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INDIA: Where police ignore distress calls

June 27, 2014

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission

INDIA: Where police ignore distress calls

by Avinash Pandey

The phone calls were going unanswered.

A group of men had broken into a female friend’s house and were holding her hostage. I was frantically calling the Senior Superintendent of Police, the local police station, and officials in the district administration. Every passing minute sent shivers down my spine. I thought to myself: what are these police stations for, if they cannot respond to such emergencies?

This is one of countless stories from India, where women’s bodies are treated as sites of honour, to be maligned or defended. The younger brother of the hostage had fallen in love and married a girl. The couple had eloped. This was not a caste conflict case. In fact, the couple belonged to the same caste. It was the girl’s decision to choose her life partner on her own that had irked her family members, self-designated custodians of the girl’s autonomy in a patriarchal society. It was this insult they wanted to avenge. Members of the affronted family had, therefore, broken into this female friend’s house in the dead of night.

The group confiscated her phone and prevented her from seeking help. She was repeatedly told to divulge details on where the couple was hiding. They threatened her with rape and with being paraded naked if she did not provide the needed information. She, however, had no clue where the couple was hiding. She asked for her phone, using the excuse that another friend might know about the couple’s location.

This phone call allowed her to inform a friend about her predicament. This friend, in turn, tried to contact every possible person who could help, beginning with the local police. And, this is how I also learned of the dangerous hostage situation.

The police did not answer any calls, leaving us all flummoxed. Other friends in the media and in the women’s movement were contacted who were finally able to reach the police and make them act. The hostage situation was broken the following morning. The hostage was rescued, thankfully before she got violated. But, this was only possible because the woman was well connected and her friend could reach people in positions of influence promptly. What would have happened to an ordinary woman with no such contacts is anybody’s guess.

This incident took place in a country that has seen an outpouring of anger against sexual violence after the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a young girl in Delhi in December 2012. The protests had shaken the government into action; a new law resulted and heightened security for women across India was promised.

That the changes have been cosmetic is betrayed in continuing stories of violence against women being committed in the country. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous province of the country, has been in the news for a spate of gang rapes and murders. Neighbouring Madhya Pradesh has not been in news, despite being the rape capital of the country, as per official statistics. Even places considered safer for women in the past have seen a rise in incidents of sexual violence. Mumbai, for instance, has recently seen a passenger attacking a female bus conductor and tearing her clothes in broad daylight.

The new law, evidently, has not worked on the ground. Laws, however well drafted, need working institutions for enforcement, and if the institutions are defunct, and/or deviant, the laws are bound to fail. What law would save a woman from rape if, when she is held hostage, the agencies meant to protect citizens in distress fail to respond?

Introducing new and harsher laws is not going to curb sexual violence in India. One thing that can have a decisive impact is a radical restructuring of the criminal justice system, i.e. by making it responsive and responsible. Having dedicated teams to respond to emergencies might be a beginning. But, until impartial investigations ending in timely convictions become the norm, nothing will change. Till then, we make do with police stations that prefer not to respond to distress calls.


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