By Sushma and Pushpa*
Sushma: This March, a friend and I had decided to take a late-night stroll (by late, I mean 3am) in a residential area that is usually pretty safe because we live in a university town. As we walked, a bike rode past us. The rider molested my friend and sped past us. I tried to get a look at the bike’s number plate, but I couldn’t. So I just resorted to screaming some abuses at him. We thought he’d gone, so we continued walking. When we reached the end of the road, we realised that he’d parked his bike and had walked towards us. We were creeped out when we found that he was waiting for us at the end of the road. He was seething in anger and challenged me about the abuses that I had hurled. After a little yelling, we realised that this guy was not someone to mess around with, and we had no phones or any sort of weapon on us. So we started to hurriedly walk away from him. When we turned around, we saw that he was chasing us and that’s when we broke into a run. We were very lucky to have a friend’s house nearby, which we entered, and he gave up and left.
We were pretty shaken up after that and we believed that he was a repeat offender because the same things had happened to other people in the town before.
Pushpa: In fact, the same man had attacked me before, hitting me across the chest, two months before this incident. I didn’t choose to report it the first time it happened because he had just hit me and sped off. This time, we approached the police a few days after this incident happened.
Sushma: This incident occurred on a Friday and we went to the cops on Monday. We couldn’t report it over the weekend because I had to go back home to another city and we did not want our families to get involved in the case.
The police were surprisingly helpful throughout the process. One of our guy friends knew one of the cops really well, so we called him to Pushpa’s home on Monday, when we decided to report the incident. He then took us to the police station to describe the situation to his policeman friend. This policeman gave us advice on what to do. We were surprised that he wasn’t asking us why we were out so late. He took down a description of the guy who had assaulted Pushpa and told us that once they caught him they would call us over to the police station for identification. This was the first time we were stepping into a police station, and within an hour we were out. We did not spend a single minute waiting unnecessarily at the station.
It took them only a day to find our molester, and so the next day we went to the station to identify him. He turned out to be a newspaper delivery boy. That was the reason he had been out so early in the morning.
We went to the police station at 9am, taking along our friend who knew the cops, and by the time we were done, it was 2.30 pm. We ended up having to bunk a few classes at college that day.
Pushpa: When we were asked to identify the perpetrator at the station, we saw that he was sitting in a cell, naked except for his boxers. When he realized that we were there, he stood up and begged us not to say anything. He seemed afraid and it seemed he had not expected us to go to the police in the first place. But when the police asked us if he was the man, we acknowledged that it was him.
Then the police asked us if we wanted to file an official complaint or just let the police and the prisoner sort it out amongst themselves – we did not know what this meant at that time. I went with the latter option and just wrote a letter describing the assault, but saying that I did not wish to pursue any sort of criminal proceedings. I did this because I was afraid it would turn into a court case that would drag on for years.
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We were feeling uncomfortable the whole time we were in the police station, unlike the first day that we had been there, because the prisoner’s entire family had gathered at the station.
Sushma: The man’s family was really scary. They were all locals and I didn’t want to tell them I was a local too, because I did not want to involve my family in any sort of way. Among the family members present were his wife, father, brother, brother-in-law – throughout the day, more people from the family kept coming into the station, and by the end of the day there were around six members.
The family was divided into two sets of people. There were his dad and his brother-in-law, who would keep approaching us to apologize and were pleading with us to let him go. Because I did not want them to know I knew Kannada, I pretended like I couldn’t understand what they were saying, while they tried to negotiate with our guy friend. They asked us to not file a case as the family was already quite humiliated by this incident. And the wife, along with the rest of the family, was just standing in a corner and staring at us the entire time, giving us threatening looks.
It was really creepy because we did not know how to react when they were staring at us. I felt like they were analyzing us and we started to be scared because they knew what we looked like. We did not tell the police that the family was making us uncomfortable because the station was crowded, we were not the only ones reporting our case and there was a lot happening around us. All these factors contributed to making us flustered.
We also felt really out of place because we were the only two students at the station. People kept staring at us from time to time because we looked different. We were the only young girls, the only students, and were wearing jeans. (They weren’t eavesdropping on our case, though.) However, after a period of time, their interest started to wane and they did not care too much if we were around or not.
A few cops were being helpful and supportive, but the female cops were the worst. They too kept staring at us and seemed to be judging us for what we were wearing. Since I knew the local language, I could understand what they were saying about us the whole time, which was along the lines of, “These are all students, you know what they get up to.” I also heard one of them talk to the offender’s wife and tell her that she could file a case of ‘indecent behavior’ against us.
But there was never a moment where we felt that we wanted to take our case back or felt that it was a mistake coming to the police station.
Pushpa: We were confused about what we should do. Should we push it to become a court case or should we just ask the police officers to warn him and let him go?
Sushma: Looking back, we feel that there should not be have been much interaction [between the accused and the victims]. There are so many things that the police could have done differently that day. Mainly, I felt that the accused should not be allowed to see us when we went to identify him. It was really scary when we had to go see him, because he was right there, with just some bars separating us. We were really creeped out by having to stand right in front of him. He was not going to stay in jail forever, and when he got out he may have been motivated to take revenge on us, because he knew what we looked like and that we had reported him.
Secondly, I don’t think the family should have been allowed to interact with us. As mentioned above, that experience was very frightening for us.
The incident at the station that stuck in our mind the most was when the cops told us they were going to take the accused to the ‘treatment room.’
The police had asked us what we expected from them, and we said that we just wanted him to never do it again. They took him upstairs and we did not know exactly what was happening at first. Soon we could hear him being beaten up; we could hear them hitting him and we could hear his screams. This happened while his family was around and they went crazy. They tried to approach the inspector, to get him to stop the beatings, and the inspector’s response was to tell another police officer to close the door upstairs so that the sound wouldn’t carry.
Although in the back of our minds we knew that police torture was illegal, at that time, everything that was happening was beyond our control. We could not think straight, we were way too frazzled. While we did not support what was going on upstairs, we did not know what we could do. We also had a communication gap since Pushpa does not know Kannada and I did not want to reveal [to the accused’s family] that I do. As for our friend who did speak Kannada, the one who had brought us to the police station, we don’t remember what he was up to at the time, because we were freaking out too much.
We were confused, frightened and upset; forget pursuing a court case, we wanted to get out of the station as soon as possible, so we chose the second option the police had provided us of foregoing a formal complaint and letting them resolve the issue amongst themselves. We thought he deserved to be punished for what he had done but we did not know what method the police would use to solve the problem. Nor did we have a say in it.
When they brought him downstairs after two to three minutes, he was limping, and was made to apologize to us.
Pushpa: When he apologized to us after that beating, I felt he did it more out of fear than regret or any other feeling.
Sushma: He seemed like a completely different man compared to the one who molested, abused and chased us on the night of the incident. He seemed terrified of us at the police station. We haven’t had a similar encounter with him since. Nor has his family approached or bothered us.
I always thought that cops never supported women in sexual harassment cases. But I was really surprised that they didn’t question us about why we were out at 3am or blame us in any way. I know that the support we got from the police was exceptional. So at the end of the day I was really glad we went to the police, because we felt a lot better about the whole incident (after this experience, I would never hesitate to go to the police). It hasn’t changed my life drastically, but I’m just a little afraid to walk by myself at night.
Pushpa: This incident hasn’t changed my perspective on harassment and justice but, like Sushma pointed out, it surprised me that the inspector was being empathetic towards us. Also, I have become more cautious and more of a misanthrope.
*As told to Nadia Lewis. Sushma and Pushpa’s names have been changed.
The Ladies Finger have partnered with us on the ‘Ready to Report’ campaign to gather and understand, with as much detail as possible, the process of reporting sexual violence in India today.
Do you have a story of wanting to report, but not having been able to yet? Or not wanting to report at all? We’re all ears. You can approach Amnesty by filling in their handy FIR questionnaire or, if you prefer to be interviewed in person, you can contact Gopika Bashi, Women’s Rights Researcher & Campaigner at [email protected]