as they are working well. At the end of the day, attitudes should not be hampering investigations.
Q.But surely they do hamper investigations?
A.I don’t think they do. In such cases, the supervisory mechanism is very strong. These are special-report cases, where officers have to inform their supervisors on a day-to-day basis of the progress they are making in the case.
Whatever their beliefs might be, they have to investigate the case properly. We just need to have very strong standard operating procedures that say: this is what you are required to do. Period.
I don’t care what your biases might be, I don’t care what you might be thinking, as long as the complaint is dealt with properly.
Q.Do you think putting in place supervisory mechanisms is more effective than gender sensitization at the core level?
A. I would say that both have to run in parallel. Ultimately, you want the police to be sensitive. But we can’t wait for years for them to be sensitive enough to start working. I don’t want my investigations to suffer. I don’t want complainants not to report just because they don’t trust the force. So we need to have strong supervision, strong standard operating procedures. Along with that, we can have gender sensitization. But again, that is a five-year plan, or longer.
Q.Activists say one of the problems within the Indian police force is that there aren’t enough women constables and investigating officers. Do you agree?
A.Yes, that is a problem. Only 6 percent of the Delhi police force is female. The all-India figure is lower, between 3 and 4 percent. In Delhi, the numbers increased after the Commonwealth Games, because we had to recruit a lot of female officers for security duties like frisking and checking. But those recruitments were at the constable level. If you’re talking about investigating officers, the percentage is still lower.
Q.Would having more female officers help the Delhi police deal with crimes against women?
A.Yes, but I don’t look at it that way. I will not be the one to segregate men and women. The fact is, you can never have a 100-percent-woman force. Why do I have to depend on the 10 or 20 percent that make up the woman force? One hundred percent of the force should be with me, working for me. Why should I ghettoize woman and children issues? I should get an effective response, irrespective of whether a police person is male or female.
Q.One of the main reasons that women don’t register complaints after being assaulted or harassed is that they don’t think their complaint will be taken seriously by a male police officer, or they fear that they may be mistreated or harassed.
A.That image has to change. We have to make sure there are no black sheep in the force. We should not be shrinking from that responsibility.If a person can’t be trusted, I don’t want such a person in the police force.
But I also want to tell women, “Why don’t you report?” It’s the underreporting which is a problem. If I know the extent of the problem, only then will I take corrective mechanisms.
Right now, they say only 4 percent of women report cases of sexual harassment. With that data, can I go and say I need more women in the force?
This is what I always say: If there is no electricity in my house I will be hounding the electricity department, “I need light, I need light.” If the police are not there, and I’m paying for security as a taxpayer, why don’t I shout and say that I need more security here?
Q.Conviction rates in cases of crimes against women are as low as 27 percent in India. Some say the police are not doing a good enough job of investigating and prosecuting crimes against women.
A.I don’t think there is any truth in this. I think it is very easy on the outside to say this is happening, but there has to be some detailed data.
There have been prosecutions in all sensational cases and many have been successful. Low rates of convictions are not because of the lack of investigation. If a prosecution is unsuccessful, we take action against the investigating officer. We also read all the judgments that come to us.
These judgments are very specific on why a person is acquitted, whether it’s lack of evidence, whether it’s a tardy investigation, whether the woman alleging rape has turned hostile.
In Delhi, I can assure you that our investigation is above par. In heinous cases such as this gang rape, the senior-most officer is involved in the investigation. They know on a day-to-day basis what is happening.
Imagine, in this case, the head of the force is involved. So there’s a lot of seriousness.
The next time anybody criticizes us, ask them on what basis they are saying things. Do they have any judgments that say the police didn’t do its job? And how many of them? If there are about 500 cases, how many talk about police tardiness or lack of investigation?
Q.The number of reported rapes in Delhi is higher this year than before. If the police are doing their job, why is it that cases of sexual harassment and rape are increasing?
A.It’s not just this year, it’s been happening for several years now, ever since economic liberalization. There is a lot of floating population in Delhi. We have a lot of people who are not residents of Delhi, but are just coming for work.
Plus we have a lot of immigrants in Delhi, so social alienation is high. A lot of people have made it big, but they don’t know their neighbors. So social corrective mechanisms are not in place. Earlier, people would hesitate to commit a crime because they were worried: What will people think of me? That doesn’t exist anymore.
Also, because of economic liberalization, many people in the national capital region have made good money through land deals. But they haven’t changed their values. For years, they have treated women as second-class citizens or maybe worse than that. Delhi is different from Mumbai, which exists almost as an island. Delhi has such porous borders. It’s very difficult for Delhi to control its floating population.
Q.Delhi is widely viewed as one of the most unsafe cities in India for women. How do you feel about that?
A.I think part of it is that Delhi gets a lot of attention because it’s the capital. The other thing is that people tend to compare crime rates now with rates in the past. Hasn’t the situation in Delhi changed? Now, women are working late at nights. Did you have call centers 10 years ago? Now women go out in the night, to discotheques and other places. Did that happen before?
Earlier, women didn’t leave their homes, so there was no crime. We are doing our best, but of course, there is a lot more to be done.
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)