“I gave her the patta (rubber leash) to use,” said Inspector Chougle.
“For what?” I asked, surprised. I was investigating a molestation case involving a college girl and we had just arrested the main accused. Dragging an iron chair before me, the inspector made himself comfortable, satisfaction writ large on his otherwise generally frowning face.
“Madam, permit me to be frank,” he said. He often said the same as he thought that as a young superintendent of police, I tended to be bookish. He’d use the word very respectfully, then rattle off many points where we had differences of opinion. One of the chief points of disagreement was his enthusiasm for meting out justice on the spot and my insistence on collecting evidence, sending the case to court and waiting for the verdict.
So he’d done it again, I realised. He had given the patta to the girl to hit the just-arrested accused as “instant justice”. The inspector now recounted, “As he cried out, the girl shouted that she too had cried the same way and she gave him one more.” Before I could protest, he said calmly that he had sent the molester to court for obtaining police custody. Inspector Chougle had, as he put it, “cleared his conscience” before I could even move the wheels of justice.
He, and many police officers like him, would create special “anti-goonda squads” to deal with “Roadside Romeos”, as molesters were called. Such units went around town when schools or colleges started or closed. Their special targets were bus stops where, they said, the most harassment happened. The “Romeos” would be roughed up on the spot or would flee at the sight of the anti-goonda staff. I was surprised that citizens, instead of complaining about beatings by the police in public, appreciated them while the “goons” would often refer to them as the “goonda staff”, deliberately missing the “anti”.
My strong dislike for “instant justice” was well-known but respected only on paper by the worthy squad — their main contention was that trials of such cases would take place only after years, witnesses would not come forward, the accused would buy or influence witnesses, the molester would eventually be acquitted and finally go scot-free. This encouraged hooligans but was not reflected in the crime charts because of a lack of complaints by victims.
Their strongest argument was that complainants feared coming forward and molestation was only increasing; their ways of identifying molesters and using strong tactics were therefore justified. I would often talk to college girls in my district and enquire from them why they refrained from lodging molestation cases. Stock replies included a fear of reprisal by the molesters, concerns that parents may stop the girl’s education, embarrassment over approaching the police, not knowing whom to speak with, etc. Suffering in silence seemed the preferred mode, both for parents and victims.
I was pleasantly surprised when a girl approached me directly about net stalking by a guy whom she was friends with online. Referring her case to the cyber cell headed by a very conscientous woman officer, I got busy with other work. But soon, I received an email from the girl saying that she was contemplating suicide as the guy was threatening to post some of her photos on the net and the cyber cell had done nothing to help her. On checking, I was told the officer had taken the victim’s First Information Report (FIR) but proceeded on leave due to a personal emergency.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, I asked Inspector Chougle to present himself to the commissioner’s office. The frown on his forehead deepened as he was told of the victim contemplating taking her life. Promising “instant justice” under his breath, he saluted and walked off.
The next morning, I woke to an email with profuse thanks from the girl. The story, as told by the inspector now, was that the cyber cell traced the net stalker through his IP address, which turned out to be a cyber cafe’s. Chougle invited the girl to the police station, making a lady sub-inspector talk to her. The girl was hysterical but finally agreed to come. Using the lady officer’s laptop, the girl invited the stalker to a restaurant that evening. Thus walked the stalker into Chougle’s net, the inspector waiting with a cup of coffee patiently in his hand.
I was surprised that the inspector had asked for the transfer of the cyber cell case to his own police station, investigated it further and chargesheeted it to the court. His justification for differentiating this case from others of “instant justice” was that the complainant had lodged a formal FIR, there was documentary evidence and he need not depend on witnesses. I saw the same intense satisfaction on his face; it was due to him having been successful in helping a young victim. “May your tribe grow,” I said. Feeling uncomfortable at this sudden praise, the officer saluted and left.
Seeing the intensely disturbing scenes of Bengaluru’s molestations on television now, I am wondering whether the “anti-goonda staff” and their “instant justice” tools are still relevant; whether our reliance on formal investigation and waiting for court judgments over years have encouraged molesters to the extent that women are driven to contemplating retreating to their homes — just when they had started venturing out and spreading their wings.
As a senior police officer told me, an accused began to dance when told his trial would come up for hearing after five years — and it would take a year or two to finish.
In India, molesters dance with joy; the targetted girls are sent back to their homes. But it is not only the police or judiciary that fails our girls — it is also the families that bring up such molesters. As Inspector Chougle reminds me repeatedly, “Madam, stop thinking, start acting.” When will I do so?