Introduction

Sutapa Sanyal serves as Director General of Mahila Samman Prakoshth (MSP), an innovative police unit protecting the rights of over 13 million women and children in Uttar Pradesh. At MSP, she is credited with creating award-winning interventions for fighting VAW & enhancing Gender Equality. These include Vikalp, India’s first police portal for reporting Violence Against Women (VAW) – which increases women’s access to the criminal justice system, Nav Chetna – a training module for Gender-Sensitization of Law Enforcement officers which was recommended nationally to other states as a “Best Practice”, Akshaya – a Self defence training program for girls, ‘Citizen Cadet‘ – a program that channelizes the leadership of women’s collectives to fight VAW, Ru-Ba-Ru – a community policing program for increasing communications between the police and the public. She has also built successful Public-Private Partnerships with UNICEF, Action Aid, Plan India International and other stakeholders in order to expand these interventions.

With certifications in gender studies from Johns Hopkins University and a management degree from London Business School, Ms. Sanyal has been a speaker on public policy, policing and women empowerment at various forums including the India Today State of States Conclave, IIM, and FICCI. She lends her expertise in Ending Violence against Women (EVAW), child protection, and anti-human trafficking. For her service, she has been awarded the Police Medal by the Hon. President of India. Her efforts are built from the bottom up and include not just women and children, but also involve men in the fight for gender equality. She has leveraged technology, mass media, citizen participation, community policing and in-house training to deliver a complete model for police transformation. From rescuing hundreds from sex trafficking, to protecting thousands of women from domestic violence and helping them get justice, Ms. Sanyal’s work has created breakthroughs in women rights and empowerment in India’s largest state.

Her interventions have been recognized by Govt. of India, the Govt. of UK, INTERPOL & US Department of State. She was invited to the UK by the British High Commission as part of an Indian Women Leaders Delegation to share strategies for Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW). She has also represented India at the INTERPOL for the Specialists Group on the Protection of Children. She also serves as a member of the Govt. of India’s Micro Mission 7, which helps evolve policy recommendations for gender equality.

Ms. Sanyal has been awarded the Lokmat Samman by Hon. CM Yogi Adityanath Ji, Indian Women Excellence Leadership Award by the BRICS International Conclave, the Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Award by His Excellency Governor of Uttar Pradesh and the FICCI-FLO Award for Outstanding Policewoman.

Interview Excerpts


Yes, I did my post graduation in Economics, and taught Economic Theory (Microeconomics ) at Patna University for a while.  But I always had the burning desire to serve as many people as possible. Way back in the eighties the Civil Services was perhaps the most important agency through which you could harness your core competencies to help the needy. My father was also from the State Civil services and had an Economics background, so to that extent I followed his footsteps. But the footprints became different from there onwards.

I joined the Indian Police Service because I found that within the police you could do a whole lot of genuinely good work on a day to day basis, just by ensuring that the rights of the needy were protected and they got justice. The existing injustice in society created dissonance within me. I had always felt deeply about these issues and always wanted to do something about it and I saw an inherent opportunity to do what I wanted to do through this profession.

This is a great question. It was a kind of calling for me.

On the one hand, violence against women and children was pretty obvious on the ground. On the other hand, there weren’t too many women in the forces. You might be surprised to know that when I joined the IPS in 1984, I was the only woman in my entire batch of about 80 officers!

Although we have covered a long distance since then, even today, women constitute only 5-7% of the police force. This becomes important when one understands that many more women and children will come out with their issues in the open if there would be more women in the forces. I have often seen women and children interacting more openly and comfortably with women in the police, especially in cases where they have to share intimate or personal details.

This was one of the reasons I joined the police, because I wanted to ensure women and children had access to the justice systems and were able to break off from the “culture of silence” and “victim- blaming.”

So yes, to that extent you can say that my joining the police services was a need-based choice.

Well the journey has had its challenges, as every profession does but yes slightly more because the profession was even more male-dominated when I joined it.

But every challenge is also an opportunity, provided one is willing to look at it that way and persist with one’s convictions. It was the same mixed bag for me too. I don’t think it is a cakewalk for any woman, anywhere. I too have had my share of professional and personal challenges but have stood my ground and done the best I could do under the given circumstances. In the process I think I have become a better person and am thankful to all who supported as well as those who made my path difficult. While my supporters gave me the strength to carry on, all those who opposed me made me stretch myself to discover a whole lot of hidden strengths.

While training at the National Police Academy I tried my best to do whatever my male colleagues did which made me physically and mentally stronger. While in active service I had amazing mentors who were predominantly male officers and who gave me sound professional advice, without ever letting the consideration of my gender come into the picture. The best thing a mentor can do is to make you expect more from yourself. I found many such mentors within the profession who have always pushed me to perform better than I could ever imagine.

Of course there have been additional challenges, many a times being the only woman in the room. It was however a conscious decision that I would not let this deter me. I set my own standards of work on which I did not compromise. Nor did I let others define me. I have fought the battles because most of the times in life you are given the battlefield. You don’t get to choose them but yes how you choose to fight in the assigned battlefield is largely in your hands.

No matter which profession you are in, there will always be people, colleagues or otherwise, who will try to trivialize your work. Women experience this more in male dominated professions, so you have to calibrate your responses, stand your ground and just outperform their expectations and biases.

There is general acceptance of women in the forces, provided they show strong professional competence. Of course I feel that women in the forces would perform better if the workplaces were more gender balanced and there was greater gender parity overall.

To a large extent UP was a conscious choice for me and I have had wonderful opportunities to do a variety of work in the departments within the police covering a wide gamut of areas ranging from hands-on, mainstream district policing to non-mainstream segments such as armed constabulary, investigation, intelligence etc. However, working on issues of women security and dignity, child protection and anti- human trafficking have been the most satisfying experience. UP is a huge State—of the size of Brazil. Being the most populous state of the country, it is also faced with multifarious problems.

Yes, sometimes in the past there have been unpalatable and unacceptable communications emanating regarding women, but there have also been a lot of meaningful narratives and new initiatives on gender-related issues which have emerged from this very state, which have been adapted by many other states. Four of the citizen-centric programmes I started for gender equality in Uttar Pradesh were actually recommended by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) to all the other states in the country as best practices. That is something that I am proud of, because it shows that U.P. is innovating in the social and public sector, and with the right efforts and systems it will become a shining example for other states.

For many people, their comfort zone obviously lies in maintaining the status quo and hence one is wary of change and innovations. Most of the templates for gender equality which I’ve tried to put into place for the security and dignity of women and children within the police department, are absolutely new concepts. There was naturally resistance within the system initially but once these initiatives started showing results on the ground and women started speaking up and getting their issues addressed through us, there was all-round appreciation including several awards, largely from non-police sources.

I have received countless messages which had contents of general gratitude. Two incidents have particularly stayed with me.

One relates to an incident when I was the district Police chief at Kanpur. For the first time a woman officer had been appointed as the police head for such a large and hypersensitive district and that too at the time of the elections. I did not personally know the elderly gentleman who was sitting in front of me in my office one late evening. He had come some days back seeking help from me as some petty goons were troubling him and his wife as they were living alone. Their sons were working abroad. These goons were eventually put behind the bars due to my intervention as the case had been found to be genuine. With gratitude in his eyes he thanked me profusely but what he said was something which truly moved me. He said —“Beta I wish I had a daughter like you.” Honestly speaking, I did not know how to respond. Our police training teaches us to face all types of law and order situations and gruesome crimes, but not this kind of a situation. I could only reply with humble silence and looked away with misty eyes.

Similarly one day, just a few months back a group of women came to my chamber. They had brought the case of a victim of domestic violence who had been subsequently helped by our Vikalp app for reporting crimes against women and children. They just wanted to thank me which they did and while going back they said that this is the first time that they saw an officer of such seniority who kept the door open for any needy person to walk in.

Now these are moments of true self- actualization and bliss!

I am so happy that you asked this question. See no society or community is entirely bad. Rather it is my firm belief that unless there is a larger percent of good people in a society, it will collapse.

This was the basic concept on which I designed the 9 programmes of the UP Police Mahila Samman Prakoshth.  After three decades in the police, I’ve realized that only 20 % of the population needs coercive policing. Rest of the society is in need of participative or what is technically called community-friendly policing.

I remember an incident when a professor in a local private University had locked herself up, having developed severe schizophrenic tendencies after her father’s death. She was the only daughter of her parents and had also lost her mother some time back. The lady was highly abusive towards anyone who was trying to help her. But that did not deter a good samaritan from approaching us along with her friend. Now this presented a situation which was beyond our official mandate at that point, but seeing the urgency and gravity of the issue I contacted a psychiatrist and sought help. I also requested the local police officers to assist them should the need arise.

Eventually the door of her house had to be broken down and she had to be sedated by medical professionals before being taken to the hospital. A month long of treatment followed and she was in a much better state. She even came to me to gift a copy of “Treatise on Vedanta” and expressed her willingness to help us if the need arose. Now if you stop and introspect for a while, going out of the way to help the lady was not the duty of any of the actors involved in the incident, but everyone chipped in their bit because there is still a lot of humaneness left in society and certainly it is not over yet. There is still a lot of goodness in this world and more such stories need to be published so that people still have hope. In fact I’ve developed an anthology of such true stories of successful cases that I have come across as a police officer, so that citizens develop faith and hope in the police and rule of law and to deconstruct the myth that good governance is a rocket science. All it takes is commitment and good intentions. Like every other profession policing too needs to be done with the heart in the right place.

Criminality cuts across caste, creed, race, sex. Years ago, there was this young man from Vasant Kunj, New Delhi who, with tears streaming down his eyes, was narrating to me how his 5 year old daughter who was playing outside went missing from there and how a reporter friend of his had informed him of the probability of the child being brought to Kanpur. He asked if I could help him in locating the child. I called two of the best inspectors and constituted a team and asked the father of the girl to accompany them.

There was no progress for the first two days and I felt a tinge of pain thinking of the man and more intensely about his child. And then the news I had been waiting for came: the child had been found and the perpetrator—a 65 year old woman— had been caught. Somewhere deep down inside me I had somehow got attached to the case.

The case led to the unearthing of an inter-district and interstate gang which kidnapped children (mostly girls), brought them up and finally pushed them into prostitution. This was a severe case of Human Trafficking and the kingpin was a woman.

Myriads of emotions welled up in my heart as I picked the little girl up in my lap and got her some food and a new dress as she was still in the same frock in which she had been kidnapped about a fortnight back. I rang up her mother and made her talk to her. As a part of their modus operandi to erase the child’s identity, the criminals had shaved her head and started addressing her by some other name.

To this day I can’t reconcile the fact that a woman with grown up daughters of her own could indulge in such acts. I believe this case, which occurred nearly two decades back, shaped my desire to work to protect women and children and set me on the path that I am on today.

The incident opened a new world of “hidden crimes” like human trafficking / child abuse and even domestic violence. These are issues which society feels uncomfortable discussing but which must be discussed more often, not just for ethical but also for pragmatic reasons. If not recognized and controlled at this stage these social crimes will overwhelm us in the days to come.

There are several theories in criminology which provide an answer to this.  Just as there are a variety of crimes, there are a variety of reasons which foster criminals. Unfortunately, criminology is not an exact lab science where the answers are always clear. I truly wish the causes would be so simple because then the solutions too would be easy and linear.

Criminals take different paths. Broadly I feel it is need, greed, circumstantial and psychopathological issues which breed criminals. Many a times you find people engaging in crime because of the inequity and injustice they face in society. Then there are crimes of passion and greed. There are also at times people who are forced into crime by others as many juveniles are in conflict with law are and lastly people who have psychopathological issues and therefore engage in crimes. There can be governance issues too if the existing laws are not dutifully enforced, and criminals prosecuted and convicted, since this will boost the morale of old criminals and encourage new ones.

Therefore investigators not only have to be competent but also very intelligent and sympathetic as there are no strait-jacket solutions or defined algorithms to tackle such socio-cultural and psychological issues.

Unfortunately, anyone misusing the law, man or woman, is actually disempowering the generations to come. This is why everyone needs to know the law so that no one can take advantage or misuse the law.  This is also the reason why we need competent and courageous investigators in the police so that there is no miscarriage of justice. This is the reason why I had started the Adhikaar program to spread awareness about laws and rights to the people, and the Navchetna programme for the capacity-building of cops regarding women, child-related and anti-human trafficking laws.

Similarly, mentoring of children is very important for which I started the student-cop connect program Ru-Ba-Ru, so that school and college students could know the laws and the consequences of breaking them. They also need to understand the power of RTI so that they can seek answers to relevant questions. Imagine all these things being told by cops to the children. It was an enthralling experience both for them and for us too. Only when the available legal and administrative tools are used to their maximum capacity, particularly by the youth, will things change for the better and will we as a nation be able to realize our “demographic dividend”.

It is also important to set up structures which promote transparency and accountability and follow procedures, while documenting things so that the Rule of Law is observed in society. This is why even internally in MSP, I instituted the mechanism that every action taken on complaints would be vetted by a legal expert before closing/ archiving the file, to ensure that the police action taken was satisfactory.

The message is simple: look inside—you have tremendous unrealized potential. Use your powers to leave the world a little better than you found it. That would be the best gift which we can give to others.

Having worked in the field of women empowerment, I feel that all of us must strive towards adopting measures which ensure equality between the two sexes and in this I feel everyone is a stakeholder in their own unique way. Like charity, gender equality too begins from home and parents thus become a significant stakeholder in gender equality as they provide the first lessons on this very important topic to their children.

Additionally, I also have message for all women out there….please stand beside and behind every woman who is struggling to find her place under the sun. You can make a difference by mentoring her, enabling her to navigate through life, actively helping her to pick herself up if she experiences setbacks, or just being there for her in passive support. There is a need to understand that this bonding and sisterhood is for our collective good.

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