Sutapa Sanyal, Ex DGP From UP: Political Will Needed For Zero Tolerance To Gender Based Violence

Former Director General of Police (DGP) of Uttar Pradesh, Sutapa Sanyal shares about her work and some insights on gender violence in India.

Former Director General of Police (DGP) of Uttar Pradesh, Sutapa Sanyal shares about her work and some insights on gender violence in India.

An interview with Sutapa Sanyal was a chance to learn from a woman who has stood her own in a traditionally male dominated profession. She was incredibly gracious and shared her experiences, and the hurdles she encountered. It was inspiring, to say the least.

Like most women, Sutapa too had to hustle during her work life “The reality of the world unfolded once I entered the service. I underwent the entire spectrum of gender-discriminatory behaviour but gradually began to recognize the unconscious and conscious biases which plagued so many people out there and made them behave the way they did,” she says.

Sutapa Sanyal has worked tirelessly to promote gender equality throughout her life. She has worked with several stakeholders across international agencies, ministries, and regions to promote women’s and children’s rights, and has formed crucial agreements and relationships with UNICEF, Plan International, Oxfam, and Action Aid. In a collaborative project with UNICEF, she also played a key role in establishing child-friendly police stations and Special Juvenile Police Units across Uttar Pradesh.

Sutapa Sanyal has also been honoured with several awards for her excellent contribution as a DGP, and her awards include the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service, the Police Medal for Long and Meritorious Service, the Hindustan Times International Women’s Day Award, and the FICCI-FLO Outstanding Police Women Award.

Her achievements too were recognised globally, as she was invited as gender expert by the British High Commission to join an Indian women leaders delegation to the UK to assist them in ways to combat violence against women (VAW). She has also represented India in France at the INTERPOL Specialists Group on the Child Protection.

This is just a gist of her professional accomplishments; she has a long list of them, and she is a role model for many women including me. So let’s give it over to her, and read what she has to say to our questions.

Sutapa Sanyal on her journey to becoming who she is

Hello! Please tell us a bit about your journey to becoming who you are now – did you encounter any problems as a woman? And what were the challenges that you had to go through as a woman IPS officer in a male dominated profession? 

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Well, the journey has been pretty challenging but eventful. In a sentence, it has seen the evolution of a shy girl from a very humble background into a woman who has been lucky enough to have found her calling in life, pursued it diligently to deliver her best wherever she had the opportunity to work and serve the people. It is still a work in progress and only time will tell where it is going to take her!

While growing up there were no problems being a girl because I was fortunate to have parents who treated their children at par. Moreover, I was always conveyed the message that the sky was the limit for me in whatever I did and could achieve whatever I wanted.

Those were beautiful, secluded, and protected times— there was school, school-plays, books and there was music –small goals and numerous achievements all along the way. I had no idea whatsoever that there were issues like gender discrimination, or patriarchy or misogyny existing out there.

The reality of the world unfolded once I entered the service. I underwent the entire spectrum of gender-discriminatory behaviour, but gradually began to recognize the unconscious and conscious biases which plagued so many people out there and made them behave the way they did. These biases showed up in the decision-makers whenever the issue of transfer and postings came up as the question of my capability as a woman came under a scanner.

I attribute such an attitude towards women police personnel not just due to the lack of diversity in this male dominated profession but also due to years of psycho-social and cultural conditioning about the superiority of one gender over the other. Unfortunately, this has been passed on from one generation to the other through the socialization process and impacts our day to day thoughts, words and interactions.

I realized early on in the job that the only way to counter this discriminatory behaviour was to acquire professional competence and learn the skills required to execute your craft better, thereby creating templates which could make decisions easier in the future with reference to other women officers. I also made special efforts to inculcate leadership skills because after all that is what we are expected to do – LEAD by example. But believe me I had to work doubly hard to prove myself.

Unfortunately, the service and the world in general are still gender-discriminatory and not inclusive.

Post- retirement I continue to work on these issues in the fond hope that I am able to move the needle a bit more towards a gender-just, diverse and inclusive world, than what I found.

What inspired you to pursue your profession as an IPS officer?

I always wanted to be in a space where I could make some difference in the lives of people around me. My inherent proclivity towards academia, first took me to the profession of a lecturer. Perhaps the background of Economics made me see the inequalities and injustice around me more clearly and made me realize that the Civil Services provided the best space to do what I wanted to do. I took the UPSC exams in 1984, got selected, reported for training at NPA, worked extremely hard there and qualified as a full-fledged IPS officer thereafter.

Experiences as Director General of Police in UP, where lawlessness is a huge challenge

You were a DGP in UP. Are all the stories we hear and read about lawlessness in the state true? And how did you handle these things on a daily basis? 

Yes, I was the first woman to serve in the ranks of DGP in UP.

See, setting up a robust structure for implementing the Rule of Law is a challenge for every State. It is certainly a great challenge in India’s most populous State. However, the state of affairs will always be influenced by the efficiency of the law and order enforcement machinery, the existing justice delivery system, the mindset of the citizens and the political will. Unless all these things are in place, there will be lawlessness, crimes, specially against those are vulnerable and marginalized and there will be overall miscarriage of justice.

In our service you get to be at the helm of law and order only when you are posted in the District Police. I have served in various departments within the Police as well as the head of the District Police Force of Lalitpur, Sultanpur and Kanpur, all three of which had completely different sets of law and order issues.

So far as the handling of situations is concerned, you need to have goal clarity, be fair, honest and transparent in your dealings, cooperate with various other stakeholders and agencies in the district and be accessible to people and try to help the needy. The last one is extremely important because a professional interaction leads to trust –building between the police and citizens and in turn elicits cooperation from the civil society. Your intelligence collection system must also be very robust and you have to put into place processes of preventive as well as proactive policing.

Being fair, firm and yet compassionate in your dealings with every member of the force is equally important for successful leadership.

Additionally, I also faced challenges because I was a woman –many a times the only woman officer in the room.

However, I figured out that your best response was to know your craft inside out, and execute it with confidence and finesse. Many things gradually fall into place or take care of themselves over a period of time.

Setting up a women’s cell in the UP police department

I read that you lead a police department for empowerment of women and children called Mahila Samman Prakoshth, (MSP), could you tell us your thoughts behind it?

Yes, that was the most meaningful and satisfying period of my entire career as an IPS officer –something close to self-actualization.

Well let me take you back to 2014, when I had just come back to UP after having successfully completed a Central deputation as Advisor Security to GAIL (India) Ltd.

Since at that point of time a lot of unfortunate crimes related to women were happening, I volunteered to dedicate the remaining 3 years of my service to the issue of safety and security of the women and children in the State.

As a result, and also because I was the senior-most woman IPS officer of the State, I was asked to create and establish what came to be known as the Uttar Pradesh Police Mahila Samman Prakoshth.

It was the first ever full-fledged initiative of the UP Police dedicated exclusively to look into the policing aspects related to the security and dignity of over 130 million women and girls of the State and was officially constituted in September 2014.

MSP designed and implemented a bouquet of nine discrete and yet inter-connected verticals based on the elements of SMART Policing. You can click through here to read more about the details.

With proactive support pouring in from UNICEF, Action Aid, various government departments (specially the MHA, Bureau of Police Research and Development and Home Department) as well as the civil society, the campaigns gained in strength continually over a short period of time.

With the passage of time, issues related to children were also entrusted to the MSP and it was also made the nodal agency for the anti-Human Trafficking efforts of the State.

The work of MSP found praise in leading publications like World Business Times, India Today, The Times of India as well as by Members of Parliament (MPs) from India, Canada and UK. The endeavours have also found favourable mention in the Purdue University publication.

Given its dedication to quality policing, MSP was also awarded an ISO 9001:2008 certification, which vouched for the structural and functional soundness of the organization.

A strong social media presence also ensured that the gap in societal awareness and proactive governance was suitably addressed.

Despite being a lean organization with very limited resources, it created and implemented protocols that helped in fostering a robust ecosystem for women empowerment.

It gained tremendous goodwill in civil society within a very short time and in the process, suitably addressed the existing trust-deficit between the citizens and police in relation to Gender- based Violence, Child Safety and Protection and Human Trafficking.

Gender-based violence is a multi-layered issue

We wake up to the horrors of gender violence almost every day, is there any way to resist this?

There is a way out of almost all the challenges in this world if one is determined enough.

Since the problem of gender-based violence is a multi-layered issue and not just a legal one, we need a multi-dimensional approach to the solutions too.

First of all, the current format of policing needs to be changed to a victim-sensitive, compassionate, preventive and participative one, on the lines that I had designed and implemented at the UP Police Mahila Samman Prakosth.

The nine verticals also had a component of creating awareness and mindset changes in the citizenry because I feel that as long as we keep asking the wrong questions (“why did you go out there at 7:30 pm” or “why did you wear that short dress”) to the wrong person (the victim/survivor), we will never get the right answers and right solutions.

Similarly, the capacity of all the other stakeholders of the justice delivery system also needs to be built up, along with extensive systemic changes.

This also needs to be backed by a clear and strong political will towards zero-tolerance for any form of Gender-based Violence by all political parties, irrespective of the ruling dispensation. It is extremely disconcerting to see the voice of the victim getting lost and then justice getting drowned when such incidents start taking on a political hue. Moreover, all these solutions have to be implemented simultaneously and not sequentially.

I read that you were a member of the Micro Mission 07 and you also devised policy for gender equality. What made you take up this initiative, is there any particular incident behind this?

The seven Micro Missions of the Ministry of Home Affairs (Govt of India) were the various plans, policies and projects for achieving the objectives under various heads, formulated through several policy groups.

MM 07 dealt with gender-related issues, including the strategies for prevention, robust investigation, prosecution, training and HRD aspects etc. related to Gender-based Violence.

We worked in groups and subgroups and came up with a plan which had several suggestions regarding gender-justice, safety and security of women and girls etc

I volunteered to become a part of the MM 07 because the work done by this group was in sync with my core passion and competence and it provided me a platform to share my thoughts with other members of the Mission and help design reports with inputs on these issues.

A culture that silences girls and women from speaking up

You have spoken about how a culture of silence and culture of victim blaming is so problematic in our society. Could you elaborate on that? 

That statement was made in the context of the problems faced by women and girls when they are victims of Gender–based Violence.

These sub-cultures are highly pervasive and prevent the growth of a robust society wherein everyone is able to reach a stage of self-actualization and give their optimal best.

The ‘culture of silence’ prevents the victim or survivor (women and girls in this context) from speaking up and that emboldens the perpetrator. The victim is silenced by a veiled threat of facing more trouble in the future than what she is undergoing currently if she speaks up. The reason given is that no one will listen to her and even if someone does hear her out, that someone will not believe her and hence do nothing about it.

At other times there is the component of a false promise –to forget the unfortunate incident, keep quiet and that everything will be alright.

This culture of silence is equally exhibited in the ‘bystander apathy’ when no one helps or speaks up even if a woman or girl is being victimized in public.

This problem is further compounded by the issue of victim naming, blaming, and shaming when not only is the name of the victim revealed on media platforms, but is also questioned and blamed for her misfortune in the “you asked for it” mode.

Victim–blaming further creates a vicious circle because it deters the victim/survivor from speaking up — again going back to the culture of silence.

Be your authentic self, as much as possible

What would you advise our readers?

I am no one to advise anyone about anything!

However, if someone is willing to lend an ear then I would like to insist that one should always be one’s authentic self, understand one’s calling in life and then give one’s best shot in the process of evolving while moving on the path of that calling. Life is too short for anything else, specially for all the negativity which people spew on one another.

You are a unique creation of the Supreme Power and your specific job is to live according to your unique blueprint.

I have also found it to be a good strategy to mind one’s own business, but be aware and compassionate towards the challenges and struggles of those around you or those who look up to you, and try to help them in whatever way you can.

However, we must have the courage to question the status quo and ‘popular’ narratives if they are unethical or incorrect.

In short, be in the world, but not of the world, because your journey continues beyond this ‘earth time’.

Image source: Sutapa Sanyal


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