Politics

Of Law And Ardour: Celebrated IPS Officer Who Cracked Nirbhaya Case Talks To Swarajya

IPS officer Chhaya Sharma, currently DIG, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). 
Snapshot
  • Chhaya Sharma, the IPS officer who cracked the Nirbhaya case along with her team of policemen, was recently felicitated with a rare international honour.

    She talks to Swarajya on several issues relating to policing, and her experience as a lady officer in a world of men.

Open any day’s newspaper, and you’ll see the one constant in life — stories that reflect rising intolerance and insanity in society. Where the slightest of tiffs turn into cases of murder, revenge killings, rapes or mob killings.

Worse, most of these happen in broad daylight, in crowded areas, with passersby turning mute spectators (and often into thriller-movie photographers). Living in this day and age increasingly equals living on the edge.

Is there a way we can ensure that our women, children and the smallest vendors and other people busy eking out a living in our small towns and villages can live peacefully?

While we pondered on this, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer was bestowed with an international award for courage and leadership. The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University chose Chhaya Sharma, Deputy Inspector-General, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), this year, for the award they reserve to honour an individual who has inspired the world through acts of selfless courage (past recipients include Kayla Mueller and Malala Yousufzai).

Sharma’s avowed mission against human trafficking has led to several operations wherein she has rescued minors and received acclaim for her work. A research paper, in fact, credits her with causing a “paradigm shift in law enforcement in trafficking of women and children in India.”

For McCain Institute, her “stellar contribution” was leading the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder investigation case in 2012, as Deputy Commissioner of Police (South Delhi).

The Nirbhaya case, which had shaken up the nation in 2012, had seen Sharma put her best foot forward, her uppermost priority being the victim’s interest. Once the case was solved — and a few headlines and news stories later — this officer moved on to her next assignment.

However, six years later, in March this year, ‘Delhi Crime’, a serial on Netflix, not just revived memories, but also renewed an understanding of the case. As Vartika Chaturvedi (the character modelled on Chhaya Sharma, and played by actor Shefali Shah) said: “This is not just a heinous crime; This is insanity!”, people sat up and soaked in details of the case through the seven episodes.

Chhaya Sharma and her team’s crucial role in solving the case was fully understood; the officer got recognition for the hero that she was. The Netflix series was also an eye-opener, with many exclaiming that this was the first time they got an idea of the hard work that goes into solving cases, the sensitivities involved, and hardships suffered by the police.

Significant Case

The Nirbhaya case was significant for two reasons. One, as Sharma puts it, “It was a watershed case wherein the heinous crime of gang-rape reached its lowest ebb. It clearly bordered on insanity and was one of the most macabre cases.”

Two, the speed at which it attained closure: Police efforts are often thwarted by a labyrinthine legal process, filled with pitfalls. Yet, here was a case where evidence was collated, following the hunt for the perpetrators across five states; then stitched into the charge-sheet and filed in a record 18 days. It withstood three rounds of judicial scrutiny all the way up to the Indian Supreme Court, the highest appellate authority. Within a span of six years, the accused were convicted, with maximum punishment.

For Sharma, a 1999-batch IPS officer, “contentment and inspiration comes from bringing relief to victims and their families. Over a span of almost 20 years, my attitude to work has been defined by the spirit of public service, nothing more”.

The tough police officer is, in person, disarmingly warm, approachable and down-to-earth, and has interests that include cooking, singing and dressing up in saris and accessories. “I am a woman, a mother and have plenty of soft skills”, she laughs. “Being a police officer doesn’t mean you have to emulate machismo to show your strength. Inner steel is more important and women have lots of it.”

Qualities Of An Officer

Sharma believes that as a working police officer, one needs to be more humble, sensitive, smart and empathetic than the perception of a tough police officer anyone carries. Her frequent references to her family bears further testimony to her grounding in traditional values.

When we asked her if anything had changed post the international award and receiving applause at a glittering function, she said, “It motivates me further to continue my work with passion and zeal. I will continue to guard human rights and ensure that the due process of law is followed.”

In times of increasing crimes in general, and against women and minors in particular, we sought her insights on relevant issues.

Excerpts From The Interview:

Are crimes against women and minors on the rise, going by reports in the media? Has the women’s safety scene worsened since Nirbhaya’?

No, it cannot be said that the state of women has worsened. In fact, more media coverage and open discussions on women’s safety issues have led to more amendments to the law, bringing more specific changes to women’s issues and how they would be handled henceforth.

Reporting has risen much more after 2012, and there are efforts across police forces to improve women’s safety in general, and solving cases quickly, in particular.

From your interactions with police personnel abroad, is there a basic difference between police in India and in other countries? What is the perception regarding Indian police?

Police abroad have to deal with their own set of issues pertaining to crime and maintenance of law and order. They have similar pressures from the media and civil society, but their handling is more professional.

But there is one huge difference, and something that we cannot discount — they have a much lower population-to-policeman ratio. The sheer population that we, the Indian Police, are required to handle is a challenge in itself, and something that needs to be addressed.

About the perception of the Indian police — police abroad are well aware of the socio-economic conditions in Indian societies, as well as the resources available with Indian police forces.

Here, I want to add about our perception within India. Many of us do our duties diligently for the sake of the public and to help victims, without any expectations. This dedicated lot needs to be encouraged. If the public is judgmental about all, clubbing all police officers with the few black sheep in the department, it hurts our morale.

The kind of efficiency that you and your team displayed in the Nirbhaya case: can this be replicated in all cases? What are the requisites for police officers investigating similar cases?

Yes, of course, it can be replicated. My officers were not from Mars; they were from the same police force in Delhi, like any other district. But one thing they were all sure of, is that I, as DCP, would back them for correct and professional work. Importantly, that I would act as a shock absorber from external influences.

Understanding your men and their strengths and weaknesses is crucial: I was able to put the right man for the right job, and the role was continuously managed to do course-correction if required. Hand-holding of the team was important, as wherever they needed me, I was accessible.

The culture of detection of cases and team work had been developed over a period of 8 months. Leading from the front of an already-motivated team was helpful, too. It was a manhunt for six criminals who were on the run after committing an act of devilry. Understanding the need to timely detect these criminals was important, even though the challenge was like looking for six needles in the most densely-populated haystack of over five states.

What helped was steadfast determination, continuous micro-managing details at the DCP level and involving the entire talent pool of officers at my disposal. Apart from initial legwork of detection, equally important were writing the case diary, and the legal aspects of trial in the sessions court — while hand-holding the victim continuously and sensitively.

So I’d say, the requisites for police officers investigating blind, heinous cases are — a steadfast approach, first. Then, past experience in handling similar cases helps, as also an understanding of the criminal mindset and psychology. Also, respecting the victims’ needs for support and empathetic understanding is important. Sensitivity is important, especially when handling cases of women and children.

All this being said, I strongly believe that policemen and criminals are only a subset of society, and that it is the character and culture of the society at large that gets manifested in its criminals, and the attitudes of policemen. Training and constant workshops on issues can only marginally address aberrations and it has to be a continuous process for changes to occur.

Small incidents erupt and end up in murders involving near-innocent people. Revenge killings are becoming common. What can be done?

I don’t have statistics for comparison, but my experience tells me the increase in such incidents is an indication of the rise in relative deprivation and frustration in society.

Revenge killings cannot be put into compartments. It is simple psychology: anyone who has an angst against another will either try to take revenge to assuage his hurt ego, or harm themselves, taking succor from drugs and alcohol.

The hurt can be adequately assuaged by counseling and support by family and society. Once such hurt individuals are able to come to terms with their losses — both physical and emotional — they would be able to channelise their energies towards something constructive.

Because there are multiple causative factors — socio-economic, educational, behavioural et cetera — for these crimes, and so the solution also cannot be uni-directional. All stakeholders such as the police, judiciary, families/parents, educational institutions and society as a whole need to work in tandem for the situation to improve.

Increasingly, minors are committing crimes. What can be the possible safeguards against them, given that they are let off after minor punishment?

Crime is based on the principal of mens rea or criminal intent. If we feel that a child is a minor till he is 18, then it is also assumed that he/she is not capable of completely understanding the repercussions of the act.

So, as a natural corollary, minors are dealt with leniently in the criminal justice system. The assumption is that they are still immature and, more importantly, open to change and correction. It is felt that they have a long life ahead and it will be easier to correct errant behaviour in them, rather than in a mature and hardened criminal.

Secondly, many children commit crimes due to lack of parental guidance, attention and time. Wrong company and bad habits fuel the need for extra money. In the absence of guidance, the frequency and amplitude of crime increases till he/she gets caught in serious offences. A good example can be boys stealing vehicles for a joy ride and later turning into proper vehicle thieves.

Third, and rather unfortunate, is that movies and society are replete with incorrect role models and glorifying incorrect morals and behaviour; this gets emulated in the form of juvenile delinquent behaviour.

Coming to heinous crimes, mostly the rush of adrenaline, bad company and the use of drugs and physical needs push juveniles to commit bigger crimes than are possible at that age. Still, in my view, a chance to improve must be given to them because the crime owes itself to their immaturity, and lack of social support and parental guidance.

Social support is important for juveniles in conflict with the law, so NGOs, society and parents must do some hand-holding; this will allow them room for improvement, and every child who becomes a responsible citizen will be an asset to the nation.

Rehabilitation and reintegration of juveniles in conflict with the law is the most important aspect to be taken care of, to prevent recidivism (relapse into criminal behaviour) and get the child back to being a contributing factor in society, rather than at loggerheads with society.

Sharma, though forthcoming about her own work, was reluctant to comment or provide solutions that she felt were needed to be answered by policymakers — and society itself.

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