The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The death of Bapi Sen raises a few questions for society. The questions are disturbing and not the kind that people in West Bengal, especially Calcutta, like to address. We are smug in our notions of cultural superiority and despite several incidents that highlight the violence in our society and the systematic disregard of women’s rights, we continue to assert that our crime rates are not alarming and our city is safe for women. Some even go to the extent of saying that crimes against women occur because of outsiders coming to the city.

Why did Bapi Sen die' He died because he had tried to stop five men from harassing a woman. Interestingly, he understood that the woman was being tormented as distinct from being teased. Women and girls in Calcutta, like many other cities and towns in India, are at the receiving end of taunts, lewd comments, obscene gestures and physical assault. This violation of women’s private space and bodily integrity is continually trivialized in our country by the very quaint term, eve-teasing. The insistence on calling such violence “eve-teasing” is born of a mindset that believes boys will be boys and will occasionally “let off steam” through some “harmless fun” with women. The fact remains that women with whom such “fun” is sought do not find the experience enjoyable.

Bapi Sen was a policeman. His job entailed upholding the laws of the land and working to enforce them. Police personnel are obliged to respect other human lives at the cost of their own. No one can deny that Sen lived up to the standards demanded of men and women in uniform. Sadly, Sen’s killers are also policemen. We are saddened, but are we shocked ' Perhaps not. We are inured to brutality, corruption and callousness from our uniformed forces. Men like Bapi Sen are honourable exceptions.

Policemen and legal experts are emphasizing the fact that the woman who had been attacked by the rowdy policemen is a crucial witness in this murder case. The law enforcement machinery, including the judiciary, is viewed with deep suspicion and fear by most citizens, rich and poor, university-educated or illiterate. It is this lack of faith in the system that prevents women from taking recourse to law.

The entire experience of horrific violence, right from the attack on the woman’s person to the killing of Sen, is undoubtedly immensely traumatic. This example of a colossal failure of the system to protect its citizens from violence is hardly going to inspire the woman to come and assist the law. Even the biggest supporter of our criminal justice system will have to acknowledge the fact that the entire process is bewildering, difficult, nerve-wracking and mostly frightening.

Why did the five rowdies, sorry, policemen, get so incensed that they had to kill' It would be easy to say that they were drunk and did not have control over their actions. The answer is more complex and is rooted in notions of masculinity and power. Males in south Asian societies are entitled to act aggressive, licentious and disorderly. In some cultures, such behaviour is actively encouraged as an expression of masculinity; in others, it is tolerated indulgently. Objections to such behaviour are frowned upon, and the people voicing such objections are dismissed with labels such as “spoilsports”, “straitlaced” and of course, that most damning epithet of all — “rabid feminists”.

While we analyse the behaviour of the rowdies, we should not forget that they were policemen. The gun and the uniform are symbols of power. The gun symbolizes masculinity and aggression, and the uniform, state power. Together, the combination is heady and obviously engenders notions of supremacy bordering on invincibility. At this point, however, it is pertinent to remember that police personnel are expected to use their guns for protection and defence, and the uniforms are meant to signify discipline and a sense of belonging.

It is difficult to escape questions about the philosophy of policing while looking at the tragedy of Sen. Does the state view its police machinery as a ruthless enforcer of laws' Does the police establishment glamorize, and hence, valorize violence' Does the very process of policing result in encouraging its personnel to disregard the needs of citizens and indulge in displays of naked power' In the context of what has occurred with Sen, it is imperative for the Calcutta Police to reflect on its response to crimes against women, and on its position on human rights.

Thinking about the behaviour of the rowdies with the woman, one can’t help wondering how policemen behave with their women colleagues. Are women in the police forces expected to be upholders of notions of violent masculinity' Many women have commented on the unsympathetic attitudes of policewomen. Women police have also been willing instruments of state violence against women. A police force committed to fighting violence against women needs to address these worrying questions.

Reacting to the recent events culminating in the death of Sen, senior police officers have pointed out that there are 26,000 policemen in Calcutta and not all of them are like the five accused constables. Granted. However, the issue here is not whether all policemen are like the five accused. It is necessary for the police to acknowledge that often, several of its officers and men, violate the law. Some also participate in acts of violence against women, both in their capacity as law enforcers and as private citizens.

Several sections of the police have stressed the need to launch a proper public relations exercise to restore the public image of the Calcutta Police. They have to resist the temptation of deflecting the issue and launching a high-profile image-building exercise. The focus should be on acknowledging mistakes after serious reflection. There has to be a genuine desire to build and sustain a commitment to protecting the rights of citizens.

Over the past few years, women’s groups and non-governmental organizations in many parts of the world, including Calcutta, have conducted workshops for police personnel on a range of issues. Discussions on violence against women have figured prominently in these interactions. While acknowledging the gains from these encounters, women’s groups have wondered whether the police establishments are seriously committed to a process of understanding human rights and women’s rights. Talking very specifically of our local police establishments, it is perhaps important for them to begin examining these issues.

In a city that calls itself warm, friendly and caring, Sen was mercilessly clobbered by ruffians who happened to be members of the police force. While this was happening, his friends sat safely in their car. We can say they were paralysed by fear. However, one cannot help but wonder whether the average Calcuttan has become so apathetic and cynical that he does not feel it is worth the effort to fight for the life of a friend.

A senior police officer has remarked that there has been a degeneration in society and the police are also a part of it. It is perhaps an appropriate time to recall that the police force exists to protect society from such “degenerate” elements. The police are maintained by public money because they are expected to be part of the solution, not to compound the problem.

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