On February 28, Mehar Bhargava, wife of a senior politician was fatally shot when she lashed out at four men for passing obscene remarks at her daughter-in-law. Bhargava, who was left partially paralysed slipped into coma, before passing away at a Delhi hospital on March 25. The police are yet to arrest the man who shot her. For many citizens of Uttar Pradesh, where rape, murder and mayhem are staple media fare, this hammered home a very chilling fact - if this is what happens to the wife of a senior politician, whose party supports the state's ruling Samajwadi Party, what can ordinary citizens hope for?

Against the backdrop of this much-dissected crime, data from the State's Crime Records Bureau appears quite incongruous. For example, from January 1 to September 30, 2005, only 10,166 cases of crimes against women were registered. Given the state's 78 million (7.8 crore) females and its abominable law and order track record, the figures don't make sense. How could so few crimes be recorded amidst so many other indicators running strongly against women's interests?

The non-police force

Vijay Laxmi Pande, Circle Officer incharge of Lucknow's Mahila Thana admits that she does not encourage the filing of First Information Reports (FIRs), the first step in criminal investigations. "Look at the number of cases pending in the Family Court. How sensible is it then to file an FIR which dooms you to lose the most important years of your life in a court room?" This, however, isn't the only reason. In addition, she says, many complaints are spurious, and she claims she has developed a knack for telling which ones; these complaints she declines to accept. Another set gets weeded out because the girls come to file FIRs without their families, or they show up in 'provocative' clothes. Thus, of the 88 complaints received by the thana since January 2006, only 21 have translated into FIRs. The crime data will include only this much lower figure.

Number of cases pending in the Family court of Lucknow
Year Civil suits Criminal suits
Pande's is an attitude that despairs women's NGOs in the state. Mamta Singh and Renu Mishra, case workers with Humsafar, an NGO that works on violence against women and also doubles up as a temporary shelter, say that the first question that they face when attempting to report a case is why they're so keen on such action. "The main police concern is to keep the figures low. It is only when we show them our knowledge of legal terminology that they relent", Mishra says.

Singh adds that lower-level police personnel are lacking in legal knowledge, and illustrates this by citing a case where an FIR should have been registered for unnatural sex, but the police weren't able to make this determination; instead they struggled to fit it into one or the other of the usual compartments of crimes against women - rape, kidnapping and abduction, dowry harassment and death, molestation, sexual harassment, importation, indecent representation and immoral traffic.

Ajit Singh, senior advocate at the Lucknow High Court reasons that the police is burdened with too many superficial tasks to discharge its prime responsibilities. "Guard duties, investigating power thefts, conducting board examinations, character verification ... the list is endless. How then does one expect an underpaid, overworked policeman to put in his best? And the feeling of disenchantment starts right at the top", he points out.

Six years ago the Padmanabhaiya Committee had handed over a report to the Centre's Home ministry recommending that non-essential tasks be taken away from the force so that it concentrates on investigating crimes. Last December the Home Secretary suggested that the State look into the report's recommendations to make the world's largest police force function better. And sources at the State's home department contend that modalities are being worked out to outsource some of these tasks.

A watchful silence

But while the police is guilty of treating cases of crimes against women sloppily, women's organizations fare no better. In the Mehar Bhargava case, the State Commission for Women (SWC) maintained a puzzling silence throughout her ordeal. Two days after Bhargava's death the SWC chairperson Ranjana Bajpai issued a vague statement on support to the bereaved family and taking forth the fight for justice. And her excuse for not speaking out earlier? Being out of town to discuss means to curtail cases of crimes against women! But in a conspiracy of silence, where the accused enjoy political patronage, Bajpai is unwilling to make a stronger statement. "The chief minister will do the needful", she says.

The women, who turned out in droves for the post cremation candlelight procession, holding placards calling for a safer society for women, were actually fighting for themselves, seeing plainly that the State can provide no assurance of their security or safety.
Women's organizations fume at Bajpai's reaction. Tulika Srivastava, chairperson, Association for Action on Legal Initiatives (AALI) is indignant. "Does the commission even exist? Why don't the members resign en masse to save themselves from this embarrassment?" she demands. It's an emotion echoed by Professor Roop Rekha Verma, former Vice Chancellor of the Lucknow University. "The commission is silent on protecting the rights of women. What is the message they are sending out? Is it that a fight for justice will be rewarded by death?" Verma asks.

It is not incidental that Lucknow and Kanpur are fast turning into the nation's biggest firearm markets. The State capital has some 41,770 licensed arm holders and more than 100 arms and ammunition shops. The city is thus a happy shopping ground for criminals. It's a trend that alarms even the arms dealers. "The norms for issuing licenses are so lax. Builders, businessmen and politicians are our biggest buyers. They come from all over the country. And since criminals never use cartridges brought from dubious sources, where do you think the original cartridges come from?" asks one local arms dealer. The answer is obvious: government run ordinance factories.

While Bhargava's case is not isolated, the fact of its political overtones helped thrust into the limelight a moribund law and order machinery that either refuses to move, or worse abets the criminals. The women, who turned out in droves for the post cremation candlelight procession, holding placards calling for a safer society for women, were actually fighting for themselves, seeing plainly that the State can provide no assurance of their security or safety. And no one articulated the sense of despair better than Bhargava's mother in law, Padma Bhushan awardee Rani Leela Bhargava. "Gandhiji dreamt of Ram Rajya. What we have today is Ravana Rajya. You can get away with anything", she said in a deep sense of helplessness.

A steep fall from grace

In the week following Bhargava's death a mother-daughter duo watched their car being robbed by two goons. They made a weak attempt at screaming but the thieves took their time to detach the car's music system and do a thorough search of the glove compartment. And for their weak attempts at scaring away the goons, the ladies were soundly thrashed before the two sped away in a car parked nearby. The attempt at an FIR saw the police coming down on the two for not offering stronger resistance.

There are other alarming fallouts of what is now being billed the 'Mehar effect'. Sudhir Kumar Srivastava and Sushil Kumar Srivastava, two brothers chopped off a 17-year-old boy's fingers. The lad had allegedly been harassing Sudhir's 14 year-old-daughter for a while and had gone as far as handing her a rose. The boy's mother had promised the girl's family that her son would behave henceforth, but it was an assurance the Srivastavas were unwilling to take. The boy died the following morning but the court was quick to grant bail to the accused. The judge decided that the police's abdominal record of tackling cases of eve teasing had caused the two to take such drastic action, and hence the bail was perfectly in order.

But one helpless 13-year-old, raped in May 2005 in a moving car by six relatives of well connected politicians and businessmen, had no opportunity for self-defence. The girl, whose name was never disclosed, was jabbed by burning cigarettes when she tried to protest and when the boys had had their fill they threw her out of the car and flung a 20 rupee note at her as 'compensation'. Media pressure caused the police to move swiftly, but that vital piece of evidence, the car in which the crime was committed was never recovered. The victim's family, with neither clout nor money, faced a barrage of threats from the guilty as well as from a member of the SWC to withdraw the case. And while the guilty spent a few months in judicial custody before being granted bail, the girl continues to be confined in a women's protection home where the media is denied entry.

Except for those who loved her, Mehar Bahrgava may be forgotten soon. Opposition Congress politicians plan to use her face as the symbol of angst against the deteriorating law and order situation. It's a plank that they hope will appeal to voters across the entrenched caste and socio-economic divides in the state. In a city once famed for its tehzeeb and tameez, such opportunism is all that is offered to women; real security is not in sight.