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Handcuffs on women

Though there are no statistics on custodial violence, it is a spectre that continues to haunt society. LINA MATHIAS comments on this issue in the light of the Supreme Court's ruling that a lady constable need not be present during the arrest of women.


Arrested women" need more, a not less, protection".

IT is no longer mandatory for the Maharashtra police to have a woman constable present when a woman is arrested or even desist from arresting her at night, following the Supreme Court's overturning of a historic Bombay High Court judgment.

For a State shocked by the Mathura rape case of 1974, the High Court's judgment — delivered on August 26, 1994, in the Christian Community Welfare Council of India versus Government of Maharashtra and Another — had come as a relief. For legal and social activists who had long battled against the brutal treatment of women in custody, it was a victory. "Not only taking away a lady forcibly in the mid-night by male police officials was deplorable but gross and blatant abuse of power shows that such police officials have no regard for public morality and decency. The State should ensure that: no lady or female person is arrested without the presence of a lady constable and in no case, after sunset and before sunrise." On June 24, 1993, at 12.45 p.m., 10 policemen of the Nagpur Crime Branch took railway worker Jaonious Adam, his wife Jarina Adam and their two children into custody, detaining them for allegedly harbouring a person suspected of robbery. Adam was brutally beaten and died in his cell. His wife was beaten and repeatedly molested. The policemen accused of molesting her were sentenced to three years imprisonment.


Maharashtra State went in appeal to the Supreme Court and the apex court gave its verdict on October 15. Referring to the High Court ruling, the Supreme Court said that while "all efforts" should be made to have a lady constable present, if the arresting officers are reasonably satisfied that it is not possible to have a lady constable present or there could be a delay in arresting, he can record reasons either before or immediately after the arrest and is permitted to arrest a woman for lawful reasons "at any time of the day or night depending on the circumstances of the case even without the presence of a lady constable".

Women and legal activists have a very different opinion. They feel that practical considerations cannot overrule the ground reality in the attitude of the police to women. In fact, the National Commission for Women — based on reports of the National Expert Committee on Women Prisoners and the All India Committee for Jail Reforms — recommended to the Union Home Ministry that women shall not be arrested between sunset and sunrise and not arrested except in the presence of women. Other suggestions include all-women police stations, separate jails and lock-ups for women.

Interestingly, in the Sheela Barse vs State of Maharashtra case of 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that female suspects should have separate detention places and they should be interrogated only in the presence of female police officers. Hasina Khan of the Awaz-e-Niswan says that let alone women suspects, even women complainants feel intimidated in a police station. Adds criminal lawyer Sadhana Jadhav of the Aurangabad Bench, "Invariably, it is the illiterate and the poor women who get arrested and need the protective presence of a woman constable if they want to articulate any physical or mental discomfort."

"The National Human Rights Commission of India report (2002-03) shows Maharashtra has the highest number of reported deaths (26) in police custody, followed by Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. In the past two months, 10 cases have come to our notice. In such a situation, women arrestees would need more, not less protection," observes advocate Vijay Hiremath of India Centre for Human Rights and Law (ICHRL). His colleague, advocate Rebecca Gonsalvez, adds, "Custodial rape is the most under reported crime in the country."

The ICHRL has started a campaign to raise awareness about custodial violence against women. There are, however, no separate statistics for this issue. From 1974, when inebriated policemen in Chandrapur raped 14-year-old Mathura (the SC in 1979 reduced the sentence of the two convicted constables because she had a "questionable character"), cases of women being sexually brutalised and raped by men in uniform have caught the media and public's attention.

After every case of custodial rape or molestation that comes to public attention, there are the usual demands for sensitisation of the police force to gender justice. Given the present situation, it would be easy to be cynical about the magnitude of the task.

Custodial horror

THE cases of Mathura, Rameeza Bi (gang raped by policemen in Hyderabad in 1978) and Maya Tyagi (on June 16, 1980, policemen in Baghpat, Haryana stripped her and forcibly paraded her) have passed into the horror lore of custodial violence. Thirty-five-year-old Farida Banoo Shaikh's case is now before the National Human Rights Commission. She left her home in a Mumbai suburb where she lived with her husband and three sons, to visit her sister on September 25. She did not return, but the next day three policemen and a woman asked her husband to accompany them to the Wadala railway police station and to get Rs 5, 500 for his wife's release. She had been arrested for theft. Farida was remanded to police custody and later judicial custody on October 1. That was the last time that her husband saw her alive. Sheikh told the media that he suspected foul play. But the JJ Marg police have registered a case of accidental death.

On December 31, 2002, five policemen tried to molest a woman in Kolkata. When Sergeant Bapi Sen (not in uniform) attempted to stop them, he was assaulted so viciously that he succumbed a few days later. A survey conducted by the Indianwomenonline in Delhi University, showed that 20.2 per cent of women hostellers said that they faced sexual harassment from policemen. On September 2001, a 16-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly gang raped in a police station in Surguja district (Madhya Pradesh).

The then Additional Director General of Police, Ashok Darbari, suspended the station house officer who had refused to register her complaint. But home minister Nandakumar Patel felt constrained to claim that the girl had an affair with one of the policemen involved in the gang rape.


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