One rescue and the multiple existential crises of policemen in Palwal

In early August, a group of activists, lawyers and one journalist arrived at Sadar police station in Haryana. They demanded the rescue of an Assamese teenager who had been trafficked, raped, beaten and imprisoned by a local family. But it was never going to be straightforward.

Shamsul, 20, had spent a month in Delhi looking for his younger sister Sakina.

He and his three siblings grew up in a small village in Kokrajhar district of Assam. They were brought up by a physically disabled father who earned his living by begging. Their mother had passed away three months after Sakina was born. After the ethnic violence in 2012 Sakina’s three brothers, who worked as daily wage labourers, stopped getting work. They were Muslims in a Bodo-dominated village.

Theirs is one of the 11 districts in Assam currently receiving funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme. Since 1994, Kokrajhar has witnessed several bouts of ethnic violence between Bodo tribes and non-Bodo people.

In fact, the BJP and RSS have been claiming for the last 15 years that all the Muslims in this area are Bangladeshis. Posters and wall writings that read, “Bangladeshi Bharat chhodo,” are as common in this area as they are in Delhi. In July 2012, there was another round of violence between Bodos and Muslims. Nearly four lakh people were displaced from over 400 villages.

With her old father now paralysed and her family barely managing two square meals a day, Sakina attempted to resolve the situation. Like several girls and young women who have left Kokrajhar in search of work, mostly as live-in maids in metros, she, too, got in touch with a ‘John’ – a generic name for the middlemen who take such girls to placement agencies in metros for work. In April 2013, she left for Delhi.

That’s the last Shamsul had heard of her. At the time, Sakina was 16.

Three months later, Shamsul received a distress call from Sakina. She told him that ‘John’ had sold her to a family in Pingod village of Palwal district in Haryana as a bride. “She told me that she is beaten up day and night and four men of the family take chances to sleep with her. She cried as she asked me to come and rescue her,” said Shamsul.

What Sakina and her family hadn’t known is that such forced marriages have become a common practice in parts of Haryana, where the skewed sex ratio means there aren’t enough wives for men.
According to the 2011 census, the sex ratio in Palwal is 866 females per 1,000 males. (Kerala, with the highest sex ratio in the country has 1,084 females per 1,000 males. Uttar Pradesh has 908).

A 2013 UNDOC report quotes a study covering 10,000 households over 92 villages, which revealed that 9,000 women had been brought in from other states Haryana, most of them from the poorer parts of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha. Most of them are trafficked through the middlemen who promise jobs, like the one who had tricked Sakina and her family.

Shamsul says his father had not stopped crying ever since Sakina went missing. Now in June, when they got the distress call, he urged Shamsul to leave in search of her. Shamsul sold the only half beegha of land his family possessed for Rs 80,000 and left for Delhi.

In the beginning, he stayed near the Old Delhi railway station. After several rounds of hiring Delhi-Palwal taxis for different sets of people who pretended to help him, paying them and surviving in Delhi, the money was almost over. He got in touch with his aunt Sameena who lived in Sonia Vihar, a very poor, immigrant-filled neighbourhood in northeast Delhi. Sameena was married to a mason and had lived in Delhi for some years.

Palwal district in Haryana is 60 km from New Delhi. After several visits to the Sadar police station in Palwal (under whose jurisdiction Pingod village falls), Shamsul despaired. “The first time I went, the inspector threw me out. He questioned my sister’s character and said that she must have run away with her lover,” he remembers.

After pleading and putting up with the police’s abuses, he managed to convince them to accompany him to Pingod village. They managed to trace Sakina but left her there. “She had cuts all over body and reduced to half the size she had been when she left home,” says Shamsul. When they left, she was further beaten up by the family for being the cause of bringing the police to their doorstep.

Sameena, his aunt, got in touch with a BSP MLA from the area, who in turn got in touch with a local journalist, who informed activists from Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an NGO that works for child rights. New plans were made to rescue Sakina.

At the Police Station

3rd August. 11:00 am. When a team of two activists, two Supreme Court-appointed lawyers on child rights, Shamsul, his aunt, a few volunteers and I reached the Sadar police station, Station Head Officer (SHO) Dev Vart was engaged in a discussion with another police officer (then on leave) on how the number of women reporting cases of assault, violence and torture had risen since the December 16 protests.

SHO Dev Vart, around 50 years of age, spoke Hindi with a distinct Haryanvi accent. He sat behind a large table in a revolving chair with a towel draped over the back, a familiar sight in all government offices in India. The white wall behind him had pictures of Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose, stuck close to each other. His phone rang every five minutes. His ringtone was ‘Aarti Shri Narayan ji ki.’

I asked, “Why have the number of women reporting cases gone up?”

He answered, “When women don’t want to cook the vegetables their husbands ask them to, they come to the police station to register a complaint.”

This moment of epiphany was interrupted by the entry of the rescue team. The sight of Shamsul set Dev Vart off, and he roared, “Why have you come again? And with this baraat?” He gestured at the rescue team “Didn’t I tell you to get police from your [own] state to rescue her?”

At this moment, Manish Sharma, who’s been an activist with Bachpan Bachao Andolan for the last 15 years, stepped in. Several conversations had sprung up in the wake of Vart’s outburst.

Manish told Vart that since the abducted girl was under his jurisdiction, it was the police force from his station that would have to rescue her. From then onwards, Dev Vart and, later, the investigating officer for the case, Jai Ram Singh, referred to Assam mostly as ‘Madras’.

Vart said, “Since the First Information Report about the girl going missing was filed in Madras, the Madras police should come and rescue her.”

Manish corrected him, “Assam.”

Dev Vart replied, “That only. Ask the Assam police to come and rescue her.”

Investigating Officer Jai Ram Singh, well built, clean-shaven, in his 50s, entered. “We will rescue her. One hundred percent. Call the Madras police and we will go with them,” he said.

Ekta Dutta, one of the lawyers who accompanied the rescue team, a woman in her mid-20s, intervened with exasperation: “Sir, under the new POCSO (Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, the local police is supposed to take action whether the girl is from Assam or Madras. So it is you who has to rescue the girl.”

The POCSO Act was introduced in November 2012. It was radical for shifting the burden of proof to the accused, for the more heinous offences of sexual assault. Ekta pulled out a photocopy of the Act and handed it over to Vart. He brought the paper close to his face and squinted hard at it. He then said, raising his left eyebrow, “There are a number of girls sold in Haryana. Are we going to rescue all of them?”

Manish replied, “We have all the details about this particular girl, let’s try and focus on how to get her first.”

A moment of silence followed. Jai Ram Singh, by now sitting on the opposite side of the large table, looked into Vart’s eyes. They seemed to be thinking hard.

“But the girl is married now. We can’t get her from her husband’s place just like that,” Singh objected.

Manish, fed up by now, explained slowly, pausing after every sentence, “Sir, this is a case of abduction and continuous sexual exploitation of a minor girl… That is why the girl needs to be rescued.”

“Still she is 17 years, 2 months and married. And you have a school certificate for proof. That doesn’t work,” said Jai Ram Singh in a matter-of-fact tone.

Manish turned to Pramod, another lawyer who was part of the rescue team, to ask for a copy of the Juvenile Justice Act. He handed over a copy of the new Indian Penal Code (IPC) manual with changes in Section 370, after the Justice Verma Committee recommendation pushed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013.

This legislation provides for the amendment of the Indian Penal Code, Indian Evidence Act, and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 on laws related to sexual offences. After the changes were introduced, Section 370 of the IPC has been substituted with new sections, 370 and 370A, which deal with trafficking of persons for exploitation.

Traffickers can be punished with imprisonment ranging from at least seven years to the remainder of that person’s natural life, depending on the number or category of persons trafficked. Employment of a trafficked person can attract penal provision as well.

Manish also opened the Juvenile Justice Act to point out that the school certificate is admissible as a proof of the date of birth. Dev Vart leaned sideways to take a look.

“But then again, Pingod is a notorious Muslim area. People will surround us and not let us out,” Vart tried to pose a fresh objection. Manish responded with a provocative question, “If 500 people come together to create tensions in an area, will the police give up?”

More such calculated stabs at the policemen’s pride eventually instigated the police officer on leave, dressed in plain clothes, to ask Dev Vart, “Why don’t you call up the SP and ask? What is he there for?”

A long call followed. By now, the rescue team had nicely settled down in the huge office of the SHO. The volunteers washed their faces at the washbasin at the back of the office. Shamsul was quiet and nervous throughout this period.

While Vart was on the phone, an old man in his 70s in an old, soiled white kurta-pyjama entered the room. He held his hands behind him as school children do when told to ‘stand at ease’ by the teacher. The old man told Vart, “Sir, these people (pointing at the police constables outside) are not paying me for three bottles of mineral water and five cups of tea.”

An embarrassed Vart gave him his brief and angry attention. He said, “All that later. First get water and tea for everyone in the room,” and went back to the phone conversation, frantically nodding in the air every 30 seconds. The old man said, “Ji sahib,” counted the number of people with his index finger and left.

At this point, it’s important to recollect that the Justice Verma panel had criticised the Delhi police’s nit-picking attitude (in response to news reports that the police had wasted precious time deciding the jurisdiction while the December 16 gang-rape victim lay bleeding on the road.

The committee had recommended that every individual should be able to register an FIR at any police station, irrespective of the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed. However, these recommendations had clearly not travelled beyond the aggressive talk shows on news television and vociferous opinion pieces in print and online.

SHO Vart and his superior officer went back and forth for a while as Vart came up with various reasons why he shouldn’t conduct the raid.

The chai arrived 45 minutes later. This was when the long call ended. Vart hung up and announced, “Lets go to Pingod.”

The Rescue

Two police jeeps – with Investigating Officer Jai Ram Singh, SHO Dev Vart, sub inspector Raj Kumar, a few male and female constables – and one minivan with activists, lawyers and volunteers drove swiftly towards Pingod village. It was now well past noon. We finally reached the house in which Sakina was suspected to be imprisoned.

Now it seems that in the time that the police were deciding what to do and drinking tea, the grapevine has alerted the village. We saw only two women in the house and neither of them was Sakina. The house had a little grocery store attached to it run by Sakina’s ‘husband’. The women in the family began telling long yarns about how Sakina had gone missing. They talked at length about how they missed her, loved her and wished she hadn’t gone.

The women constables went inside the house and camped on a jute charpoy with these two women. The policemen stood in the middle of the house near the cattle shed instead of looking around for her in the village. Investigating Officer Jai Ram Singh asked one of the women, “Where is the girl you got from Madras?” The woman, understandably confused, walked away from him.

Crowds gathered in the village. In the next 20 minutes, over 200 people materialized around the house.

The pradhan of the village arrived. Pingod is a Meo Muslim dominated village where caste councils play a major role in making decisions for the people. He was a man in his 70s. He wore a white kurta, white lungi, a saafa on his head and a long mehndi-dyed beard. He handed over a sheet of paper – glossy on one side with a blue border and yellow background – to Dev Vart. The writing was in Urdu. Vart passed it on to Raj Kumar. Neither could read Urdu.

They picked a teenage boy from the crowd and asked him to read. He told them that it was Sakina’s marriage certificate. Raj Kumar warned him not to read in a hurry or mess around with names. The boy resumed reading.

Meanwhile, a loud brawl broke out between one of the neighbours of the target family and Sakina’s ‘mother-in-law.’ The women constables tried to step between them. The reason for the fight soon became clear.

The neighbour, Reshma, told the police, “Sakina is beaten up day and night. She cooks for this family of 12 and takes care of the cattle. She broke her leg a couple of days back. She is made to sleep with four men of the family, her husband, her father-in-law’s brother and two of her brothers-in-law.”

Sakina’s ‘mother-in-law’ replied, “So? We bought her for Rs 13,000.”

At this point Sameena, Sakina and Shamsul’s aunt, piped up, “The last time we came with the police to rescue her, they told us that since they had bought her for Rs 13,000, they’d return her if we gave them Rs 20,000. We agreed but they changed their mind.”

Jai Ram Singh turned to the pradhan and said, “We will have to carry out the legal procedures now. Go and get the girl.”

Within a few minutes, the pradhan returned from somewhere in the village holding Sakina’s hand, followed by a group of young men armed with rifles. Sakina was a little less than five feet tall. Several cuts were visible on the parts of her face and neck that were not covered by the dupatta on her head. Her eyes were yellow, as if she had jaundice. She walked with a limp.

The pradhan made Sakina stand in the middle of the courtyard of the house. She broke down as soon as she saw Shamsul and began talking to him in their particular dialect of Assamese. Shamsul tried to calm her down as he wiped his tears frantically. She waved her hand in the air gesturing ‘no’.

Sakina’s aunt Sameena translated for the activists. After the last time Shamsul and the police had come to rescue her and left her behind, she had been beaten badly with slabs of stone and cut with broken razors. That’s how her leg was broken and her face injured.

“Her husband has told her that if she leaves this time, they will kill Shamsul. They have also told her that I am taking her away to get her married to a physically challenged man for a big sum of money. That’s why she is refusing to come with us,” said Sameena.

All this while, the women constables stood away in the shade watching the spectacle. Sakina stood surrounded by the pradhan, the family that had bought her and tortured her, the pack of young men with guns and the activists. Manish called for a woman volunteer from the rescue team. Jai Ram Singh instinctively also called a woman constable. They both stood on either side of Sakina.

That’s when the pradhan challenged Jai Ram Singh. Afterwards, this would seem like a divine intervention. He said to the policeman, “Singh, you will pay for this [interference]. This girl is now the village’s property.”

Singh’s ego was once more lacerated. He responded grandly, “Mullah, you have crossed all limits. Don’t think of yourself larger than the law. I will make you rot in prison for the rest of your life for imprisoning a minor.” He then looked towards Manish expecting appreciation. Manish played along and reciprocated with a thumbs up.

Dev Vart now spotted another group of men walking towards the house with rifles. He quickly instructed everybody to leave. The police ran with Sakina towards the jeep. Shamsul and Sameena ran too. The villagers chased them but within 30 seconds all the policemen and women had packed themselves in the two jeeps, reversed them and zoomed past the village entrance. The rescue team ran towards the mini-van as the men of the village tried to get their own vehicles ready.

The police jeeps had vanished as the mini-van struggled to keep ahead of the five cars and several bikes from the village that followed it on the way to Sadar police station in Palwal.

Back to the Station

When I reached the police station with the rescue team, Sakina was already seated in Dev Vart’s room with 15 more people present. Manish told Vart with a smirk, “Sir, you ran away and left us to deal with them.” He replied defensively, “Who is going to deal with those Musallahs (Muslims)? They start firing at the drop of a hat.”

Manish smiled and seated himself next to Jai Ram Singh who had already started arranging A4 sheets under blue carbon paper to file the FIR. He roared, “Where is the girl’s brother? Now that we have got her, he won’t even show his face to thank us!” Shamsul, still drowning under the joy of finding his sister and the grief at her condition, walked up to Singh. He was teary. Sakina was weeping.

Singh said, “Behen****, why are you crying now? Sit next to your sister.”

All the police officers in the station inadvertently use ‘Behen****’ (sisterf*****) liberally, regardless of the age or gender of the people around them. Vart asked the police constable in the station to call the person with the best handwriting. Singh said, “Ask Raj Kumar to come.”

While everyone waited for the person with the best handwriting, Singh turned to me and said how “these women cases” were too much of a headache. I asked, “How many cases of rape do you get every month?” Vart interrupted, “At least 100. But I am telling you that 90 percent of these cases are false. There are so many laws for women. None for men.” I nodded and didn’t respond for the fear of Sakina’s FIR not getting registered.

Raj Kumar arrived ready to write down the FIR. Singh began questioning Sakina in a reprimanding tone. They wrote down Sakina’s details, her name, age, address. When he asked Sakina the name of her village, she replied, “Rana ka majra”. Singh exclaimed, “Behen****, what kind of a name is that?”

As Jai Ram Singh also wrote down details, the Hanuman tattooed on his right arm was difficult to miss. He asked Shamsul his caste. Shamsul replied, “Muslim.” Singh got confused and said, “That’s a religion.” Dev Vart soothed him, “They all have the same caste. Write ‘Muslim’.”

By now, local reporters from Palwal newspapers had entered the SHO’s room and begun taking pictures of Sakina from every angle. The police officers didn’t protest. One of the volunteers rose to tell them it’s illegal to take pictures of the minor survivor or publish them, that it’s a legal offence. Raj Kumar warned the reporter, “Do what madam is saying. Otherwise, she will get you raided too.” They laughed.

As Singh took down the details, he launched into the old jurisdiction tirade: “We are registering the FIR but this is actually not a Haryana case. You should have registered a complaint in Delhi where she was initially brought from Assam.”

Manish cut him short at the appropriate moment, “Sir, the recent Supreme Court judgment, in the case of a trafficked girl from Assam and rescued from Sonepat in Haryana, is applicable everywhere. Don’t worry.”

Two women in their mid-30s with resolute faces entered Vart’s office. One of them, a woman in a white salwar-kameez, introduced herself to Dev Vart as “Surekha Dagar, Child Protection Officer, Palwal”. The other, in a maroon salwar-kameez, introduced herself as “Leela Pandey, Prohibition Officer, Palwal”.

Dev Vart told Jai Ram Singh with scorn, “PO is here.”

Under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, the Protection Officer can help survivors in registering complaints, filing applications before the magistrate for orders, get medical aid, shelter, legal aid and counselling. The officer also conducts field inquiries on court orders and makes sure the court orders are enforced. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the Prohibition Officer is responsible for preventing solemnisation of child marriages and creating awareness about the evils of child marriage.

The nature of these officers’ responsibilities under the PWDV Act and PCM Act require effective coordination with the police, special cells for women and the office of the superintendent of police in each district. The SP’s office is where the Protection Officers are located, along with their subordinate staff, to ensure effective implementation of the PWDV Act and PCM Act. Protection officers are trained by NGOs and employed on contract by the government.

Protection Officer Dagar asked Ram Singh, “Why are you asking the girl questions? Where are your women police officers from the Special Cell?”

Singh lied outright, “I haven’t asked a single question till now, Madam.”

Dev Vart told Raj Kumar, “Call one of them.”

Raj Kumar asked with a smile, “Should I call that pehlwan (wrestler)?”

Singh said with a smile, “Call anyone.”

Prakash Singh, former DGP, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, wrote earlier this year in Tehelka magazine: “In January 2013, the Justice Verma Committee placed emphasis on certain aspects of police functioning – the filing and registration of complaints, improvement in infrastructure at the police stations, adequate forensic support down to the district level, improving police welfare, community policing, performance appraisal based not on statistical figures but on yardsticks like public satisfaction, safety and security of women and success in preventing incidents of communal violence.”

Following the committee’s recommendations, some crucial changes were brought in laws related to sexual violence but police reforms, the most important cog in the wheel, continues to rust.
As the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s analysis of the Supreme Court Directives on Police Reforms says: “The archaic Police Act of 1861 continues to govern policing in India, despite far reaching changes in governance and India’s transition from a colonised nation to a sovereign republic. As policing is a state subject under the Constitution, states must enact their own Police Acts but most states have chosen to adopt the 1861 Act. Some states have enacted their own Acts but even these closely resemble the 1861 Act. This Act and the kind of policing culture that has been allowed to flourish in independent India, have led to countless abuses by police officers. The need for police reform has been acknowledged by successive governments. Since 1979, a number of commissions and committees have been set up by the central government to suggest ways to reform the police. Yet, the recommendations of these bodies have not been implemented and their reports have largely been ignored.”

The day the four accused in the December 16 Delhi gang rape case were pronounced guilty, former Commissioner of Police of Delhi, Arvind Inamdar, commented on NDTV, "Police officers should be sensitised. When a victim/survivor visits a police station to register a complaint, the police officer should have a smile on his face. A police station should be a woman's maayka."

Recently, a journalist friend was driving back home in Delhi a little past midnight and found a policeman following her on his bike. She pulled up to find out why. He replied, “Because it’s very late in the night and you are driving alone.” She politely asked him to leave her alone. This was clearly a blow to his generosity. He grumbled, “These women are such a headache.”

While we now waited for a woman police officer in Palwal, Singh told Dagar, “Madam, first of all you should ask for the copies of ration cards of all these people in the rescue team. They have created a ruckus here all morning.” Dagar ignored him.

The woman police officer arrived. Dagar then asked Dev Vart, “Where is the public prosecutor who will take down her statement? Why haven’t you called her till now? That’s most important.”
Vart made a quick phone call. The old man who sold chai reappeared. He was instructed to get chai-paani for everyone again. This time he did not count the number of people.

The public prosecutor arrived 10 minutes later. Dressed in a black and white salwar-kameez, vermillion from forehead to crown, wearing a shiny mangalsutra and with a scooter helmet in one hand, she said, “Namaste, sir,” to Dev Vart in a docile voice.

Now, Prohibition Officer Pandey took over. She told the public prosecutor to take Sakina to another room to take her statement. Sakina, Dagar, Pandey and the public prosecutor left for the next room. Vart and Jai Ram Singh also left elsewhere.

Suddenly, the village pradhan entered the SHO’s room with 20 odd men, including members of the family who had ‘bought’ Sakina. They told Raj Kumar bullyingly, “The girl is married under the Islamic law. You can’t impose the State law.” Raj Kumar replied, “We will ask the girl. If she wants to go with you, we will send her.”

Manish pointed to the photocopy of the Juvenile Justice Act once more and said, “She can’t go even if she wants to because she is a minor who was married.”

Almost an hour later, Sakina, Dagar, Pandey and the public prosecutor returned.

The public prosecutor read out Sakina’s four-page statement where she narrated all that had happened to her over the previous months. Pandey reminded the public prosecutor to note that Sakina and the man were not married in the presence of a maulvi.

The men from the village, meanwhile, were hanging about in the compound of the police station. The activists negotiated hard with the police to make the men wait outside the station, arguing that they were intimidating Sakina. Finally, after all the documentation was in place, Sakina and her family left with Dagar and police escort for medical examinations.

The Way Home

After the medical tests, the next day Sakina was presented in court and sent off to Nari Niketan in Karnal, the Haryana government’s only rehabilitation home for women. She was released a week later and handed over to Shamsul to return to Assam. Sakina is now back in Kokrajhar. She is living with her paralysed father, who has stopped crying, Shamsul, and his new wife. She has re-enrolled in school “to be able to read and write”, as she puts it.

The man who brought Sakina from Assam and sold her has been arrested and awaits trial. But the family that bought, imprisoned and tortured Sakina have still not been charge-sheeted.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2012, 1,939 people were arrested for abducting women. Of these, 1,878 were charge-sheeted in Haryana. Only 51 people were convicted in the whole year.

On 10th August, 2013, when Sakina was released, we waited outside Nari Niketan, a prison-like building with high walls and barbed wire in which 30-odd women are said to share a room. In June 2013, two girls, both the same age as Sakina, were found dead in a bathroom there.

As we waited that day in the SHO’s office, Investigating Officer Jai Ram Singh with the Hanuman on his arm told me, “Madam, I keep away from women. They are the cause of all troubles.”

I again kept quiet since he was officially required to escort Sakina to the railway station and she would be travelling in his car.

(Some names have been changed to protect identities.)

Neha Dixit is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.