As stories of experiencing sexual harassment in India go, Indira Pillai's isn't uncommon. It's what happened after that makes it unusual.
Nine years ago, Pillai was travelling back home to Bengaluru from Chennai, where she'd attended a family function. As she and her friend waited to disembark from the coach that had ferried them from the plane to the airport terminal, Pillai felt a hand creeping up her leg. Initially, she dismissed it. She was just about to get off the coach after all.
Then, she felt the hand groping her once again.
Pillai, who one former colleague described as "someone who won't take any shit", whirled around and pushed the man who had been feeling her up. When her friend realised what had happened, he too joined in, and the duo castigated the man severely.
The commotion drew three young women who'd just gotten off the coach to return; they said the man had harassed them too, all the way from Chennai.
Pillai knew then she didn't want to let the man get away with his behaviour. Accompanied by her friend and the three women, she took the man to the airport police. There, she detailed what had occurred, and the women corroborated her account.
"I told the police I was absolutely insistent on filing a case against the man," Pillai told Firstpost in a conversation recently.
By then, the man was wailing, addressing Pillai as "sister" and pleading to be let off. The police, Pillai says, dissuaded her from filing a complaint.
"The cops — the senior officer was away at the time — hemmed and hawed, before finally giving us some papers to write down our statement. They said they would then translate it into Kannada. I didn’t care about putting my name to the statement, but the girls didn’t want theirs to feature on the complaint since their families would worry. We waited around for three hours before finally being given a statement translated into Kannada. The senior PI had reached by then. I don’t even know what I signed since I can’t read Kannada," Pillai recalled.
When Pillai got home well past midnight, several TV channels, who'd heard of the case, called her, asking for bytes. Without a trace of irony, among the first questions they asked was what she had been wearing at the time of the incident.
Pillai agreed to an interview, and when it aired, her colleagues and friends came to know of the incident as well.
And that was the last she heard of her case. Until nine years later.
In September of 2018, Pillai received a call, purportedly from the police, asking her to reconfirm the details of her harassment plaint. Specifically, the person at the other end of the line wanted to know if she had the address of her harasser. Pillai replied in the negative; she says she hasn't heard from the cops again.
"I was at work, and stunned to receive this call out of the blue, so I didn’t even check which police station or officer was calling. I have no idea why they called me after so many years asking for this man’s details. I really don’t know," she told Firstpost.
Firstpost's attempts to reach the Bengaluru Police for a statement weren't as protracted as Pillai's nine-year wait, but took up several weeks and follow-up calls nonetheless.
A Bengaluru Airport Police personnel who answered the phone seemed unaware of Pillai's case, or why she may have been called nearly a decade later in connection with it. "It might be a routine call to check or verify the information," the officer said, before hanging up.
The deputy commissioner of police (East), Bengaluru City Rahul Kumar Shahapurwad was at a loss to understand why the call to Pillai was placed so many years later.
"It is not normal for the police to call after nine years," Shahapurwad admitted. "But if they are unable to execute warrants from the court, the police may seek the help of the victim/survivor."
Shahapurwad pointed out that provisions pertaining to the law on sexual harassment had changed in the not distant past.
"If we book a case under Section 354, the victim/survivor is taken to a magistrate and a Section 164 statement is recorded. [This is a statement deposed before a magistrate by a survivor of molestation/rape.] As far as possible, a woman officer is asked to attend. On the basis of the evidence, the accused is arrested. If the survivor needs some kind of counselling out of trauma, we also arrange for it," Shahapurwad said.
Shahpurwad told Firstpost his team was attempting to identify the details of Pillai's case.
Rutuja Shinde, a lawyer with the Bombay High Court who has been offering free legal advice and support to women who have stepped forward with stories of sexual harassment in the ongoing #MeTooIndia movement, said a woman officer should have been present nine years ago when Pillai filed her complaint, and that the police should have read out a translated version of her statement before she was asked to sign it. “They (the police) should have taken cognisance of it,” Shinde said.
She points out that at the time Pillai filed her complaint, the situation was different: certain offences became punishable only after 2013 under Section 354 of the IPC, and there wasn’t much sensitisation regarding cases of sexual harassment.
“Today, if you immediately go to the police and file an FIR, there shouldn’t be a problem. The police has to take your FIR down. In case the police refuses to do so, you can go to a magistrate and file a private complaint and then the magistrate can direct the police to investigate the matter,” Shinde said.
Complaints generally have to be filed in the police station under whose jurisdiction the area where the incident occurred is. However, as Shinde explains, a complainant can now go to the closest police station and the personnel there will file a ‘zero FIR’, which will then be transferred to the concerned station. Multiple allegations against one individual will be treated as separate complaints.
Shinde gave a brief rundown of the process:
Once an FIR is filed, the police begin their investigations. The role of the complainant is very limited until the police file a chargesheet and the complaint reaches the court. Once this happens, the complainant is required to depose before the court, acknowledging what you have said in your FIR. The complainant doesn’t need to know under which provision of the law the offence against him/her falls. It is the police’s job to ensure the FIR is registered under the appropriate sections of the IPC. Unless you are a rape survivor, there is no provision for anonymity.
Shinde conjectured that the police were still investigating the case, which is why Pillai had been called after nine years. She said it was the legal right of a complainant to ask about the status of their complaints, even if police were still investigating the matter.
Indira Pillai told Firstpost her story wasn't about criticising the police, and that everyone understood the force was overworked and underpaid. Instead, she chose to contrast it with a positive experience she had, some years after the airport harassment incident.
Pillai had parked her car next to the gate of a building, while she completed some work at a bank office on the opposite side of the road. The building's security guard argued with Pillai to move her car; since it wasn't improperly parked, she refused. On returning from the bank, Pillai saw that the air in all four of the vehicle's tyres had been let out; the guard and a few other men stood around, smirking.
Pillai says she marched to the Cubbon Road Police Station and told the female inspector on duty what had transpired, and that she wished to file a complaint. "I also told her I had no proof. She said, if a woman walks alone into a police station to file a complaint, that in itself is an indication that something has happened," Pillai recollected.
"She sent a constable back with me to where my car was parked; he rounded up the guard and his cronies and took him to the station. The inspector told me that she would call me once she had spoken with the head of the security agency which employed the guard."
This time, the wait for the police to call back lasted only a couple of weeks — certainly not nine years.
The officer had called the security guard, the head of the agency, and the other men to the station by the time Pillai got there. She told the men that it was now up to Pillai as to whether or not she wished to file a case against them for damaging her property. Pillai's anger had by then dissipated, so she asked for an apology from the men, and let the matter drop.
"The point is that this lady officer listened; she paid attention to a common citizen, and took action," Pillai says, drawing attention to how different this experience was, from her attempt to file a harassment plaint nine years ago.
"Policemen and women are the face of the judicial system for the public," Pillai pointed out. "If they’re unempathetic, why will the public approach them? These daily maddening things that happen to us all — whether it’s harassment or damage to property — citizens prefer to shrug them off rather than seek help from the police because of this reason."
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Updated Date: Nov 27, 2018 15:58:22 IST