Losing battle

The death in controversial circumstances of a woman DSP in Tiruchengode, who was on the case of a murder, brings the functioning of the Tamil Nadu Police into sharp focus.

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:30 IST

R. Vishnupriya. She was investigating the murder case of V. Gokul Raj, a Dalit youth of Salem.

R. Vishnupriya. She was investigating the murder case of V. Gokul Raj, a Dalit youth of Salem.

The alleged suicide by hanging of R. Vishnupriya, a Dalit woman officer with the Tamil Nadu Police, at her official residence in Tiruchengode in Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu on September 18 has created a huge controversy and prompted rights groups and Dalit activists to demand a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into her death.

That Vishnupriya, 27, was the investigation officer in the sensitive murder case of V. Gokul Raj, a Dalit youth of Omalur in Salem town, justified their demand for a CBI investigation not only into her death but also into the murder of Gokul Raj, say the activists.

The body of Gokul Raj, a 21-year-old engineering student from the Parayar caste, was found with the head severed on the railway track near Erode town on June 24. It is said that he was in love with a caste-Hindu girl belonging to the Backward Caste Kongu Vellalar Gounder community. The girl was his classmate in a private engineering college at Tiruchengode ( Frontline , August 7).

Vishnupriya, a Group I recruit of the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission, assumed charge as Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of the Tiruchengode police subdivision seven months ago. Her woes began when her senior officers entrusted her with the challenging and critical assignment of investigating the murder of Gokul Raj under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Her preliminary investigation had revealed that Gokul Raj’s was a case of murder and not suicide as claimed by certain caste-based outfits in the region. The post-mortem ordered by the Madras High Court had confirmed that the youth’s death was not natural. Vishnupriya was said to be under tremendous pressure with the case assuming political and caste overtones. Her agony increased when the main accused in the murder, Yuvaraj, while evading the police, had the audacity to upload a series of audio clips on WhatsApp with teasing and challenging messages.

Vishnupriya, who was already following only “scant leads” in the case, faced a difficult situation as caste-based political lobbies attempted to thwart the investigation at every conceivable level. “But what she did not expect was the non-cooperation of a few police officers, both subordinates and superiors, in the case,” her father, M. Ravi, said.

Immediately after performing the last rites of his daughter at Kondur village in Cuddalore district, Ravi, who is employed in the Accountant General’s Office of the Puducherry government, told Frontline over telephone that Vishnupriya was not a coward to have committed suicide. “She was a brave, intelligent girl. She had a vision to serve the suffering. That was why she opted to join the Police Department. But what she found [there] was shocking and disappointing. The system, which is repressive and tyrannical, has little space for honest officers to operate,” he claimed.

Ravi said when his daughter visited Kondur to celebrate Vinayaga Chaturthi on September 17, she did not display even an iota of frustration that could have driven her to take the extreme step the next day.

“She performed the puja and sang Sanskrit bhajans in which she was well versed. I pleaded with her to spend another day with us. But she told us that she had some concrete leads in the Gokul Raj case and had to be at Tiruchengode the next day. We do not know what transpired thereafter. It [the death] was all too sudden. We were told at about five in the evening that our daughter was dead,” he said.

It was the angry and tearful outburst of Vishnupriya’s batchmate and close friend K. Maheshwari, a DSP in the Keelakkarai police subdivision in Ramanathapuram district, that drew national attention to the feudal system that allegedly pervades the rank and file of the State Police.

Maheshwari did not mince words when speaking about the systemic failure in the department. “Vishnupriya wanted to serve the poor and the suffering. She shared with me all the unpleasant things that happened to her, especially after she took over the investigation of Gokul Raj’s murder. I used to boost her confidence. Even on September 18, just hours before her alleged suicide, she called me. When I returned the call, she told me she would call back since the Superintendent of Police [Namakkal] was calling,” she said.

Maheshwari, who broke down on seeing the body of Vishnupriya at the Salem Government Medical College Hospital, charged senior officers, especially S.R. Senthilkumar, the Namakkal S.P., with harassing her friend. Vishnupriya, she claimed, had told her that there was an attempt to book innocent people under the Goondas Act and when she protested she incurred the ire of the S.P. “Her superior officer humiliated her openly over the wireless, calling her ‘useless and unfit’ for the job. Because she was a woman and a Dalit, she faced a twofold humiliation,” Maheshwari said in a choked voice.

Was she not afraid of the consequences of openly criticising her department? Maheshwari said she was aware of the consequences she would have to face. “But I am ready. Can anyone accuse us [officers like her and Vishnupriya] of accepting even a cup of tea from anyone? Can anyone accuse us of being biased towards any particular caste or organisation? How long can you flog us? When will such inhuman acts of harassment and persecution of honest women officers stop?” she asked.

However, she had no complaints against her senior officers in Ramanathapuram district, who she said were men of high integrity. “My S.P., Mayilvahanan, is my guru, and what good work I have been doing in Keelakkarai could not have been possible but for his unstinted support. Such officers are rare. But Vishnupriya was unlucky,” she said. Her criticism of the functioning of the Police Department, especially its treatment of women personnel, has triggered an intense debate on how the police function in the State. “At last, a serving officer has shown the courage to bell the cat [in the department],” said a long-serving police.

Ravi endorsed Maheshwari’s views. “The Tamil Nadu Police must be sensitised on gender and other ethical issues. They cannot remain the vestiges of the British Raj. Times have changed. Then, a police constable’s qualification was a pass in class VIII. Today even postgraduates apply for constabulary services. Today’s recruits are intelligent, sensitive and want to be straightforward. They should be treated with dignity. But the arrogant and feudal mindset of a few superior officers has distanced the department not only from its own men but also from the people whom it is supposed to serve,” he said.

G. Thilakavathi, a former Director General of Police, said harassment of women in the police force was not unusual even when she was in service. (She retired in 2011.) Despite being a direct Indian Police Service (IPS) recruit, she had faced severe bias in the department, she said. “Even junior officers would try to ill-treat you. Women face discrimination in all fields and the Police Department is no exception,” she told Frontline .

Thilakavathi, however, does not approve of the way the women police personnel of today deal with vexatious issues. “In those days we fought against gender bias boldly. Police officers must realise that they act and live by the law and none else. We ignored the seniors’ tantrums and insinuations, although it was such a long and hard ordeal of exasperation and frustration,” she said. Describing Vishnupriya’s suicide as “unfortunate”, Thilakavathi said Vishnupriya faced the double disadvantage of being a woman and a Dalit.

Will the patriarchal mindset change in the Police Department at least now? “No, it will continue. The male chauvinism will not change. You have to fight it out until the end. It is a perennial problem for women personnel, for that matter for all working women,” she said.

Poomozhi, the State president of the Salem-based Tamil Nadu People’s Rights Movement, said the feudal mindset in the department was the main factor behind the suicides of personnel. He said the National Crime Records Bureau statistics showed that Tamil Nadu registered about 200 suicides by police personnel, including women, between 2006 and 2013, next only to Maharashtra.

“The police should be permitted to form associations to represent their grievances. Women police personnel face social, mental and physiological pressures. Their plight is different from that of their male counterparts. Hence, they should be given all facilities. More than that, the police force should be humanised,” he said.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, under whom the Police Department functions, has ruled out a CBI inquiry but shifted the cases pertaining to the deaths of Vishnupriya and Gokul Raj from the Namakkal district jurisdictional police to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department.

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