Op-Ed: Chennai’s Moral Police


In Chennai, the term “moral police” is too often a literal one.

Two relatively high-profile incidents in the past week cast the city’s police force in a frightening light, as enforcers of a deeply misogynistic worldview who go as far as to violate the law in order to uphold their principles.

In the first case, a married woman who was with a male friend at the Kotturpuram railway station was apprehended by a police officer, who then physically assaulted the friend in question and cast aspersions as to why the duo were together. When told that her husband was fully aware of this friendship, the officer threatened to make bystanders testify against her.

In the second instance, a 21-year old lesbian who had left home and subsequently been reported as a missing person by her parents voluntarily went to the Thiru-Vi-Ka police station to declare herself an adult operating under her own autonomy. She was detained for a day, and released only into the custody of a relative. Activists from the gay rights group Sangama, who were supporting her, were harassed.

The moral universe occupied by too many members of Chennai’s police force is a murky one, bolstered by a flawed understanding of “Tamil culture”, unchecked sexism, and an abiding disrespect for the law itself.

But these are hardly isolated incidents. If anything, they have only served to reinforce what every woman in this city already knows: the police are more likely to harm than help. As journalist Chithira V put it to me, the security-heavy Gopalapuram neighbourhood – where the state’s CM resides – is a dangerous area, not in spite of but because of the presence of the police. Even the 20 all-women police stations in the greater Chennai area cannot effectively address the daily threats and aggravation that take place in public spaces, by members of the force itself.

Chennai is a city of fear and loathing, and the deep distrust in its sanctioned protectors is not a phantasm of urban legend. The city’s profound conservatism is in conflict with the needs of a modernizing population, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the manner in which its police relegate law and ethics in favour of their private concepts of morality.

The misogyny of the police force finds an accomplice in the unresponsiveness of Chennai’s ordinary citizenry. These instances are too omnipresent to enumerate, but one in particular, also shared by Chithira V, illustrates this pervasive attitude to chilling accuracy: some weeks ago, three women were attacked by a man with a knife on Besant Nagar beach. When they scattered, screaming, the man calmly walked away unperturbed. None of the families or couples sitting near these women paid any attention to the skirmish. The women called the police; an officer arrived, rounded up two random men, and insisted that they were the attackers. The real attacker not only went unpunished, but surely orchestrated the attack expecting this. Even in a group of three, the women were – in the city’s understanding of this word – “alone”.

So deeply embedded is the belief that one must be vigilant of the vigilantes that many women go to lengths to avoid interactions with the police, even at their own peril. A friend who was being followed by an ex-boyfriend felt she could not approach the police if the stalking became more invasive, because her former relationship with him would surely be held against her, and render her a target for humiliation and harassment. I personally leave home well before dark whenever I have planned a night out; having been questioned twice by a policeman on a bike right in front of my apartment, I changed my schedule. This is only an inconvenience, but the sinister underpinnings behind why I had to do it are hard to ignore. When my parents enquired about what the policeman was doing, they were told that a brothel was allegedly operating near the premises. There is no brothel here, as far as I know, but there is a women’s hostel.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.

5 responses »

  1. Chennai may be more conservative but other cities in India are not far behind and the fear of the police runs deep everywhere. A few years ago in Bombay, a policeman ‘arrested’ a young couple who were cuddling at a seaface, insisted the girl go to the police chowky and raped her there. The ladies compartments of local trains in Bombay used to be guarded at night by a cop with a gun (which we later found out is an ancient rifle and not loaded); enough reason for us to avoid that compartment and take refuge in the otherwise shunned “general” compartment. Except one night, a girl was raped in the the general compartment. Then we were caught between the devil and the deep sea.

  2. I’ve had police officers taunt and whistle at me during my morning walk. I’ve even had a police officer threaten me ‘neenga civiliansa irukarathinaalae summa vindaraen’.

  3. My initial misconception (and a BIG one at that) about Chennai being one of the safest cities was blown away by a series of shocking cases of molestations, harassment, and leching, all within 2 weeks of coming here. And the worst part is that it happens right in front of my college! Not that I’m blaming our security here, but the police patrolling we were promised is also non-existent.( Like THEY would help).
    I’m appalled at the enormity of the situation: misogynist attitude of men (save some educated men. A rarity.), some weird form of (racial?) discrimination against us North-Indians (somehow they are inclined to think that we are either totally dumb or totally corrupted. Stands true when dealing with auto drivers.) and the way moral policing (as the blogger mentioned) gives those pig-headed policemen freedom to misbehave and deviate from the law they are meant to preserve. Men here pee in public, facing the passers-by. They flash. They grope. And once when one of us asked one of the local vendors on the safety of women here, his reply stunned us- “Women should not step out after 5 pm. If they do, why should the men control themselves?”

    Not only for the outsiders, local women here face this too. On our way back from the market, it had begun to get dark. There were a bunch of us. A couple was standing in some lonely, dark corner of the lane and, as we approached, we noticed that the man was screaming at the woman and slapping her hard across her face. On seeing us approaching, he yelled something at her and then sped away.

    Some metropolitan city, this. I’ve been to Delhi, Bombay, some places in MP, North East, etc etc. Never have I encountered such a closed, stubbornly backward ‘traditional’ society.

  4. Pallavi, Extreme provocation demands some decisive action – perhaps you might consider getting a bunch of girls together and complaining to someone higher up in the police force about the general state of affairs around your college? It might be difficult, but not impossible. I grew up in Chennai, and its sad to see a city with a wonderful cultural history come to this – it certainly was very different about ten years ago.

    I am glad Sharanya wrote about this issue – its time more people (particularly men) realize what’s happening around us.

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