Women in law: How police mitras combat crime in this UP district

The women of the self-help groups wear their new-found identity as police mitras with pride. Photo: Swapna Majumdar  

It was about four in the afternoon when the phone rang. At first, the 55-year-old bespectacled Sumitra Devi could not understand what the caller was saying. All she could hear were incoherent words and a woman sobbing. Realising that something was gravely amiss, Sumitra gently asked the caller to calm down and then speak. It turned out it was Meena Devi, a daily wage worker and a member of the same village organisation to which Sumitra belonged. What she heard led Sumitra to drop everything and rush out of her home.

It would take a brisk 15-minute walk from her home in village Uswaha Tola to reach the local market where Meena was waiting. As she hurried down, all Sumitra could think of was how she, a police mitra (friend of the police), could help. She knew that in cases of sexual assault and rape, the police had to be called in, but being a mother of five children, three of them daughters, Sumitra also knew the matter had to be handled sensitively.

“When I met Meena, I was shocked to see the condition of her 13-year-old daughter. The girl was so traumatised she could not speak. Meena had walked the five kilometres from her village Sagar Gosain to mine because she knew I was a police mitra and could get the police to listen although I, like her, belong to a marginalised community. Meena was fearful that if no complaint was made, it would embolden other high-caste boys to also sexually harass her daughter,” said Sumitra.

Meena had good reason to be afraid. Crimes against women in Uttar Pradesh have been spiralling: there has been a 61 per cent increase between 2010 and 2011 and 2014 and 2015, according to a recent by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report. Besides topping the national list in crimes against women, U.P. also recorded a 43 per cent increase in incidents of rape in the past two years. A majority (59 per cent) of rape victims were minors. In 2014-15, cases of assault on women with intent to outrage modesty almost doubled from the previous year.

The recent suspension of two U.P. sub-inspectors for abusive behaviour towards female complainants underline the existing gender bias and patriarchal attitudes that continue to deny women justice in India’s largest State. In this environment, if the complainants happen to be Dalit women, their chances of being heard are even lower.

In U.P.’s Kushinagar district, this is where the 61 women police mitras in Nebua Nauragia, one of the more remote blocks, play a key role. The mitras are all rural homemakers between the ages of 25 and 60. They articulate the unheard voices and push for justice in collaboration with the police. Their relationship with the police has not only helped ensure that crimes against women are reported but has also restored the community’s faith in the guardians of law.

The police officers, on their part, have lived up to the trust placed in them. They were prompt to respond to Sumitra’s call that afternoon and recorded Meena’s complaint. They went on to swiftly arrest the two culprits accused of sexually assaulting Meena’s daughter, using the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.

In June this year, the police mitras got a huge boost to their morale when Deepak Bhatt, the Kushinagar Superintendent of Police, publicly lauded them for their support in bringing down crime, particularly against women. He praised their grit and resolve, and their success in creating a bridge between the police and the community. “Police mitras have reduced the trust deficit and have made police stations more accessible for women,” he said.

The mitra project is a unique partnership with the police in Kushinagar district that started in 2011, when women in the district came together to form collectives where they would learn about their rights and entitlements.

With the help of the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP), a not-for-profit organisation, self-help groups (SHGs) were formed, each with 10-15 women from economically and socially backward communities. These women were trained and made aware of their rights and they slowly gained the confidence to raise their voices against injustice.

In what would be their first big success, in 2013 Sumitra and members of six other SHGs created a federation called the Jai Bajrang village organisation in Parsia gram panchayat in Nebua Naurangia block. This group launched an anti-liquor agitation. Their determination and courage in standing up against the powerful lobby that promoted alcohol bhattis (small-scale production units) impressed Rigzin Samphel, the then Kushinagar district magistrate.

Samphel, known for his innovative initiatives in his earlier stints as district magistrate in other U.P. districts, proposed that the SHG women take on the role of police mitras. There are over 100 SHGs in Nebua Naurangia.

“He (Samphel) told us we were very brave to take on the influential men running the bhattis. We had refused to call off our protest despite threats of violent reprisals. He said that it was because we complained against them that the police was able to take action. If we became police mitras, we could help the community and the police fight against other such culprits. As the leader of the agitation, he made me the first police mitra in the presence of the district superintendent of police,” recounted a proud Sumitra, who heads Laxmi SHG.

Later, the remaining 10 members of her SHG were also designated as police mitras. The Laxmi SHG has the distinction of being the only one where all the members are police mitras.

Each mitra has been given an identity card, signed by the Kushinagar SP, and it has her photograph and phone number. They are not paid for the work, but they wear their cards with a great sense of pride as they move around the village and attend group meetings. The respect and recognition they receive gives them a sense of accomplishment. The Naurangia block police station, in fact, has with it a list of all 61 police mitras for ready reference.

Despite the financial challenges, these police mitras spend their own money to accompany complainants to the local Naurangia police station, about 10 kilometres from their gram panchayat. They also use their own resources to attend meetings held on the first Wednesday of every month at the mahila thana (women’s police station) located 15 kilometres away in the district headquarters at Pedrona.

“It is far for us. But it has helped us build a rapport with them and also learn about police procedure,” said Usha Pandey, a police mitra belonging to the Shivji SHG in Kalwari Patti gram panchayat. One such lesson they learnt was the importance of not taking the law into their own hands. So, hard as it was, the 60-year old Pandey restrained herself from beating up a conman who had taken money from her on the pretext of opening a sewing school for girls. Instead, when she and other women, similarly duped, spotted him during one of their visits to Pedrona, they surrounded him and dragged him to the mahila police station. “When the other women began beating him with chappals, I was also tempted. But as a police mitra, I could not. But I did slap him and I also got back my money,” said Pandey proudly, with a gap-toothed smile.

Sumitra too talks of how attending the monthly meetings proved handy when she had to handle Meena’s case. “I learnt that filing a First Information Report (FIR) was critical to every case and therefore we all sat at the Naurangia police station until it was filed,” she said.

The mitras are extremely conscientious, and don’t let the misdemeanours of family members go unchecked either. The tall and gaunt Pakhri Devi is usually a soft-spoken woman, but the 60-year-old can turn fiery too, as her alcoholic husband recently found out. The agricultural labourer would often abuse her and beat her after an alcohol binge. Pakhri had tolerated this for many years. But once she became a police mitra, she decided she would no longer put up with the mental and physical violence. She asked the police to put her husband behind bars. “Even at this age, he would beat me. Earlier, I was embarrassed and could not share it with anyone. As a SHG member and as a police mitra, I realised my rights had been violated,” said Pakhri. Equally important, having interacted as a mitra with the police, Pakhri was no longer afraid to approach them with a complaint.

The police took her husband to the thana and counselled him. When he promised he would not raise his hand on his wife again, he was allowed to go home. He has since kept his word. Surprise visits by the local policemen to check on Pakhri have also helped.

Besides the police, getting the pradhan or head of the local government on their side has also helped the mitras in their mission to make the villages safer for women and girls. Kranti Sahi, the pradhan, has made it clear at various public meetings that he supports them. His booming voice and tall, muscular frame have helped considerably in toning down the aggression shown by some opponents. “When no one dared to close down the bhattis, it was the police mitras who came forward. They dared to raise their voice. Now everyone knows about them and is afraid of them; including me,” he said with a grin.

Swapna Majumdar is an independent journalist writing on development and gender.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 10:54:47 AM |

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