Sucheta Dalal :Meeran Borwankar - A rare interview to MoneyLIFE
Sucheta Dalal

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Meeran Borwankar - A rare interview to MoneyLIFE  

September 2, 2008

“With the organised criminal gangs, it is like playing a game of chess. We have to strategise all the time to outguess their next move” 


In a city that is the playground of Chhota Rajan, Dawood Ibrahim and Iqbal Mirchi, not to speak of continuous threat of terrorist attacks, Meeran Chadha Borwankar, Mumbai’s first woman Joint Commissioner of Police (crime) has shattered an important glass ceiling. More significantly, she got the job when the Mumbai police’s reputation was in tatters. Yet, Meeran is a bunch of enigmatic contradictions. Once a bike-riding tomboy from Jalandhar, she is an intensely private person. She makes no bones about putting her family first but will not take it lying down if she is not given her due career-wise. In a chat with her, MoneyLIFE editors Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu seek answers to how she has juggled home and a very challenging career


ML: Tell us something about your childhood and early life.

MCB: I am basically from Punjab, born in Gurdaspur. My father was with the Punjab Police. Since my father was in a transferable job, I studied in small towns such as Fazilka, Ferozepur and Faridkot. I went to Jalandhar for my college.


ML: Did you aspire to become a police officer and follow in your father’s footsteps?

MCB: No, no. I only wanted to do something different. As a child, I had this idea that marriage is not the end of a woman’s life. I used to find girls who thought of getting married and staying at home very boring. I felt that I must do something different and civil service was the option.


ML: And your family? Did they think the same way?

MCB: I have one sister and two brothers. My sister, Anita, became a Commissioner of Income Tax and is now in the Finance Ministry. My brothers used to laugh at us and say ‘let the girls go to the government sector, where they will count ten rupee notes and we are going to earn money’. One of them went to Wharton and the second to Purdue. What they said came true (laughs). We literally count ten rupee notes and they count, I don’t know what.


ML: Are they in India?

MCB: One of my brothers is in Malaysia and the other is in the US. He has a software and a hardware com-pany there.


ML: Did you not want to go abroad? You studied English Literature, right?

MCB: Going abroad was just not on my mind. I was neither against it nor in favour. Civil service was a definite option. In 1980, what were our options? Medicine was one, but my father was against it.


ML: Were you always very clear that you are going to join the police force?

MCB: Not really. When I got through the civil services exam for the first time, I opted for Indian Accounts and Audit Service. I had absolutely no idea what it involved. It was parental influence. They felt that Income tax and audit was the safest thing for a woman. But when I went for my training, I found it so boring that I opted out. Then I appeared again (for the UPSC exams) and got into the IPS.


ML: Were there other women in your batch?

MCB: No, I was the only woman. I knew that there would not be too many women but I did not realise that I would be the only one.


ML: During your training, did they make any concessions for you?

MCB: Not at all. The physical training was really tough. I also found it emotionally tough. In the evening, all the boys would get together and have a drink. And I would feel all alone.


ML: Does this sense of being alone continue throughout?

MCB: Not really. I am talking of the training period. The training academy in Hyderabad is out of town and you cannot go out at all in the evening. Once you are in the cadre, you make many women friends wherever you stay.


ML: You also met your husband very early in life.

MCB: We had joined a coaching class to prepare for the UPSC exams. I met him there. He joined the service, but he is also a management graduate from IIM-Ahmedabad. He felt very suffocated in the bureaucracy and started talking about leaving after a year. He left the service after nine years.


ML: What was it like during the initial years in the police? Was there hostility to women?

MCB: There was no hostility. But there was a lot of awkwardness among my colleagues, seniors and in me too. I remember one instance. Malegaon has always been a sensitive area and it is part of Nashik where I had my first posting. Malegaon was a training ground for us to handle difficult situations. My SP was very uncomfortable; he did not know how to deal with me. Given a choice, he would have wished me away. His wife was very considerate and even used to send two dabbas. But he did not know what to do with me and so he expected me to hang around with his wife during social situations. That was the attitude. At that time, the (local) language becomes an issue. You are new to the job, you are a woman and you are not familiar with the language either. It is difficult.


ML: You have to handle difficult situations and gain different experiences for significant promotions. Could you tell us some significant milestones on your way to the top?

MCB: I was posted as additional SP Kolhapur; then as DCP-Port (the Bombay Port Trust) for two years in 1987-89 and then as DCP Zone 4 for two years (a key posting in Mumbai).


The port suffered from frequent theft; I soon discovered that there was a nexus between the port security officials, customs officials and the police. I realised that if I could break anyone in this chain, the theft would reduce. I started very heavy night rounds and ordered eight hours of static duty instead of 12 hours. The theft dropped to such an extent that the chairman of the Port Trust congratulated me and asked me: “what do you want?” I was taken aback and told my superiors about the offer. They advised me to ask for better facilities for the police; the port authorities gave us an area that was five times bigger than what we had.


After this, I was selected to be the DCP of Zone 4, which is one of the toughest areas in Mumbai and includes East Bandra, Dharavi, Antop Hill, etc. I remember we were doing bandobast for Rajiv Gandhi’s visit when it was announced on the police network that DCP Port goes as DCP Zone 4. People just could not believe it. A woman going to Zone 4 was amazing then.


ML: How did the community react to it?

MCB: The grapevine had spread that I am a no nonsense kind of person and finally, if you are an honest police officer, you are appreciated by your subordinates, colleagues and the public.


ML: But it can be dangerous too. An honest police officer can be harassed…

MCB: I don’t think of that. In my mind, if you don’t treat me fairly and equally, I will not accept it; I am very clear about that. In Zone 4, I had to clamp down on illicit liquor and gambling. Corruption was very high. It felt like an island. A few officers even went and complained, but my superiors told them, ‘the reason you cannot work with her is because she does not allow you to make money’. That was a very challenging posting. There were three firings in the Mahim kapda bazaar area in just one year, there was also a lot of organised crime in the area.


ML: Where did you go from there?

MCB: That was the time I started bringing up the fact that, in Maharashtra, we do not have an independent woman District Superintendent of Police. The attitude was ‘You are a DCP (deputy commissioner of police). You are doing very well. If something goes wrong, we are there to protect you. What will happen to you when you go to the districts?’ It was so paternalistic. I could not believe it. I told them just try me out.


Aurangabad was a communally sensitive district. I was finally posted there in 1991. No major incident happened. Everything passed off peacefully. Then I had my second child and, in 1993, I moved to Pune to the CID, thinking that it would be a soft posting. But then the Jalgaon sex scandal happened and the soft posting became a hard one. My son had infantile asthma and though my headquarters was Pune, Jalgaon was my beat. For about a year and half, I was travelling up and down with the small child.


ML: Was there a lot of political pressure while investigating the Jalgaon sex scandal?

MCB: Not on me, maybe because I was too junior. If there was any pressure, it was on Arvind Inamdar who was the head of state CID. What troubled me most was that the girls wanted to confide in me but they would not lodge a complaint. I thought it was my failure that I was not able to convince them. Soon after, I asked for a district posting again. They said ‘you have done one district, why do you want another one?’ I said, ‘why don’t you ask men this question?’


ML: Is it very prestigious to do district postings?

MCB: Absolutely. It is like being Commissioner of Police, Mumbai. You are like the Commissioner of Police of Aurangabad or Satara. It is the ultimate in leadership. You either sink or swim. Doing an independent district is a defining moment for a Collector or SP. I got Satara district. Now, Satara is very traditional; very Maratha. The joke in the headquarters was, ‘Arre, is Meeran surviving there?’ One year went by, then the second and third. After that, I said I am bored and must move on.


ML: Were there any major incidents when you were in Satara?

MCB: Robbery was a big menace there. There were these interstate buses that used to pass through the district and there were frequent dacoities to rob their passengers. I controlled it in an interesting manner. Firstly, I put up a well-lit signboard saying Police Help Centres at all petrol pumps and dhabas where two armed police would keep vigil. A vehicle would start from one end of the highway, dropping off our policemen, wearing greatcoats, carrying their folding chairs and guns at each of these points. The vehicle would then do another round at around 5am picking up all the policemen. They were not given day duties after that. We managed to bring down the dacoities substantially.


ML: What about resources? After all, you have limited resources to deploy for these operations.

MCB: Well, a part of the solution was psychological - the signboard saying ‘police help post’ worked. The other day, someone asked whether we ever catch anybody during our naka bandi (road pickets). I want to tell the people that naka bandi is not for the people. It forces criminals to change their plans; sometimes they send messages to each other to avoid certain locations that we intercept. It is all part of the psychological warfare with criminals.


ML: Your next posting was to the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation). Did you do it because it was a different kind of experience or were you bored?

MCB: Well, several things happened at the same time. One was that, for us, central deputation (with the Union Government) is considered very important. For me, the choice would have been CBI or IB (Intelligence Bureau). CBI offered me a posting at Mumbai, which was important to me because my husband was based in Pune. There was another reason. After the Jalgaon sex scandal, they asked me to investigate sex scandals in Malegaon, Parbhani and then Sindhudurg. Then, when I was SP Satara, there was a problem in Kolhapur where a rape case was not registered in time. I was the Satara district chief, but I was asked to inquire into Kolhapur, which had an independent district chief. I made a fuss about it. But they said, ‘we have already given an assurance to the State Assembly’. I thought, at this rate, I will get branded as a sex- scandal expert! That is when I thought I must accept the CBI offer. In any case, I had already done my stint in the districts twice and I needed to move on.


Even now we have had two rape cases by police constables. One was Sunil More and the other was Chandrakant Pawar. I have even written a case study on these. We got a conviction in both cases and they were both handled by the crime branch. Now, with the experience I have in handling these issues, I know exactly what is likely to be our potential weak point during the trial and how to overcome it.


ML: How is it that these two rape cases moved fast through the court system?

MCB: Well, mainly because the public pressure was enormous and because there is a dedicated court for women’s issues. I must say, if your magazine has a mission, it must be to advocate fast justice. Suppose you have a murder in your family in 2006, the case will come for trial only in 2010. By then, witnesses are tampered with so much. I used to get so anguished sometimes, because our hands are tied. We can protect witnesses, but what can you do when they are purchased? What if they don’t want to depose at all? Not just witnesses, but even the complainants get bought over.


Look at the situation. On the one hand, you have a fairly average bunch of people on the prosecution side. On the other hand, we are pitted against a very good defence lawyer and a party that is very motivated to get an acquittal.


The trick is to tamper with evidence just a little. For instance, if you are a conscientious witness, you are persuaded to bring in a contradiction or a doubt in just one or two questions. So here we are thinking that the witness held up well during the cross examination and those one or two questions will undo our case. The long trial gives them all the time to work on people.


ML: Coming back to your CBI stint, the UTI case was the high-point of that period, wasn’t it? How was that experience? After all, you came in the middle of the second big financial scam after 1992.

MCB: In retrospect, there should be intensive training for those handling economic offences. Of course, we had people like Virendra Singh from the income tax; he had a strong grounding in tax-related issues. I myself had to learn a lot and get help from different sources outside. In the UTI case, I felt very let down. I think it symbolised a systemic flaw. Instead of getting the best people to rise, our financial system encourages very mediocre and pliable people to reach the top.


ML: After CBI, you went on the Humphreys Fellowship in the US. Did you do that because you wanted a break, or as a career enhancement move?

MCB: I took the Fellowship because I wanted a break. Also, it was a great opportunity. I studied the County system and I also did an internship with the Interpol. So I gained a lot of experience. Then I came back and asked for a posting in Pune. After all, my whole life is about balancing my career and my family. So the assignment that I got was not an A-rated posting - it was at the State Training Institute called Yashada. But I really enjoyed that.


ML: Do you think the police force has changed, in terms of the number of women joining the police?

MCB: Not at all, there are still just too few women at the IPS level. Even today, very few women are coming into the profession as a matter of choice. There are five of us here and all are based in Mumbai for one reason or another. Mrs Goel is Director of the Police Training Academy at Nashik. She is the first woman IPS officer in Maharashtra -from the 1977 batch. There have been only five women officers in the last 20 years. That is not a very happy situation.


ML: Why does that happen? Is it adjustment problem?

MCB: There are, indeed, adjustment problems. It is not a 10 to 5 job and it is not easy to balance your career and family. The one thing about this job is that you just cannot say no. If you have a night round, you have to do it. And if you have finished your night round at 4am and the boss calls you for a discussion at 10am, it will not occur to any officer to tell the boss, “Sir, I have just done a night round”. There are, indeed, problems, but we need women and we need to look at the prospect of giving them some concessions or softer treatment.


ML: Won’t that be viewed negatively? Or work against women?

MCB: Well, do you want a system that does not have a woman’s perspective at all? Do you want only a male point of view about everything? If there are no concessions for women, then society will only have a male perspective on all issues. Are we prepared for that? After all, there are certain biological necessities and you have to take them into account. I hate it when men say, “Arre, she has gone off on maternity leave again”. Twice in her career if a woman takes three or four months off, what is the problem?


Would you like to be checked by a male constable at the airport? If not, it is clear we need women. Then there are the morchas (protest marches) where certain political parties will always have women in the first 10 rows. If male officers try to control them, they will immediately have photographs taken and say that the police mishandled women. With certain parties, we know their modus operandi so well that we end up getting all the women constables at one place to be present on duty. And that is really tough. If you don’t get enough women in the force, how will you deal with such situations?


ML: But do you get enough women who are motivated to do such work? Or do they join because they need a job and there are reservations?

MCB: Well, I think at least the government is serious and committed about hiring women. And yes, many do join because they need a job, but they can be trained and motivated by the force.


ML: Were there any occasions when you had to make a choice between your career and family?

MCB: Yes, many times. When I returned from CBI, I returned prematurely. I still had one and a half year left. I was about to become IG (Inspector General) and there was only one IG post in Mumbai so they offered me Delhi. That was the year when my elder son was in the 12th standard, so there was also a guilty feeling about going away to Delhi as IG. I told the CBI that if you can’t give me Mumbai, then I want to go back. They said, are you willing to put it in writing that you want to go back prematurely? I said “Yes; give me any post, but give me Pune”. Some people said I am compromising my career, but I did not see it that way.


ML: That hasn’t set your career back. You still managed to break a glass ceiling. How do you think that happened?

MCB: Don’t you think it was a matter of chance that they offered me the post? The crime branch was going through such a bad phase that even the Joint CP was in jail. I think they needed to do something. In that sense, the decision to offer me the job was a matter of chance. But they did feel that I was capable of handling it; so I broke the ceiling in the sense that I took the job when it was offered to me and left my family behind to be here. Though the offer may have been a matter of circumstance, it was also a compliment to my professional acumen that I was asked.


ML: For a young person entering the police today, what will be your message?

MCB: For anyone who wants to join the police, I will only have a positive message. I will give them a reality check and say that it is not as idealistic as you think, but there is a lot of job satisfaction.


ML: What about political pressures and conflicts as compared to the rewards, especially salary, which is lower in government?

MCB: Who said that there are no pressures and internal politics in the private sector? All family-run concerns have the same issues. Salary-wise, we are not as well paid but the perks are pretty good. We have good accommodation, conveyance and other facilities. So the money may not be good, but the job satisfaction is tremendous. The amount you can help people is unimaginable. Look at my day - from 3pm to 4pm, I meet the public. Being in a position of power, the number of people I can help is amazing. For instance, just today a woman came here saying that she was offered a bit role in a movie shot at Hyderabad. Then someone offered her a better job in the Middle East. But instead of getting her a visa, the guy took her passport and would not return it; instead, he started sending her obscene messages. All I have to do is to call the police station and say ‘I am satisfied it is a genuine case, register the complaint’. And I know that it is a matter of time before she gets back her passport and the guy will be arrested. Where else are you able to help ordinary people like that?


Then, of course, there is the satisfaction of dealing with so many organised criminals. With them, it is like playing a game of chess. We have to strategise all the time to outguess their next move. But I can’t talk much about it. What I can say is that after the Mumbai blasts in July, the Crime Branch has burst three terrorist modules. One is the Faizal module - with the arrest of Faizal Ataur Rehman Sheikh and his associates, Crime Branch Mumbai detected the case of the 7/11 Mumbai bomb blasts. We burst another in the Kandivili area that is linked to Fayaz Ghasswala and Mohammed Cheetah which is a Delhi police case and the third we burst at Ghatkopar, which is linked to Malegaon. So that kind of anti-terrorist work is also tremendously satisfying, but rarely known to the public. The problem is that the most interesting part of our careers is all confidential.


As for political pressure - believe it or not, I have not faced much. I think very early on, I acquired the reputation that I don’t listen; once that happens, they don’t bother you.


ML: We talked about the disadvantages of being a woman. But what about the edge of being a very good-looking woman in the police?

MCB: Actually, I just like to live my life on my own terms. I don’t want to be recognised on the street or be a role model for anyone. But it is a fact that once you are known as a non-corrupt officer, or get a reputation, you get idolised very excessively -- that is what you can call an advantage, but I am very uncomfortable with it.


ML: What is next from here?

MCB: Well, let me think. What I want is to be happy. I feel that I have native intelligence and I will survive. I will do quite well. I have done alright for the last 25 years. I am not very competitive, but, if I don’t get what I deserve, then I don’t let it go either. So, I am pretty confident that I should have a good career, and I should rise to the top. But what is the top, I am not very sure.


But, having said that, my priority is to be happy and I believe that stress is something one creates for oneself. I am from a very close-knit family and that binding is important to me. For instance, every year, for 15 days in December, the entire family gets together. Even my brother from the US comes and we just forget about work and spend time with family.


-- Sucheta Dalal