In conversation with Dr. Meeran Chadha Borwankar on being torchbearer for inclusion of women in the Indian Police Services

Dr Borwankar is a retired IPS officer who served in Maharashtra from 1981 to 2017 and retired as the Director General of Police Research and Development. In the past she has held notable postings such as Police Commissioner, Pune City (2011-2013) and Chief of the Mumbai Crime Branch. In recognition of her illustrious police career, she was awarded the President of India Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 2006.

In addition to her police career, Dr Borwankar holds an LLB as well as a PhD from Pune University (PU) and has been the author of several articles and reports in international journals on law enforcement, criminal investigation, gender and law, e-governance and community participation in law enforcement.

In this interview she talks to Karan Ahluwalia, EBC-SCC OnLine Campus Ambassador at Gujarat National Law University, about her childhood, police career, legal education and the relationships that police personnel and lawyers share.

Q1. Ma’am, you have grown up in Punjab in a police family, engaging in activities like horse riding, shooting and cricket since a very young age, one would be tempted to think that you were always being groomed for a police career from your childhood itself – is that true? How instrumental has your childhood been in making you the person you are today?

To be honest, growing up, I never really thought about what I wanted to do in life. We were always encouraged to engage in a myriad of different activities only for the reason that I enjoyed them. In fact, right up until college I had not set my eyes on IPS as a career choice. Cleared UPSC CSE in my first attempt I chose to join the Indian Audit and Accounts Service. During the training, I realised that I did not really enjoy accounts but had only joined it because somewhere I had been influenced by the opinions and wishes of my family who regarded this career path as a more appropriate one for a woman. I missed being outside and exerting myself physically. I feel that as young adults we are strongly influenced by the opinions of those around us and take our career decisions accordingly. But I realised this fallacy and wanted to make changes to my life before it was too late. That is why I decided to give UPSC CSE once again and luckily, I got allotted to my choice of IPS.

Making a career change is a difficult thing to do but I feel that today’s generation is far more willing to opt out of careers that do not make them happy and the same is a very welcome change. I think students should be made capable of recognising their strengths and interests at an early age so that they can make the correct career decision in the first go itself. But at the same time, they should not be scared of making changes if they are not happy. Some time spent in the wrong career is an invaluable experience in its own right though.

Q2. You have spoken about how it was difficult for you as a lady from Punjab, to shift to Maharashtra, a completely different environment where not only did you have to learn the local culture and language but also deal with sexism in the workplace. As a woman police officer, you have recounted that police station staffers were always ready to teach you the ropes but were never keen on involving you in any of the practical policing operations such as raids, they did not want it to appear to the outside world that they were being led by a woman, how did you deal with that? What motivated you to continue down this career path despite having these seemingly unsurmountable roadblocks in your way?

Moving from Punjab to Maharashtra was very difficult for me initially. I was constantly homesick for my family and town but I had a job to do and that was what drove me to move past these initial problems. I found the people of Maharashtra to be very warm, welcoming and open-minded and they invested all of their faith in me. All they asked of me was justice and nothing more. I realised that by virtue of being a civil servant, I had been invested with the trust of these citizens and it was my duty to ensure that their needs were met with. It is this solemn realisation that made me want to do my job to the best of my abilities. When people realised that I am an effective and honest police officer, word spread and many citizens preferred to approach me with their problems even though senior, male officers were also available for them.

I feel that as a public servant, not only do you have to do your job, but also fight the system where it is needed. I have had to do that numerous times in my career. That being said, there were always seniors and subordinates who recognised my abilities and their support was also instrumental in being able to discharge my duties effectively. I think in the end it is always about believing in myself. I felt that I had merit to be where I was and I had demonstrated my  commitment towards my job sufficiently, if despite all this there were elements in the police force that were ill at ease, then it was not my issue rather theirs to deal with.

Q3. Maharashtra in the 80’s and 90’s was prone to communalism and rioting. You have spoken about how, at the very beginning of your career, you have found yourself in situations of crowd control where firing had to be ordered and there were civilian casualties. Subsequently a judicial inquiry was ordered into the actions of the police at the time of these riots. As a police officer in such volatile situations, what goes on in your mind as regards the consequences of your actions? Is there a constant threat of a judicial inquiry in the back of your mind that influences the actions taken in such situations or are you free from such fears?

I must say that we as police officers are very well trained in crowd control. The sequence of actions to be taken becomes some sort of second nature to us. The rules of crowd control are also pretty much established beyond question. In such a situation, our duty is to follow what we have been taught letter by letter and to ensure that such disturbances are quelled with minimal force, intervention and civilian casualties. When things get out of hand there is hardly any time to think about judicial inquiries and the sorts. I have been in situations when in the middle of communal riots in Kamathipura, Mumbai, rioters burnt down my official vehicle. When there are such threats of bodily injury, we have to protect not only the citizenry from any harm, but also ourselves. In all these situations I have found only one guiding principle which is that whatever action one takes, must be taken in good faith and in strict compliance with the law. If these two conditions are met then I do not think any inquiry will find the officer in fault. I have full confidence in the impartiality of our judicial system.

I remember when I was first posted in Mumbai, there was a riot that was on the other side of the road that marked the border of my police station’s jurisdiction and my team advised me to leave the spot but I insisted that we should intervene and we did. That riot went out of hand and there were civilian casualties due to police firing which culminated in a judicial inquiry. The inquiry found that we had not used excessive force simply because many witnesses came forth to testify that they saw me there telling the crowd on a megaphone that if anyone was injured, they could approach us for medical assistance. This I why I say that as long as force has been used proportionally and in good faith a police officer’s actions cannot fall foul of the law. This incident was also the moment I realised that I could handle serious law and order issues. Mind you, my colleague DCP did not reach the spot to handle the riot. Needless to say, that he was transferred out of Mumbai the very next day.

Q4. You have also previously spoken about studies that have concluded that the police force in Maharashtra is severely gender biased against women employees. It would be a reasonable assumption that this would be true across all States in India. Why do you think this is so? What can be done to make this profession more accessible for women?

I think this would be true across States to varying levels but yes, such studies have been conducted and it has been found that there are majorly two aspects to this gender-biased behaviour, firstly, the lack of separate infrastructural facilities for women in police stations and secondly, the attitudes towards women in the police force. The first is rather simple. Most police personnel travel to the police station in their civil clothes and change into their uniforms in the station itself. Now most police stations do not have separate changing rooms for women. There are many police stations that do not even have separate washrooms for women, in such a state of things, it is natural for women working in the police force to feel that the system is geared against them. But these infrastructural issues are easier to fix than the attitudinal problems that pervade. As has been my experience, attitudinal problems in the police force do exist and the only way to counter this is by sensitising existing police personnel to gender issues which is being done as part of their regular training and the need to change attitudes generally in society at large. All this starts from home, in the way we raise our children and in the way that we sensitise them to these issues so that later on, they can be the torchbearers of change. The attitudes cannot be transformed in a short time through training programs, rather it has to be done over a period of time and may be over generations.

Q5. Ma’am now that we have broached the topic of training, I have a question pertaining to the same. IPS officers undergo a series of training sessions at regular intervals in their careers through professional training courses, but the same is not true for the constabulary. Other than their basic training, they undergo very little additional training in their careers and since they are the real points of contact of the police force with the common man, the latter gets the impression that the police force is lacking in competence or is not sensitised? Why do you think this issue exists?

Your observation is quite correct and this has been an issue in the police force for a while now. The answer to your query lies in the police-to-citizen ratio of our country.  The number of vacancies in police all over the country are so high (about 20%) that we barely have enough men and women on ground to cover the day-to-day activities of policing the citizens. Therefore, when training sessions are organised, SHOs are unwilling to free up their staff to enable them to attend these workshops. They do so because training cannot be conducted at the cost of endangering the citizenry and if no additional personnel are available to cover the work of those attending training sessions then training sessions cannot be conducted. For this reason, Maharashtra has started online modules of these training sessions.  More of these will be rolled out in the near future so that all police personnel are able to attend these training workshops on their time off from work. In the near future, I do not think there will be any valid excuse for having untrained or insufficiently sensitised policemen and women.

Q6. Ma’am, you have received training in law as part of your IPS training at SVPNPA and subsequently you have also obtained an LLB from the Pune University. I would love to understand from you how your legal education at PU differed from that at SVPNPA and whether having an LLB made you understand and apply the law better, therefore making you a more effective police officer.

So, our training at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA) was centred mostly around criminal law – evidence, CrPC, IPC and other specialised criminal laws. I am happy to say that our training there is exhaustive and covers the entire existing jurisprudence on criminal law. On the flip side, we are not really taught any other areas of law. While doing my LLB I realised this and got exposed to many other areas of law other than criminal law such as family law that I never really enjoyed and corporate law which I have found more useful post retirement. Although I do not feel that my LLB added to my knowledge of criminal law, it did give me a more holistic and expanded view of the laws that govern our country. Besides, as police officers, we have access to the best legal advice at any time of the day as we maintain very good relations with our prosecution and defence lawyers so I do not think that the lack of an LLB education is a specific detriment to any police officer.

Q 7. Ma’am now that you have spoken about the relationships between the police, prosecution and defence lawyers, I have another question for you. If you find yourself in a position where you need the law to be interpreted, who do you call? How are the relations between prosecutors, defence lawyers and the police? Are they really as adversarial as the media would like us to believe?

I would like to say that all these 3 branches of the criminal justice system share extremely good relations with one another for one simple reason – our motivations are all the same – to get to the truth of the matter and to ensure that justice is done, whether that is through a conviction or discharge of the accused. We share very good relations even with the defence lawyers and that might come as a surprise to some but it is true. Besides, whenever we need specific legal advice on a matter, prosecution lawyers are just a call away at any time of the day or night and they willingly oblige our requests. We all consider ourselves one team and are always looking out for one another. In fact, I have had to face the Supreme Court of India, I did not know how I was going to procure legal representation for myself. Though I was well known in Maharashtra, I was not in Delhi – still 2 senior advocates, one of whom is a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court now, agreed to take my case on pro bono. Such is the camaraderie in the law enforcement profession. We have to work as a team, not as adversaries because, like I observed before – our job is not to convict or acquit, rather to get to the truth of the matter. Adversarial relations would get in the way of achieving this end.

That being said, I do wish that there was closer coordination between the directorate of prosecution and the police authorities. It has been seen that many sensational cases of our country reach a dead end only because of a communication gap between the police and the prosecution which leads to important evidence slipping between the cracks. There are ideological differences in some quarters of both groups as to how integrated the prosecution should be with the police. Until these differences are reconciled, the problem of coordination will continue to affect the system.

Q8. Lastly, Ma’am you have spoken extensively about women empowerment and teaching them to stand up to oppression and wrongdoing; on one hand we are seeing a constant rise in crimes against women. What do you think is the reason for the same?

I think that a spike in reported crimes against women is not directly an evidence of rising crimes against women. To me it only means that more women are coming forward to report crimes that have been committed against them that they would not have 30 years ago. Even in rural areas, women are no longer taking crimes against them lightly, and this is a welcome change as this enables the law enforcement machinery to intervene. This change in attitudes is also welcome as it shows that women are no longer afraid to go after their culprits and this is the first step, in changing attitudes. Of course, if we are to rid our country of crimes against women, we have to start with our children by raising them to understand concepts such as gender equality and parity. Once the roots of patriarchy are removed from the minds of our children, crimes against women will become a thing of the past.

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