Women's rights

What I learnt about trying to file a sexual harassment complaint to the police

Like me, a woman may ultimately decide not to file a complaint, but the system must continue to make it easier for her to do so

I'm looking for an apartment. Earlier this month, I call a broker from my mobile phone, and before he picks up I realise he is not whom I meant to call, so I hang up. But I get three calls from that wrong number, which I don't pick up. I also start receiving lewd messages and one extremely suggestive one on Whatsapp and even, strangely, on Facebook.

For a few days afterwards, I mull over the idea of reporting this to the police. I think about those things that articles about sexual harassment say often go through the minds of so-called victims: "Was it really that bad? I mean, he didn’t really do anything to me. He’s probably not going to do much else."

My colleague Divya asks me: "Did you feel harassed?" "Yes," I reply.

That’s when I decide I want to report ‒ partly because I am angry that this person has left me feeling so powerless and afraid, partly out of curiosity and partly because I want him to know that what he did was just not acceptable.

Isn’t this grand, I think. I work as a women’s rights campaigner at Amnesty International India. Two months ago, I helped set up a website, www.readytoreport.com, outlining how women can file a first information report on sexual violence. I spend the morning running through the facts. I have the evidence. I eat an egg for breakfast. It’s 11.25 am and I have to leave home.

The procedure

I meet Divya outside the police station. We walk in. The constable at the door wears a hat that looks like it’s from an old Western film. He looks up, showing little interest. The head constable asks us to sit down. I begin my story. As I’m recounting the details, I remember a bit on the website about not being ambiguous while registering an FIR. "Be as detailed and explicit as possible," it says. I show the constable the lewd messages and screenshots of the missed calls I received, and he seems satisfied that the complaint is legitimate.

Another policeman walks in. He calls the number I’ve reported, and gets someone else on the line. He shouts at that person and leaves. The head constable answers a telephone call. "I want to register a complaint," I say again. I feel like I am standing outside myself and watching myself say this. A woman, if she chooses to report sexual violence, should be able to do so safely, with dignity and without facing prejudice. I know this line all too well. Yesterday, I explained it to a group of volunteers who had come to learn about the campaign.

Out comes the white sheet. Divya volunteers her Parker pen. As the words flow on to the paper, I find myself thinking about how smooth the pen is. Snap out of it, Gopika. You know what happens next. When I’m done writing everything out, Divya volunteers the section under which the FIR could be filed. The constable seems confused and a little annoyed. He consults a few others, and they narrow down to two sections. The constable requests us to come back in the afternoon with copies of the evidence, as the inspector will only be in the office then.

As I walk home, I’m not sure what I feel. It sinks in that I’ve initiated a process that may lead to someone being convicted of a crime against me. I feel a little sick.

Striking again

An hour later, my phone rings. It’s his number. I recognise it. I don’t pick it up, but I panic, and then it stops. In my head I imagine what he might have said, "You dare to report this? I’ll find you and come get you." Or may be, "Who do you think you are? My father is a local politician. You could disappear tomorrow." Okay, may be I've seen too many films. May be he would have said, "I’m so sorry. I will never do this again. Please don’t complain to the police."

I call a senior colleague, Ananth, in a state of panic. "What should I do? I am genuinely afraid now." He comes home and while I am telling him about the morning’s events, the phone rings again. It’s the police. They’ve caught the culprit, it seems. I have to go to the police station. As we step out, all I can think about is curling up in a ball and going to sleep.

Once we reach the station, the sub-inspector informs us that Sujay (not his real name) is in custody. He’s being taken care of by the officers, the sub-inspector tells me. "We all have sisters, you know." I then gather that he is asking for Sujay to be brought out so that I can see him. I firmly reiterate that I have no interest in seeing this man, ever. Our backs are turned as he is brought out, and there is not an inkling of temptation to turn around and face him. He has never met me in person, and I’m not about to reveal to him how I look.

Ananth turns around to catch a glimpse. They take Sujay back inside. Later, Ananth tells me that he looked like he wanted to apologise to me. I’m glad I didn’t turn around.

The sub-inspector explains what my options are. I can file an FIR, the case will be investigated, and the likelihood is that Sujay will be put in jail for two to three months. If not, I can drop the complaint and he will be given a strict warning.

I sit there with clenched fists trying to understand and process this. Ananth requests the sub-inspector to give me some time. "Take all the time you need, but once you have decided, you can’t come back tomorrow and say you’ve changed your mind," the sub-inspector says. We step out and head to a coffee shop. I stare at my sandwich. I wish Ananth would just tell me what to do, but I know that he can’t. No one can. "Go with your gut," he says.

I think about my gut. I think about the campaign. I think about being kind to myself and about what has happened over the past few days. I think about Sujay, who could be "taken care of" in the same off-the-record way that he has been today, if he goes to jail. I try to locate my pain, and realise that it is located not just in what happened but also in the lack of safety that I feel, the sheer exhaustion of making choices and the thought that I am literally in control of changing the course of someone else’s life.

I look up and say, "I don’t want to do it." I rehash all the reasons I came to the police in the first place. I know the anger will subside. The experience with the police and my colleagues' support has left me feeling empowered. To some extent, I believe that Sujay will understand the implications and gravity of his actions.

Making choices

We go back to the police station, and the inspector arrives. I’m a familiar face because I’ve come many times to talk to him about the campaign. "Why don’t you want to report?" he asks me. "After all, you of all people should be the brave. Are you afraid of this man?" I explain that I’m not, but I do not want to pursue the matter. He nods and makes me put all this in writing on the same paper that I so vehemently scribbled on in the morning.

Before we leave, I show him the campaign website. Might as well.

As we leave, an old, tired-looking gentleman waiting outside the station comes up to me. "Are you Gopika?" he asks. "Who are you?" I ask aggressively. "I am Sujay's father. Thank you for not registering a complaint." I stop hearing what he says. As I watch him rattle off, I feel bad to see him like that. I don’t want to think about what is happening in his household.

I step out into the bustling city. It is dark now. I know I could have made different choices. But I also know that making this choice took a lot of strength and trust in myself.

I know there's a lot more to do. But I feel at peace.

***


It’s been a few days. Now I can’t help wondering whether I did the right thing. I send what I’ve written about what happened to my colleagues. I have some conversations that allow some reflection on what the campaign would say about the choices that I made. As if "Ready to Report" were a person. Then I remember. The campaign works to first recognise my agency as a woman, to let me make my own choices, to inform me about my options and to try to ensure that the environment I step into, whether it a police station, a hospital or a counselling centre, should all be geared towards empowering me.

The campaign would not stand in judgment of my choice, and it would recognise that reporting sexual violence is not only about bringing a perpetrator to justice. It is also about acknowledging that what I experienced is a violation of my rights, that the reasons for reporting, or not, are varied and not black and white, that what is most critical is that systems need to keep me, the complainant, at the centre of their responses, giving me the room to decide on a course of action.

Gopika Bashi works as the Women’s Rights Researcher and Campaigner at Amnesty International India.

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