For months, my colleagues and I at the domestic violence shelter we run have been dealing with the abusive husband of a client who has threatened to murder us and assaulted people outside our office. Is this what the Greater Chennai police is proud of?

Abusive husband targets service worker outside domestic violence shelter in Chennai where social workers are supporting his wife and children.
Voices Opinion Thursday, December 22, 2022 - 19:01

The doorbell rang and I quickly handed over the baby I was holding to my husband and rushed to the door. I took a good few seconds to look through the peephole and ensure it was someone we knew, and only then proceeded to open the door.

Working with domestic violence (DV) survivors for close to a decade and often having to deal with violent men, I am usually mindful of my safety – but not so paranoid that I had to check who’s ringing the bell every time it goes off. But that day, I had my reasons.

For more than a year now, all of us at The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) in Chennai have been dealing with a particularly difficult case of domestic abuse in which the perpetrator, Rajesh (name changed), has been relentless in his threats, and has engaged in mindless violence that has struck fear among our staff.

Radha (name changed) and two of her daughters, aged 17 and 10, arrived at the PCVC shelter in November 2021. After years of sustained abuse, physical injury, repeated calls for help to family, friends and police, none of whom were able to help her get out of the abusive situation, she finally made the call to come to the PCVC shelter, which one of her children found online.

What followed has been a year of escalating abuse and threats explicitly directed at the staff of PCVC that have now reached a stage where one of us is going to get grievously hurt if immediate action is not taken.

There have been not just one or two, but hundreds of calls in which Rajesh has specifically targeted us, named us, and threatened to hurt us or kill us and our families. We’ve been subject to spine-chilling calls calmly threatening to chop off our heads and spike them on our gate, and cut off our ‘nail polished fingers’ that answer the phone, harm our families and poison our water and milk, all to seek revenge for supporting his wife and children in getting out of the abusive relationship.

The many threatening calls and incidents were recorded and submitted to the police, and between December 2021 and May 2022, five complaints were filed at the Thirumangalam police station before an FIR was finally filed. However, many of the sections that were applicable and that our lawyers had explicitly mentioned based on the gravity of the threats being made against us were not included. He was arrested towards the end of May, jailed and given bail soon after. Our lawyer who was present at the bail hearing to argue against it was informed that bail cannot be denied for ‘family issues’. When he got out, things got even worse. His threats have gotten even more graphic and translated into actual violence on ground.

On several occasions, Rajesh has pelted stones at the PCVC office and a security guard has received minor injuries. The police patrol vehicle was called, but he left before they arrived.

After Rajesh got out on bail, our safety continued to be compromised on a daily basis, and on July 21, Rajesh arrived at our office, broke our security camera, and threatened our security guards. We filed yet another complaint on July 22 and a CSR was registered. No action was taken.

On August 22, in broad daylight, he beat up a broadband service person of a major telecom company with an iron rod outside the PCVC office. The serviceman had visited the office to look into a faulty internet connection. This was a random act of violence meant to intimidate us into not supporting his family any longer. CCTV footage of the violence was shared with the police, who asked for a complaint to be filed by the telecom company. The telecom company apparently ‘refused’ to file a complaint, and the scared serviceman also ‘chose’ to not take any legal action. We are unaware if any further action was taken on this matter.

Imagine a police officer looking at that footage and going “no complaint, no action, sorry!” Fair enough, what can the police do if there is no official complaint, right? Right. But how about ensuring the criminal doesn’t get private information? In most situations, the perpetrator seemed to be better informed about the progress of the complaints we had given than we were.

Institutional complicity

In several instances, Rajesh would call us and share information on exactly what had transpired between us and the police, as if to just prove to us that the police were on his side. Even as we would be having initial conversations with the police to file yet another complaint against him for his threats, he would call us asking why we had approached the police, provide information only the police had been given, and then threaten us with more violence. Initially, the possibility of the police’s complicity with him was only a suspicion, and then on August 22, something interesting happened.

That evening, one of the constables of the local police station drove to our office, spoke to the security guard, took his phone number, and left. All of this was caught on the CCTV camera. The next morning, the security guard received a call from Rajesh, telling him that he now had his number, and he was not safe.

On more than one instance, the police patrol vehicle turned up at our office asking where Rajesh’s wife and kids were, and if they were safe, because Rajesh had called the emergency line stating that they were being held against their wishes and their safety was compromised. This was ostensibly to ensure that the client and kids had not left PCVC, despite the client and the children making statement after statement to the authorities about the abuse they had endured and how their safety and well-being is continuing to be threatened due to relentless harassment.

By now, our faith in the police was at rock bottom and we were too worried about our safety. With the emerging possibility of complicity of some in the police with the perpetrator, our strategy was to not approach the police until absolutely necessary. We felt that nothing would be done unless one of us was grievously hurt or killed, and the police saw this as a ‘family issue’ that we were making a big deal of. We were also repeatedly told at the Thirumangalam police station to send the client and her children away so none of us had to deal with this ‘nuisance’.

For the next four months, we dealt with Rajesh and his threats with patience and extreme caution. We could have reached out to the top rung of the police, but with the local police seemingly on his side, we were scared that if something untoward were to happen, they would not help us.

Last week, with the threats peaking again and us having closed down our office several times already, we decided to file a complaint with senior police officials. They acted promptly and an FIR has been filed – but we are still proceeding with caution. The police are still in denial about the possible sharing of information from their end, and that Rajesh is still roaming around freely only tells us that only we have to take our safety seriously and we cannot only depend on the police.

Living with fear

For all of us who work with PCVC, the fear of being attacked or even killed by a violent man is not unfamiliar. We don’t need to hear cases of a Shruti or Swathi being murdered by stalkers — we see such men every day. They visit us, speak to us, threaten us, stalk us and even indulge in violence. But every once in a while, there are cases where the fear spreads beyond us to our families.

This is not just my story — this is the story of all of us at PCVC and our families. Our senior colleague who has to worry about whether her Swiggy orders are being intercepted and whether her daughter will be safe coming back home; our young crisis counsellors who are subjected to verbal abuse day in and day out, and have to filter information to their families so they are not asked to leave the job; members of our shelter team who have had a year’s worth of sleepless nights worrying about the safety and well-being of other clients — this is about all the courageous, amazing women who work at PCVC, who have taken this tough path to support survivors of gender-based violence, but instead of receiving support and encouragement from the system, we get pushed back. Instead of being on our side, the system is on the side of the perpetrators, instilling in us the fear of violence, the very violence we are fighting against.

One of the easier ways to deal with such fears is to think, “Let’s not get too paranoid, he won’t do anything.” But that is wrong, these are rational fears. People have already been hurt, and the law enforcement system seems to be revictimising survivors and their support systems rather than holding perpetrators accountable. Then with what rationale do we tell ourselves that we should not live in fear?

It might be easy for someone from the outside to say what we should or should not have done — we should have approached the police again, we should have complained sooner, we should have gone to the higher officials. But the impact of listening to these threats day in and day out, of worrying about the safety of our families, of constantly looking behind our backs, of young staff members who live with the worry that someone may attack them in the two minutes they pause outside of office for the door to open, and of repeatedly shutting down our offices and our hotline due to escalating threats, cannot be overstated. It has a profound impact on the mental health and well-being of individuals who already work in a high stress environment, and such decisions aren’t simple.

Need for an integrated response model

I want to emphasise that this is not just about Rajesh – there are many, many cases like this which we deal with regularly. But this case is a great example of the systemic advantages domestic abusers enjoy, and how easy it is for the system to defeat the survivors and those supporting them. And if the problem is systemic, solutions also have to be systemic.

We’ve spent far too many years in this field to believe in fairy tales of things changing overnight. We know this is what our society is, this is how the criminal justice system is — men are violent, institutions are either ignorant or complicit, perpetrators roam free, survivors get revictimised by the system — these are just facts. In times like this, with such overt threats, the system should work to our benefit — just once, just a little bit, at least when our lives are being made hell by one violent man. And when the chances of even that look bleak, a defeatist attitude creeps in.

The defeatism is short-lived because we realise that this is not the first time we have dealt with a Rajesh; we have seen similar or perhaps even worse cases, and it certainly won’t be the last such case. There is too much violence in our society, too many women and queer persons paying the price for it, so there is a lot of work to be done, and we will do it. But what would certainly help is if all of us work towards a sensitive, integrated response model where gender-based violence is taken seriously and approached systemically.

Violent men are able to command so much fear in the lives of their abused partners and families is because the support system around survivors is poor. When a woman or a queer person facing violence seeks support, they are humiliated, harassed and revictimised, and made to face even more violence. If the police dealt with them with sensitivity instead of victim-blaming, if doctors gave them courage instead of only treating their injuries, if their friends and family support them instead of shaming them, if local social groups stood with them instead of walking away because it is none of their business, a Rajesh would not be roaming free terrorising us.

The writer of this article is Senior Director - Programs at International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), an NGO which provides support to survivors of gender-based violence. Call Dhwani – National Domestic Violence Hotline 1800 102 7282 if you or someone you know is facing violence and needs support.