Conversation with a police officer (male):
Me: I don’t agree that women police personnel are required to handle eve-teasing and so-called women’s issues. Can’t male officers handle these? Also, can’t women do the work that male officers are doing? Being traffic sergeants and IPS officers? Why should there be gender-based discrimination in a job?
Officer: This isn’t discrimination. When there’s a case of domestic violence, doesn’t a woman feel more comfortable talking to a woman officer?
Me: When a woman is harassed on the streets, male officers can handle these too. Why should women be seen as unable to do the “difficult” jobs that male police personnel are doing?
Officer: It will happen. It takes time. There can be women traffic sergeants too.
Me: I think there should be more examples of women doing all kinds of work in a police force rather than specialised teams addressing women’s issues only.
And so I went to meet members of Kolkata Police’s Winners team, feeling rather worried. I was worried about the general feeling among people heading organisations that women are unable to do “tough” jobs, and even when they join an organisation, they are assigned jobs that concern only women.
Winners is a 24-member newly-formed all-women patrolling team that goes around the city to “combat and prevent crimes like molestation, eve-teasing etc to make public places safer for women.”
And when I finally meet the sprightly, plucky youngsters – all of them constables recruited in September last year – I do change my mind that they have been assigned only “women’s issues” to handle. Or that their jobs are “easier” than the work male constables are doing. In fact, I learn about their stories of struggle and suffering, and how they still held on to their audacious dreams that they have now fulfilled.
Chaitali Roy has three sisters – one of them got a decent job recently and was married, another one was married and is looking for a job and her younger sister recently completed graduation.
“You can imagine what people say to parents who have four daughters and no son,” she told me. “Our relatives and neighbours would tell my mother to not spend money on our education, but to keep saving money for our weddings instead.” Her mother, who has worked hard to make ends meet by running a garments shop in their Bongaon home, didn’t agree.
Instead, the parents spent all their money on the girls’ education. Chaitali is a Science graduate and cracked the entrance test for Kolkata Police constables last year. She has undergone a six months’ rigorous training and a special training of 45 days to be part of the Winners team.
Both her sisters who were married in the past couple of years spent their “own hard-earned money” on their wedding. Now that Chaitali got a job, she hopes her mother will work less. Her father passed away last year. She is proud of the job she is doing. “Those who looked down upon me, now try to strike up a conversation. They treat me with respect,” she says, her jaws taut. There’s anger and fire in her eyes.
Madhumita Mahapatra lives in Howrah’s Santragachhi with her husband. They have come down to a bigger city — from Kharagpur where their families continue to live — in search of a better life.
She reports for work at 6.30 in the morning. In groups of ten, the Winners team goes on patrolling around schools, colleges, shopping malls, bus stops, to figure out if women are facing harassment. There are afternoon and night shifts too. “At night, we have to keep an eye on drunken driving. We stop cars, check drivers with breathalyser and inform the nearest police station if required,” she said. If she is on night duty, Madhumita stays back in the police barrack. Otherwise, she reaches home at around 8 pm. “My husband and I share the house work. We reach home around the same time, and it’s not my job alone to manage home,” Madhumita says, smiling.
Rumpa Bhakta’s father is a police officer. And he didn’t want his daughter to do a job he felt “is more suitable for men”. “But I don’t agree with him. I am enjoying myself,” says Rumpa, who graduated from a Madhyamgram college, in the northern fringes of Kolkata. “I don’t know why a lot of men think women should be soft and vulnerable. I am sure there are many who like independent, strong women. Toughness is in the mind after all,” she said.
Kanika Mondol, a Science graduate from Burdwan University, is the youngest of three girls in the family. She has always seen her parents being ridiculed and ostracised for having three girls and no son. In the extended family, the three sisters weren’t really showered with love and respect. “But I was always a tough person. If someone made an unfair comment in college, I would protest. Bhebe dekhish kakey bolchhish eshob (don’t you dare say such things to me),” Kanika would tell her male classmates.
The journey from a tiny village like Burdwan’s Rasulpur to being a part of a kick-ass police force in Kolkata has been dramatic, and today it has made her more confident. “Things are different now. I do my work confidently. We have gone through the same training as male constables,” she says.
I ask her if she is willing to stand hours on the road exposed to the heat and dust and do such hard work. “Of course! Is there anything human beings can’t do?” she says, eyes sparkling.
Winners team leaders – sub-inspector Sampa Guha, sub-inspector Zinnatara Khatun and assistant sub-inspector Mita Kansabanik – with years in service, have trained the 24 constables for their job. And there’s nothing these constables are unable to do that their male counterparts can. They’ve gone through exactly the same training as the men, and they are working just as hard.
The purpose of looking at the personal lives of the Winners team constables is not to belittle their success by showing their vulnerabilities.
It is to see how the journey of these women constables from villages and small towns of West Bengal to start a career in one of the most prestigious police forces in the country has been a lot more tough than the struggles of young men their age.
Behind the power and confidence that the vroom of the motorbikes exudes, there are struggles and hunger to assert themselves, and the resilience to turn negativity and bias into wonderful success stories.