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GLOBAL NEWS | winter 2004 Indian Policewomen Practice Policing and Politicking All-female battalions focus on crimes against women
by Deepa Kandaswamy / K. Deepa
They were first inducted into the Indian police force in 1973, but today women are mostly confined to desk jobs. In 1992, they were allowed in the defense forces but, again, in service and support jobs. This, despite India’s history of such warrior women as Rani Lakshmibai, who fought the British army in the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, India’s first freedom struggle.
Still, Indian women are making a comeback, starting in the southern-most state, Tamil Nadu, where Avadi (a suburb of the state’s capital city, Chennai) houses the Tamil Nadu Special Forces Fifth Battalion: the world’s first all-female battalion.
Tamil Nadu has always been progressive regarding women, electing the first female chief minister (a state chief minister holds the power of a U.S. state governor). It boasts the first women’s university, first women’s engineering college, first female-staffed police station, first all-female police commando company, and now the first women’s special-forces police battalion.
This didn’t happen overnight. The idea began with All Women Police Stations (AWPS), a brainchild of India’s first elected female chief minister, J. Jayalalitha, who started the first AWPS in 1992. (In Tamil Nadu, first names are preceded by an initial, representing the name of a single person’s parent [of either gender] or a married person’s spouse [of either gender], a practice adopted in the 1950s as an alternative to caste-based last names still used in other Indian states.)
According to Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, since women constitute half the population, their problems could better be understood by policewomen. Each AWPS staffs 15 policewomen, and is focused on crimes against women.
Today, there are 188 AWPS, one in each Tamil Nadu district, along with two toll-free help lines — Woman in Distress and Child in Distress — through which anonymous complaints are pursued at the same priority level as regular complaints. The result: a 23 percent increase in reporting of crimes against women and children — and a higher conviction rate. Several other states have started pilot AWPS.
In 2002, 50 women age 21 to 35 from the Tamil Nadu special police force expressed the desire to undergo commando training. Their request accepted, 21 were short-listed and underwent an arduous 12-week training course, graduating the following year.
Encouraged by this, 120 more policewomen were trained, to form the first all-women police commando company. In 2004, the second such company graduated, and both are part of the first all-women special-forces police battalion: 1,000 women. Recruitment and training are ongoing.
Kalpana Nayak, battalion commandant, says, “Policewomen are equally motivated and fit to be on a par with their male counterparts. Before this program, the male-female ratio was 42 to one; it’s now 12 to one [85,000 men, 7,000 women], the highest in India.”
Deputy commandant N. Kamini adds, “We have more women coming forward to report crimes against women and against society in general … Response to women’s commando companies has been extremely positive.”
Most of the policewomen come from rural backgrounds, and commando training is a new world. G. Manimozhi, age 29, from Tiruvarur district, confides, “I joined the police against my father’s wishes. Growing up in our village, I was always told what women can and cannot do. This has given me a new level of self-confidence. I know now a woman can handle any situation.”
Photo / Deepa Kandaswamy
There’s an economic incentive, too. S. Valarmathi, age 28, from a village in Tirunelveli district, admits, “Being a commando means an increase in salary, almost double what I would earn as a regular constable. This helps my family.”
A. Jansi, a 21-year-old commando from Trichy district, says, “The training was tough, but once I mastered it, the feeling was unbelievable.”
Jansi won the gold medal in the 2004 shooting competition for state police, beating policemen and male commandos. In addition to basic physical training, firefighting and martial arts, women commandos learn horseback riding, driving, swimming, sand running, unarmed combat, parasailing, rowing, wall-scaling and rock climbing. They receive specialized training in handling AK-47s, light machine guns, and bomb detection and disposal, as well as in dealing with hostage situations.
Their academic training includes such topics as psychology, terrorism and guerrilla tactics; gender-sensitizing programs are emphasized, plus counseling and investigative techniques. The training concludes with a 440-mile, three-day footrace — and no sleep for 72 hours. While police commandos are similar to SWAT teams used in special operations, they can also be deployed swiftly as part of the reserve police force, along with defense forces, in counterterrorist operations.
Undoubtedly, it helps to have a woman at the political helm promoting female empowerment. Considering anxious security situations in other countries, with slightly more than half the world’s population being female, Tamil women believe women everywhere can learn to maintain security — and have a say in politics.