I have been stared at, whistled at, catcalled in broad daylight, in the middle of busy streets, at vegetable markets, on the Metro. I knew I was not alone. I knew there was worse happening. I was writing about it, acutely aware of the provisions under the Criminal Amendment Law under which each of these men could and should be penalised. But much as I hate to admit it, I let each one of these incidents go. Just like the other young girls in my family, I was trained to avert my gaze and it was only later that I learnt to stare back. But, being sexually harassed in some form every second day in Delhi, how many men was I going to drag to the police station?
I have been annoyed, outraged and even indifferent on days. Sometimes, my rage found a temporary outlet in the company of friends who had shared similar experiences. But through all these phases, there was one question that never left my mind. Was I waiting for something worse to happen? The answer to my question was obvious and frankly shameful: perhaps I will do something next time.
That ‘next time’ happened early in the evening when the sun was still out, in the middle of a busy street in Noida. I was speaking on the phone when I noticed four fruit vendors in their mid-twenties leering at me, wiggling their tongues obscenely as I walked towards them. They laughed as they noticed the discomfort on my face, but stopped when I shouted at them. Passers-by stopped and watched the show. I moved ahead, but when I turned around, I saw them laughing, deriving pleasure out of my embarrassment. This time I was in no mood to let it go.
The incident had taken place within 300 metres of a police outpost. I approached the police and two constables accompanied me to the spot but were only able to get hold of two of the perpetrators. At the outpost police station, Inspector Ashok Kumar initially refused to take down my complaint and asked me to go to the Sector 20 Police station. His explanation was simple; the outpost police station did not receive complaints. I had to tell him that I’m a journalist before he agreed to take down my complaint, but that too was full of conditions. I was asked to file my complaint in Hindi. It took me half an hour to repeatedly explain that I was not comfortable writing in Hindi. Only then did he agree to take it down in English. An hour and a half later, as I walked out of the police station, some people, who could have been family members of those accused approached me and asked me to take my complaint back. I reported the incident to the police and was escorted home by a constable. However, as soon as I reached home, I received a call from Inspector Ashok Kumar asking me to come back to the police station and file my complaint in Hindi. Since when did language come in the way of police personnel lodging a complaint? What would Mithu Didi, my house help who is only conversant in Bengali do in such a situation? What would a student from the Northeast or a poor adivasi woman do? I refused. Also, why would a police officer ask a woman who had just been harassed and eventually had to be escorted by a police officer to come back to the police station? They offered to come home but I didn’t see a reason why my complaint could not be accepted. Why was I being asked to go through the same procedure again, after I was already harassed earlier that evening?
I called the Women’s Helpline,1091, to ensure that my complaint was registered. The attendant said that the case did not come under their jurisdiction and were re-directing me to the same police station that was refusing to accept the English complaint. Their refusal shocked me. How did Sector 14, Noida, which comes under Delhi-NCR, not be in their jurisdiction, and more importantly, how could they deny help?
In the next 15 minutes, Sector 20 Police station SHO Reeta Yadav, along with four other policemen were in front of my house, come to take down my complaint in Hindi. On the SHO’s insistence I went downstairs and dictated my complaint in Hindi, groping for words for 20 minutes, while a policeman wrote it down. My only request was an acknowledgement of the fact that I had lodged my complaint for the second time and that too in a language I was not comfortable with, for the fear of not being able to explain myself. That, for some reason, angered the SHO, who refused, tore my complaint to shreds and drove off in her jeep in a huff, saying: “Kuch zyada hi padhe likhe ho jaate ho aap log…”
Not knowing what to do, I walked back into my house when I received a call from her again. This time to tell me that my complaint was being lodged at the Police Station in Sector 20. It was already 9.30 pm by then. The last two-and-a-half hours of struggling with the police seemed pointless. I requested Yadav to change my address on the complaint, to ensure that all correspondence reached my office address. Again, I was asked to come to the police station, some 3 kms away from my place. Mentally exhausted, by this time, I had lost faith in the police. But changing my address was important to ensure my privacy.
I asked an activist I knew to accompany me to the station, only for the two of us to be harassed further in the absence of any female officers. Inspector Sudhir Kumar, who was translating my complaint, refused to let me change my address. An altercation broke out and Kumar pushed both of us. Senior officials intervened and this was brought to the SHO’s notice. But Kumar refused to give us a written apology and instead walked off in a temper.
Yadav then asked me to file a complaint for the third time, this time calling my handwriting ‘illegible’. This time, she did not object to the language in which the complaint was filed. After four-odd hours, my complaint was finally lodged, in English. The FIR was yet to be filed.
In the last 48 hours, I have gone over this ordeal several times, thinking through different scenarios. What if I had taken no action, just like all other days? What if I had gone on with my life as if nothing had ever happened? It would have saved time and it would have saved me from the four-hour ordeal that going to the police station was. I can see why my mother did not approve of the idea of approaching the police. I see why women would rather avert their gaze than take action. I see why every middle class woman I’ve known is skeptical of approaching the police. Yet, given a choice to go back in time, I’d still report those four boys to the police. With sexual harassment, waiting for the next time is not an option.
Anonymous is a journalist with TEHELKA. If you have had similar experiences of police apathy and would like to share them, write to us at [email protected]