Last week, I mentioned that a group of us had gone to Carter Road with a pledge to help create safer cities. Some men held up pledges saying they’d speak up against sexual harassment. Someone promised not to give sexist toys to kids. Someone else promised to use public transport.
One of the major reactions we got was from the police. A cop came up to ask what this was about. Since we were standing right next to a tiny chowky, it was natural for the cops to be curious. One of the girls explained, and invited a cop to join in. He declined politely, citing duties. So far, so good.
Carter Road faces a promenade lacing Bandra, a suburb in Mumbai. Families come to enjoy the sea. Joggers jog. Walkers walk. Friends of all ages sit on benches and gossip. It’s an ideal spot to address issues of public safety, without disrupting any of these activities.
Yet, minutes later, another police official arrived. He demanded to know what this was about, who we were and why we were here. I explained. But this cop was not satisfied. He said, “You’re supposed to take police permission.” I said, “But this is not a rally, nor a protest. It is just a bunch of friends standing with pieces of paper, taking a personal pledge.”
He wanted to know which NGO I represented. I said none; I’m just a citizen. He didn’t believe me. He kept saying that he needs to know who is “responsible”. I asked, “Responsible for what? Standing near the sea, holding a piece of paper?”
But apparently, establishing “responsibility” was important, in case something happens. I asked what he thought might happen as a result of a few people pledging to take public transport. He had no answer. He did have a dozen questions — who I am, my full name, phone number, address. He took photos on his mobile phone. He even told me not to worry; the police wouldn’t bother me. Which would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so sad — that a citizen should have cause to worry while giving her address to the police.
I spent forty minutes arguing, persuading, pleading. He argued too, saying Mumbai doesn’t have the kind of problems other places do (aka Delhi). He began to blame youngsters for going down to the rocks, away from the promenade. Since we were talking about safety, I thought he was worried about youngsters drowning, until I realized that he was actually suggesting that their snatched moments of intimacy were a ‘safety’ problem. Then he asked us to clear off in a few minutes.
And all along, I kept wondering what kind of society we are that the cops can waste a whole hour asking people to leave a space that was created for the specific purpose of allowing us to communicate and mingle. They waste hours chasing away hapless couples, but don’t have the time or manpower to answer distress calls.
Recently, there was a report of a woman being assaulted on a beach. When she approached the nearest cops for help, they told her they had no personnel to spare, and asked her to go to the local police station. Naturally, no arrest was made.
At the heart of the security problem is this – the police force seems to be spending far too much time being suspicious of people who are not causing harm, just expressing opinions — or affection — and not enough time responding to citizens who are being subjected to violence. If the cops would only pledge to fix this one thing, we’d feel safer.
Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)