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Two Calcuttans recount their experience of harassment followed by a visit to the police station

The Telegraph,  Thursday , August 1 , 2013

The task of successfully hailing a taxi from the four-way intersection near the Chandni Chowk metro station requires herculean patience and nerves of steel. It is a battle one must wage every evening if one isn’t keen on braving the sea of bodies in the metro station at the end of a long work day. It is a battle that gets more and more difficult with every passing day, in the true spirit of paribartan. On Monday night, the cabbies — there were about five or six refusals — won the battle of nerves, and I ran out of that herculean patience. It would have to be the metro. My colleague and I didn’t have to wait for the train; I behaved like an elated child because it was an air-conditioned one. Barring a couple of unsavoury incidents in the past, the Calcutta metro, for all its failings and hiccups, had rarely been a space where I felt unsafe (unless one considers Tollygunge metro station after 8.30pm, where waiting for a train on the deserted platform with menacing gazes trained on you can be a harrowing experience).

We entered the first compartment of the train. I was the only woman there. This did not really bother me. It is painfully true that the culture of terror bred on the streets and other public spaces every day ensures that women feel the added pressure of having to be constantly vigilant about their own safety wherever they go. But, at that moment in the train, I did not feel uncomfortable in the least. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that I had a male colleague travelling with me. This gives rise to troubling questions about mobility and freedom if a woman is unable to feel safe unless she is accompanied by a man, though now, in the light of recent incidents, the idea of being safe if accompanied by a lone man, and how he would be able to ‘protect’ on his own if the necessity arose, has been challenged as well. Yet, perhaps there was nothing to fear, I felt that evening as I got in. That, of course, changed in a few minutes.

When the train halted at Esplanade, the usual throng pushed into the compartment. In it were two young men. One of them — unaware that the tall, grim-faced guy standing within earshot was my colleague — asked his friend, “Bnaa dik-er maal ta ke dekhechhish? (Have you noticed that one on the left?)”. His interest aroused, the friend asked, “Which one?” The unfortunate souls were taken aback when my colleague called them out on the way they were talking about a woman in public, and told them in no uncertain terms to behave themselves, failing which they would get into deep trouble. The usual indignant denials ensued. Things, however, got out of hand when the train entered Maidan station. I told my colleague that I was getting off there, to which one of the men snidely remarked, “Amar namar ektuo ichhe nei (I have no wish to get off).” Before they knew what had hit them, they were being hauled out of the train by my colleague, as I went looking for the RPF personnel supposed to be manning the platform all the time. The whole process of looking for help felt surreal. This was not some rural hinterland, where there are never enough police. This was not an empty road; it was a well-lit station in the heart of the city, where policemen are supposed to be around and forthcoming with their help.

There was no RPF patroller to be found, of course. To make matters worse, getting the attention of the uniformed personnel who sit in front of the ticket counter with a grand air of efficiency proved to be a real task. By the time one of them deigned to get up from his chair and saunter towards me, my colleague had arrived too, with the two young men. Upon being told what the problem was, the first words — addressed to my colleague and not to me — of the man in uniform were, “Dekhun dada, ga-e toh haath-faath lageni, naApanara nijeder moddhye understanding kore nilei shob cheye bhalo hoy. (Look, there was no physical contact or assault, was there? It would be better if you just settled the matter among yourselves.)”

If one can look past the anger and disgust evoked by this response from a law enforcer, supposed to be the first point of assistance in a many-tiered, complicated process of justice, the picture that emerges is positively frightening. It is appaling that the right to lodge a formal complaint of harassment can be questioned, and sometimes even stopped, by the law enforcers themselves on the basis of their reading of how serious or ‘trivial’ an offence is. My colleague and I, perhaps because of where we work, were treated better after that, by the station master, the sub-inspector and later by the officer-in-charge at the Maidan police station.

Even then, the whole procedure of lodging a simple complaint and having it transferred to the police station, all in the midst of vehement denials by the accused of what they had done and all the phone calls they kept making, took over an hour. The entire red tape is carefully designed to completely wear the complainant out. Even I, being the sort who does not go down without a fight, was ready to give up before we even left for thethana at long last. I managed to complete the process only because my colleague refused to let the matter go.

Even at the police station, before the OC appeared — he was very helpful and efficient, adjectives one would not normally associate with the Calcutta Police — I was at my wits’ end, having been made to write out my complaint no less than five times, to be told then by the SI that we would have to return the next day to collect our copy of the first information report. All of this, after I had to contend with five minutes of being sized up by the men on duty at the station. I wondered how women who could not hope for the sort of treatment we received dealt with that gaze, if they ever gathered up the courage to visit a police station and lodge a complaint.

We carried on doggedly right till the end. However, the vast majority of women in similar or worse situations will, in all likelihood, not even reach the station master’s cabin. Even if they do, there are enough forces at work — not least their ignorance of their own rights and of the law — to derail their efforts at getting justice. The consequences of law enforcement agencies’ unwillingness to ensure public safety can be crippling. Most women find themselves powerless in the face of such apathy and hostility every day. I would have too, perhaps if we had given up.

NAYANTARA MAZUMDER

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