Libra 77 is screaming down the highway at 85 kilometres per hour. The night is warm and sticky, and the wrath of god has just felled a temple priest in Sultanpuri. Now unconscious on a stretcher, Ram Pukar, 54, was fiddling with the switchboard of a dazzling display of lights outside his temple when he was electrocuted. His helper, a boy of 15, uncertain of what had possessed the pujari, pulled a cellphone from his dhoti and dialled the only number that came to mind — 100.
Since the horrific gangrape of a 23-year-old student last December, one of the many systemic deficiencies that have come to light has been the abject inefficiency of the city’s police in preventing and investigating crime. One of the most haunting images of the men in khaki in recent times was video footage of a police officer slapping a young woman across the face, following the protests about the rape of a five-year-old girl in East Delhi. Add to this reports of custodial rapes, a stubborn refusal to file FIRs, the complete lack of empathy when dealing with survivors of sexual assault, and it is no wonder that fewer and fewer people retain their faith in dialling 100 for prompt and effective help.
Among the first few heads to roll in New Delhi after the gangrape were those of the Police Control Response (PCR) officers on call that night. Even if Special Operations Commissioner TN Mohan now denies the charges that his vans arrived late at the scene of crime and spent precious minutes arguing about whose jurisdiction the fatally injured victim and her friend belonged to, the Delhi Police’s image has suffered a battering this year.
The officers of Libra 77 are waiting for news of the priest outside the Valmiki Hospital in Bawana. A compounder arrives to inform the gathering that Ram Pukar will live; he has made it to the doctor in time. Last year, 32,000 sick and injured people were ferried to hospitals by the Delhi Police’s PCR vans. Each unit — comprising a driver, an inspector and a gunman — is charged with the responsibility of serving as the immediate response system for a range of public incidents. This means attending to ‘heinous crimes’ like rape, murder, riots and burglary, but also rescuing kidnapped cattle, diving into open drains after suicidal women, settling accounts between argumentative shopkeepers and solving domestic disputes. Additionally, the Delhi Police has begun a programme of gender sensitisation for its officers. “My officers have specific instructions to attend to all reports of domestic abuse from women. Once, we would consider it a ‘private matter’ and let couples sort it out. Now, we will put the man into lockup for a night if necessary,” says Mohan, his Tamil accent worn down by the last decade he has spent in New Delhi.
Madhu, 26, is livid. She points a quivering finger at her mother-in-law, Sunita, and screams at Inspector Naresh Kumar Dahiya. “This bitch,” she says, grabbing Dahiya’s arm, “convinced my husband to bring home another woman. When I complained, she and her husband called me a whore, and beat me with a jhadu.” Sunita, 63, is calm, apologetic. The men of the family, according to Madhu, are off selling spurious liquor, a claim Sunita immediately refutes. “Sir, you do not know what kind of woman you are dealing with. It is better for you to leave, before she seduces you with her ‘chikni baatein’ (smooth words) like she did to my son,” she says. The narrow lane of Murga market, Bawana, is crowded with curious folk, eager to see how Dahiya will deal with the hysterical woman. The van’s driver ASI Inder Jit Singh, has not come out of the car. Constable Rishikesh, the 37-year-old gunman of Tiger 34, is always by his Inspector’s side. He shakes his head now, “Ab, police kya kar sakti hai isme, batao?” (What can the police do in this case?)
Of late, news reports have been full of things the police could have and should have done, to prevent the rash of crimes against women that appears to be erupting across the country. In response to public pressure since December, the Delhi Police has increased the total number of PCR vans by 200 (making the tally 800 vans for Delhi’s 11 districts). But with most crimes, there is little chance of a PCR van reaching in flagrante delicto — by the time they hear a siren or see blue and red lights approaching, most criminals have already fled the scene. As sociologist Dipankar Gupta points out, cases of ‘stranger rape’ and ‘gangrape by strangers’ are also relatively few in number. The majority of sexual assault is still perpetrated by people known to the victim — fathers, friends, husbands, relatives, employees, servicemen, colleagues, and boyfriends. “How do we prevent someone who has trust and access from raping a woman?” asks Mohan, leaning across his massive desk. “My vans are a projection of strength. They cannot actually reach the site of a rape as it is occurring, unless informed by a third party who already knows of the crime.”
Instead, what the PCR system can and is trying to do is to prevent situations of molestation from turning into instances of full-fledged rape. “The moment a woman in distress dials any of our helplines, whether it is for stalking, obscene calls, or even for a lift, we try to help her the best we can,” says Mohan.
Romeo34 is in the fourth hour of its 12-hour night shift. Head constable Pawan Kumar is eating his dinner in the van, and his driver Vijay Singh splashes his face with water for the second time tonight. Singh is from Rajasthan, but says he has never felt hotter than when he is driving around in the PCR van in New Delhi. Along with the three (sometimes four) men that travel with the PCR’s cars (Gypsies, Taveras and now a few Innovas), the vehicles also carry blankets, traffic cones, first aid kits, fire extinguishers, police tape and full body armour. The cars are not allowed to keep their windows rolled up, and are never equipped with air conditioning lest the officers get “too comfortable” and fall asleep. So far, Romeo34 has raced to the spot where an auto driver was refusing to take a passenger to the airport, settled a drunken brawl, attended a couple of hoax calls and given water to a man with a pair of monkeys. It’s been a slow night.
Suddenly, a long car halts just ahead of them, and begins to painstakingly reverse in their direction. All the officers pause what they are doing. Kumar puts his hat back on and strides towards the car. The gunman stands up straighter, his face taut with tension. Before Kumar reaches the car, a tall girl in shorts steps out. “Bhaiya, main NOIDA kaise jaaoon?” she says, eyes darting to each of the three men in turn. There is an audible sigh of relief from Singh as Kumar gives her directions. “Why do women get lost so easily?” the gunman grins.
Earlier this August, under advisement from the Justice Usha Mehra Commission, the Delhi Police reserved one-third of its posts for female constables. Yet, none of the several PCR vans TEHELKA rode with in the past week had a single female officer present on night duty. Special Operations Commissioner Mohan said he preferred to let women run the police headquarter’s central control room, and if at all he sent them on patrol, it was usually in the relatively ‘low incidence zones’ of New Delhi, or outside girls schools and colleges. The recent gangrape of a female constable in Latehar, Jharkhand, demonstrated that even policewomen were not immune to assault in public spaces. But Mohan had a better reason for not sending female officers out for 12-hour shifts at night — “Will you open the door and let my officers use your toilet? Men can go anywhere. How do I keep the women safe when they need to take a leak?”
Sub-inspector Renu Yadav, 27, is wearing green spectacle frames that match her green nail polish. She removes her headset and says in a conspiratorial whisper, “Who doesn’t feel afraid these days? Don’t you, as a journalist? It does help to have a police uniform, but even I wouldn’t want to be out at night in this city.” The only time Yadav did find herself out at night without her father, who is also a police officer, was when she was on her way home with four female colleagues from work. At the intersection at Palam, one of the women said she needed to use a toilet. Seeing none close by, the others told her to go behind a bush as they kept watch. None of the women were in uniform. Out of nowhere, a pair of boys arrived, and asked the eldest of the group (constable Hemlata) how much she was charging for the girls. “At first, ma’am didn’t realise what they meant. Once she understood, she let loose such a torrent of Haryanvi on them, and we piled on to them so badly that they literally sprinted from the spot,” she laughs.
Yadav’s story is heartening in many ways. Inspector Poonam Pareek, 46, agrees that her uniform helped her become more confident in everyday life. She often finds herself taking on the role of a counsellor quite naturally in her neighbourhood, or breaking up fights on the commute from Khirki Extension to ITO’s Police Headquarters. The catch phrase she has taught her junior officers, is to be “firm, but polite” — one cannot be too timid as a woman, she says. “Even if someone is following you, turn around, look him in the eye and ask, “Kya baat hai? Peechha kyun kar rahe ho?” in a loud voice. Don’t sound intimidated. If you seem scared, you will be an easy target,” she says. Pareek finds her job at the 1091 women’s help desk extremely satisfying, as she says she is actively able to help women deal with obscene callers, and provide intervention when they most need it. Yet, hundreds of women in the central control room are essentially sending male officers to troubled spots all over the city. Although they received exactly the same training as the men during their induction into the force, they are confined to this room in large numbers because there is no public space that is safe or comfortable enough outside for them to work in.
Sub-inspector Devender Kumar Singh is following Tiger34 to a secluded spot, so that Singh can offer Inspector Naresh Singh Dahiya a chilled bottle of Coca Cola. Singh is from the same village outside Bawana as Dahiya, and has always looked up to him as an elder. As the vans come to a halt and the men begin to exchange news of the village, the wireless system (which never stops crackling with bad news) informs them that a quarrel has flared up in the Bengali settlement close by. Both vehicles leave at once. On the way, Dahiya leans towards the ASI and enquires, “Is it a Hindu-Muslim problem?” Communal skirmishes are common in this part of the city. With over 28,000 factory workers in the colony, even a drunken brawl can turn serious in seconds. Just a few months ago, Dahiya’s old driver, a head constable, needed a cast after the crowd turned aggressive and began pelting the PCR van with stones and glass bottles. When we arrive at the spot, it turns out that a man spat paan at another man’s kurta, prompting him to call the police. It is no reason for alarm, yet all the officers from both cars have their hands on their weapons, and begin to ask the two men to produce identification papers. One of the gunmen comments at a young boy’s clothes, causing three more young men to appear by his side, faces defiant. The migrants who surround us stare at the migrants in uniform, eyes locked in an impasse of unnecessary aggression.
Just another night in Delhi.