Bhopal: By the time the boys saw the white gypsy, with the words Nirbhaya Patrol emblazoned on its side, it was already too late.
“Slap him,” Sub Inspector Namita Sahu ordered the boy with spiky hair. The group of dishevelled teens blinked at her, catatonic with disbelief. She said it again, pointing at the one closest: “Him. I want you to slap him.”
She was accustomed to the role of ringmaster, unfazed by the small crowd that had gathered. First, she made the boys do squats, starting the count only when they had already done fifteen. When they doubled over with exhaustion, she made them fill out a police register. Finally, as they giggled with relief, she delivered the parting shot. Bharat stepped forward, his arm lifting in the air and landing on his best friend’s ear with a limp thwack.
Had they molested a girl? I asked as we piled back in the patrol car. “No, but they look like the sort that could have,” said 32-year-old SI Sahu, from the front seat. Constable Kshama Rajput, seated across from me, said, “I used to be very nervous about slapping people too. Being with ma’am’s team has given me a lot of confidence.”
Keeping trouble off the streets
The Nirbhaya patrol, India’s first all-female police unit for fighting crimes against women, has been operational in Bhopal for a little over a year. It was inaugurated on December 16, 2013, to mark the anniversary of the fatal gang-rape of a young student in New Delhi. At the time of its inauguration, MP’s former Inspector General SK Jha called the patrol “of the women, for the women and by the women”. Its first call of duty would be coordinating with anti-ragging committees in Bhopal, to police the thin line between harassment and “friendly interaction”.
A year later, the Nirbhaya Mobile (as it is known in the city’s Police Control Room) remains the only all-female patrol in the country. The national capital’s fleet of 1000 PCR vans has only 43 cars with female officers, with rarely more than one policewoman per car. In a previous interview, ex Special Operations Commissioner TN Mohan had admitted to me that part of his hesitation to put female officers on patrol, particularly at night, was that there weren’t enough public toilets for women in the city. Most often, patrol cars with female officers in New Delhi are stationary: parked outside educational institutes or protest sites.
The Nirbhaya Mobile was originally meant to carry four constables, one sub-inspector and one driver, and respond to coordinates received from the Bhopal Women’s Helpline Number, 1090. Over the past year, however, the team has been whittled down to two female constables fresh out of training, on bi-monthly rotation, with Sahu and her driver Constable Pushpendra as its only permanent members.
“It’s better this way. The car would get too cramped before,” Sahu said. She was partially right – none of the several PCR vans I rode with in New Delhi ever carried teams of more than four or five. Unlike those cars, however, the Nirbhaya Mobile carries no first-aid kit, fire safety gear, or riot-control equipment. The only thing it came equipped with was a megaphone, a siren and the pistol Sahu wore at her waist.
It also had no specific zone of the city in which to fight crimes against women. Because cruising across all of Bhopal looking for trouble can be tiring, Sahu and Pushpendra have come up with a list of high-activity areas to patrol. These usually consist of popular college hang outs, like the Boat Club, where Sahu was disciplining boys just a few minutes ago.
Law, order and safety – one couple at a time
Elsewhere, all-female crime fighting squads are the stuff of fantasy. In Bhopal, the press has not always been kind to the Nirbhaya Patrol. In initial months, they were accused of not doing enough: on the anti-ragging beat, Sahu had orders from the Inspector General to end her shift at 7 pm, but reporters soon calculated that most of the 1,639 calls to Bhopal’s women’s helpline were made between 8 and 12 pm.
Soon after that, the patrol was in trouble for doing too much. It is still a common sight to see groups of young people scatter when they spot the Nirbhaya Mobile, a response to Sahu’s reputation for moral policing. Among the most widely reported instances, was a case when her team picked up two young girls for “acting suspicious” near Shahpura Lake. According to Sahu, the girls were too skimpily dressed for winter, and when their scooters were inspected, the team discovered uniforms bundled in the carriage.
Through the course of the day that we traveled together, the Nirbhaya patrol’s main tasks were asking couples not to sit too close together, and telling girls with dupattas wrapped their faces to undo them. The latter is a particularly common sight in Bhopal, given its large number of female scooterists, but Sahu and her team were convinced this was a way for girls to roam around with boys and not get caught.
I return to the image I’m still struck by: the young girls in fancy clothes and high heels, shivering on a street in January. According to reports, Sahu made them grab their ears to say sorry, called their parents, and spoke to the principal of their college. Eventually, the girls were so embarrassed and furious that they called the press to complain. What was their crime? Bunking class?
“They were getting into trouble,” Sahu assured me. “Girls these days want to be modern, but they don’t know how to be free.”
Growing up tough
Daughter to a professional wrestler who ran a liquor store in Sagar, Sahu made a fair amount of trouble as a young girl as well. On one occasion, she claims to have beaten a pair of eve-teasers at a local baraat so badly that they had to be hospitalised. On another, she was summoned to the local police station, for firing a gun to break up a fight at the family’s liquor store. The eldest of six siblings, Sahu claims her mother brought her up to be the man of the family.
“So did my grandparents. They would only buy me animal print clothes when I was small. They wanted me to be wild,” she said.
At some point, as Sahu watched Andha Kanoon with her father, the two decided she belonged in the police force. Tall, muscular, rakish; Sahu’s physical resemblance to her father is striking, and conversations about her personal life reveal the two still share a close bond. “Policemen need to be a bit like goondas, that’s the only way we can outsmart them,” she says, flexing her bicep for me to feel. She still prefers the desi kasrat her father taught her in the wrestling akhara attached to the police gymnasium, and she makes sure she snacks only on nuts and dry fruits to stay fit.
Life in Bhopal is tame by comparison. To keep herself entertained, Sahu posts updates every few hours for her huge fan following on Facebook. In some pictures she is caressing a gun; in others, riding her pet horses Bhola and Shanker. She says the closest thing she’s found to true love is her relationship with the two German Shepherds and a Rottweiler that live with her. When pressed for details, she laughed. “Who needs a man? Relationships are too stressful. Even the leader of our nation is so stress-free without a partner.”
A patrol that has lost its way
In many ways, it’s been a difficult year for the Nirbhaya Mobile. Shortly after the incident with the two college girls, Sahu’s team was shifted to Old Bhopal, where their main job was to decongest traffic snarls. Aruna Mohan Rao, the ADG for Crimes Against Women, dismissed rumours that this was a punishment posting to “clip Namita Sahu’s wings”, as local press had suggested.
The decision was purely logistical, Rao said. To cover the sprawling expanse of the city, the police department appointed another Nirbhaya Mobile in the main city, this one under Sub-Inspector Seema Rai. What happened to the new patrol? “It was a flop. No one else can do this job,” Sahu said. “Finally, I’m the only one that really cares about making a difference.”
Apart from the fact that an all-female patrol makes MP’s government appear committed to women’s safety, the Nirbhaya Mobile is a set of wheels without direction. As Delhi’s ex Special Ops Commissioner had told me, PCR vans have almost no chance of stumbling upon a crime in flagrante delicto. Ultimately, the men, flashing lights, weapons are only a show of strength — an optimistic deterrent to those still thinking about breaking the law.
Yet the Nirbhaya Mobile has the potential to be a breakthrough for women’s safety. It already has the power to issue on-the-spot zero FIRs. If it came equipped with amenities afforded to other PCR vans, as well as special equipment to assist women (rape evidence kits, sanitary towels, blankets — all essential when rescuing women who have been raped, trafficked, or hurt) it could provide the first point of safe contact for women who find themselves in danger.
Sahu has long wanted to hold self-defence classes in girls’ schools and colleges in Bhopal, but has yet to find a team ready to back her. By the time Constables Kshama Rajput and Deepa Tripathi get used to the Patrol’s working style, they will be replaced by another set of juniors. Sahu would like to pool her understanding of criminals with mental health experts and counselors, but doesn’t quite know how her seniors will react to the idea.
The Nirbhaya Mobile still attends to 1090 calls, but Sahu is exhausted by testifying in court for cases of 376 (rape) and 354 (molestation). She says that she knows the defence lawyer is only doing his job, but it’s discouraging for police officers who know they have caught a guilty person to spend days being cross-examined. Even more frustrating, Sahu says, are cases where girls drop out of the proceedings halfway: “I know when a case is false from the moment I meet a girl. But there are so many genuine cases that falter because the girl’s family is too scared, or tired, or broke to keep showing up in court.”
Some approval at last
The moment that made all the struggle worthwhile came on Holi this year, as the patrol drove past the Boat Club on its usual beat. Sahu received a call from an unidentified number asking to verify her details. A minute later, Narendra Modi was on the line. “Of course I recognised his voice!” Sahu said.
For two days after the call, nobody at the Police Department believed that Modi had actually called. On International Women’s Day, local papers confirmed the news by carrying a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office, an excerpt of which read:
“She (Sahu) got hold of herself soon after she heard the voice of Modi and then talked to him fearlessly for next six minutes. Modi lauded the work undertaken under ‘Nirbhaya’ for women’s security. He told Sahu to continue working in the same way, and become a source of inspiration for other girls.”
Sahu says the call changed everything in her life for the better. She feels appreciated for her work, at last: she hasn’t felt this good since the Nirbhaya Mobile began patrolling.
“I think he must have also felt happy after speaking to me,” she said, “I’ve asked him to bring me to Delhi. I want to work with him there and make a real difference.”
Nishita Jha is a freelance journalist and New India Foundation fellow, currently working on a book on gender violence in India.