Wednesday, August 28, 2002



  The Rediff Special/ Amin Ahmed

Kolkata: Safe streets, unsafe offices

On August 2, the Calcutta high court directed the state government to suspend senior police officials, up to the rank of deputy inspector general of police, for furnishing false information in connection with the rape of a minor deaf-mute girl. The incident occurred in September 2000 when a 14-year-old destitute, who was picked up by the police, was raped on the way to the remand home.

Even as the incident shocked the city, the citizens were further outraged when senior police officers tried to cover up the incident. It might not even have been reported in the media but for a public interest litigation filed by lawyer Tapas Kumar Bhanja. The police were indifferent initially, producing erroneous evidence about the case. It was only after the Kolkata police's criminal investigation department took over the case that the accused policemen were suspended from duty.

The August 2 judgment not only compensates the victim but also punishes the guilty, including those who tried to cover up the incident.

The policemen have declared they will appeal to the Supreme Court, especially against the high court's order to suspend those who furnished false evidence -- the police officers probing the case, the jail superintendent and the medical officer. Worse, no one besides the three constables who committed the crime have been arrested, much to the victim's dismay.

"The police is trying to safeguard its image," said Bhanja. "Yet this verdict is among the boldest. The court was extremely annoyed with the senior policemen who furnished false information," he added. The victim is currently at a home for women with her one-year-old child and whose father is still unknown. The state government has given the mother and child compensation of Rs 50,000, which has been deposited in a bank.

Despite this horrendous crime committed by those who are supposed to protect the law, many people swear by Kolkata. "This city still continues to be the safest place. Here people support you if you are harassed on the road, which is very rare in the other metropolises," said Swati, a 27-year-old executive with a public sector undertaking.

Kolkata's problem is not on the streets but in its offices. Women rights groups in the city say while incidents of offensive behaviour on the streets are fewer compared to other major cities in the country, there are many cases of sexual harassment at the workplace.

"This is because Kolkata still has a small town attitude and people are wary of committing such crimes on the roads for fear of being caught and maligned by others. At the workplace, however, the male supremacy that is inherent in every institution perpetuates a structured form of coercion for women," said Paramita Chaudhari, who works with Sanhita, a non-governmental organisation for women.

A Sanhita study said 35 per cent of women surveyed claimed they had experienced sexual harassment at their workplace. "Kolkata is safe in the sense that ghastly incidents of rape and torture are reported less, but it could be also because fewer women walk alone on the streets at night," said Ankita, coordinator for another women rights organisation, Swayam.

According to the Sanhita survey, 52 per cent of women said due to fear of sexual harassment at the workplace they prefer to take up lowly paying jobs like teaching or in boutiques and beauty parlours, where they have to deal with women.

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Ankita pointed out that most of the overtures in offices are in the form of offensive gestures from men, which most women do not report for fear of social ostracism.

Of all the women who complained of harassment at the workplace, only 25 per cent said they had lodged an official complaint with the management. In response, they said they were mostly told to ignore it. "Hence, we try to solve such problems amicably by counselling the victim as well as the accused rather than go for legal protection," said Chaudhari.

Journalist Nidhi Mehta said she used to be harassed by her colleagues. She said she was quite friendly with her male colleagues until they started making personal comments about her. When she protested, she was maligned for being friendly with her male counterparts. "But at least I had the courage to protest," she said, "Others keep quiet and give way to such subtle harassment."

"Though these instances are difficult to prove, but if reported, police action can be taken against the accused," clarifies M K Singh, a senior Kolkata police officer.

This, then, is the paradox of Kolkata, a city where the streets are considered safer than many offices.

Fear in the Cities

Chennai: No longer a safe city

Delhi: 'Lacking a culture that respects women'

Mumbai: Citizen's indifference is the problem



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