Republished from Mumbai Boss.
Pallavi Purkayastha was, by all accounts, an exemplary 25-year-old. She was a lawyer, a national-level swimmer, popular among friends who extolled her feisty spirit and in a committed relationship with Avik Sengupta, her college sweetheart. They lived together in Himalayan Heights, a building in Wadala’s Bhakti Park, and planned to marry. Purkayastha’s parents were both senior IAS officers, so she had pedigree. Her murder at the hands of Sajjad Mughal, the building watchman who entered her flat in the early hours of August 9 with rape on his mind, was keenly felt by the city because it was a case of a promising life brutally cut short. The news particularly affected Mumbai’s women for whom dealing with lecherous building watchmen is commonplace.
The police have reacted by declaring that they will visit housing societies to verify the credentials of security guards and domestic help. The agency that employed Mughal has been blamed for being careless—in its records, the guard’s address in his native state of Kashmir was incomplete. Of course background checks are important (Mughal would have been hard to trace with the address he had provided had he not been caught at Mumbai Central station trying to flee the city). But perhaps the problem is more cultural than procedural. It has been pointed out that security guards, who are usually migrants from villages and small towns, experience something of a culture shock in Mumbai. They’re unprepared for women who lead independent lives, that is, work late, have male friends, wear clothes that the more conservative might consider revealing and so on. It’s possible that their lewd behaviour stems from a perception that such unorthodoxy must mean loose morals. (Sadly, this is a misconception that’s commonly held by even highly educated people who’ve lived in cities all their lives).
One often hears of watchmen behaving inappropriately. Neha Sharma, who now works in her family business in Delhi, used to live in Bandra and work long hours in an advertising agency. “I remember a time when I got back pretty late from work and as I was walking into my building, a slightly drunken watchman asked me something really creepy like, ‘Aap service dete hain?’ I was so totally freaked out and scared that I shouted at him and ran into the house.” Women who live alone are particularly vulnerable. Suhani Kanwar, a Mumbai-based scriptwriter, said that she was harassed by a watchman when she was single and living in a rented apartment. “I think the latter makes a difference too,” she said. “The building society is usually out to make life harder for women who rent, so the watchman knows it’s unlikely that he will be reported.” (This is not to imply that all watchmen are from hell. Some of the women I interviewed described their security guards as avuncular and even angelic).
Cops are now enforcing existing rules that require guards to provide all sorts of documentation such as character certificates from the police stations in their hometowns. But as papers verifying identity are notoriously hard to procure in India, forged documents are a major risk. Perhaps security agencies should equally be encouraged to counsel their guards. The larger security agencies do train their employees in what HR professionals like to call “soft skills”. Niraj Bijlani, direct of guarding for TOPSGRUP, said in an email interview, “We conduct psychometric tests of our guards during their training and a team of psychologists observes them to find [tendencies] like uncontrolled anger, shoplifting or even problems dealing with confrontation. If we find any such individuals we counsel them, give them special attention to curb such nature and put them under observation till the time we are sure that they are safe to be deployed.”
Badly trained guards, Bijlani said, are usually from “fly-by-night operators which do not follow the regulations, they target clients such as housing societies or small businesses which are price sensitive and provide poor quality of service at a very low price”. Whether psychometric tests, which are far from fail-safe, can predict a candidate’s predilection for crime is moot. It’s clear that what needs to be tackled is a sexist bias.
Perhaps, for a start, residents of building societies could pay more attention to the guards they hire. Perhaps they could themselves counsel watchmen who misbehave instead of ignoring them. Mughal’s colleagues told the police that he teased women in the building and he confessed to wanting to rape Purkayashtha because she rebuked him for staring at her. What if Mughal had been cautioned by the residents of Himalayan Heights? There’s no way of knowing if this would have made a difference to Mughal. But unless steps are taken to change mindsets, the Purkayasthas of the city will continue to be vulnerable.
This article republished from Mumbai Boss was written by Pronoti Datta.