Activists of Indian Youth Congress at a candle protest in New Delhi against the death of a 19-year-old woman who was allegedly gang-raped in Hathras district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Photo courtesy of Amarjeet Kumar Singh/ SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Image
On the morning of October 17, 24-year-old Shirin Talwar was cycling near her home in India’s national capital, New Delhi. As she circled around the central Dwarka area, she noticed a grey car following her. “He kept honking and asked me directions to another area. Even before I could answer him, I noticed that his pants were already down, and he was rubbing his private part and masturbating,” Talwar told VICE News. His behaviour left her shocked, and she quickly hopped onto her cycle and began furiously peddling in an attempt to escape. “After seeing him do that, I didn’t dare look at him. I cycled as fast as I could but he began chasing me. I was scared he would bang into my cycle and grab me. There was no one else around to help me at that time,” she said.
Talwar remembers him passing lewd comments as she tried to escape. It was only when she neared a sports complex that she saw two cars surrounded by people. “I was worried no one would be able to or willing to help me as I’ve heard of similar episodes in the city. But when I screamed, people actually turned around and gathered, which scared the man and he ran away,” she said.
The horrifying experience left Talwar completely shaken. There were moments when she wanted to whip out her phone and record evidence of the man and his car, but couldn’t as she was trying to ride her bicycle as fast as possible. She tried to note down the car’s registration number, but he didn’t have one. “All I remember was that he had a broken windshield,” said Talwar.
Talwar would later learn that her perpetrator was in fact a police sub inspector with the Delhi Police’s Special Cell. Puneet Grewal was accused of sexually harassing and molesting four girls, including a minor, between October 17 and 20. One of the survivors said he flashed her while she was on a morning walk, and tried to grab her from his car.
On Saturday, police arrested Grewal and he was subsequently dismissed from the service.
About an hour after her encounter with Grewal, Talwar returned home and began dialling police helpline numbers to seek help. However, when she spoke to her local police station, they discouraged her from pursuing the case. “How will we track him without a number plate? He could have fixed his windshield by now,” Talwar claimed the police telling her.
Disheartened but unfettered by her interaction with the police, Talwar then decided to upload her experience on social media.
Hours after she had posted it, her video began going viral. Many viewers stood in solidarity, and said they too had faced sexual harassment. “Three women got in touch with me and said they were also harassed by a man driving the same car. That’s when I realised that mine wasn’t a one-off incident,” she said. Others who watched her video reached out to her and told her the culprit could easily be caught by scanning CCTV footage at traffic signals.
“Dwarka has a large number of traffic police barricades and CCTV cameras. It’s impossible that a car without a number plate was roaming around without being caught,” said Shabnam Hashmi, a Delhi-based social activist who was instrumental in getting the sub inspector arrested.
However, what followed for Talwar was a harrowing week of trying to get the police to take action against one of their own. The following day, Talwar went to her local police station to get an update on her complaint. But while the police assured her they would catch the culprit, she was not given any details. She then approached the resident welfare association. “But they weren’t too helpful,” she said.
Three days after the incident, Talwar went back to the police station to register a formal complaint called an First Information Report (FIR) . She was told that it was unnecessary as there were already two complaints registered against the man. “They assured me that a team of 40 officers was working on the case,” Talwar said.
Later that day, social activist Shabnam Hashmi connected with Talwar after seeing her video. With Hashmi’s help, she met the area’s Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP).
Talwar and Shabnam also discussed the other two reports of similar nature with the DCP. Police registered Talwar’s complaint—a third against the accused—after this meeting.
Upon further investigation, it was revealed that Grewal had approached another girl an hour before he stalked Talwar. She filmed Grewal sitting in his car. The video helped the police trace Grewal. According to the police, they had to scan 200 CCTV cameras before they found the perpetrator.
“Cases like these underline the highly patriarchal mindset of cops in the country apart from their lack of sensitisation to gender equality and right to free spaces for women,” said Hashmi.
This case comes as India is reeling under the outrage of a gang rape in Hathras district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In the Hathras case, the police forcibly cremated the body of the Dalit victim, and have denied that she was sexually assaulted or that the violence was caste-based, sparking violent protests across India.
According to data, a woman is raped every 15 minutes in India. In July this year, the National Commission for Women received 2,914 complaints of gender-based crimes. The second highest number of complaints coming from New Delhi.
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Via Vice News