Sutapa Sanyal grew up in very humble circumstances but had wonderful parents who always encouraged her to follow her dreams.
“They instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I set my mind to, despite living in a highly-gender-skewed society. I did my schooling from Notre Dame Academy, where the nuns nurtured my creativity. I was, and still am, extremely fond of books and music and have built my life largely around them,” says Sutapa.
In fact, interestingly, she says that at one point of time she even considered taking up a career in music!
Post-retirement, she still continues with her music and other interests like reading, writing, gardening, interior decoration and travelling.
Born in Patna, Sutapa studied Economics at Patna University.
On becoming an IPS Officer
“I always wanted to be in a position where I could serve people. Initially, I was not interested in the Civil Services and started working as a Lecturer in Economics at Patna University. Eventually, I realized that the police was an organization where there were immense possibilities of helping people on a day to day basis, especially the marginalized and vulnerable communities. That’s how I got interested in the IPS and was extremely elated to join the service upon selection,” she recounts.
I was the only woman in my entire batch in the IPS
“Most of the time, I was the only woman in the room. Back in the 80’s, there was far less acceptance of women working in a typically male-dominated profession like the police. Not only that. Owing to implicit systemic biases, people were also far more judgemental of the handful of women officers than they were towards their male counterparts. The only way to neutralize this was to make myself proficient in what I did. That saw me through and I found people, including the members of the force, gradually acknowledging my efforts and respecting me for what I was doing. Even when I had to lead the Provincial Armed Constabulary or when I became the first woman SSP of Kanpur, I made sure that I was an active leader. Once you show good leadership, people tend to forget their biases. The best thing to do in such circumstance is to be highly professional, build your capacity and deliver more than whatever is expected of you.”
“I think being a woman head in the police force had its own advantages too. As a woman, I had perhaps more compassion for the issues of women and children. I could empathize completely with the various challenges women face in their lives, both within and outside the force. Women also felt more comfortable in approaching me with their problems. In fact, one of the reasons why I thrust myself whole-heartedly in starting a special police unit for women’s safety and security was that they kept coming to me with their problems. I realized that there was a need for a special unit that was dedicated exclusively to help women and also children. Most of their issues were very sensitive and needed a more compassionate format of policing compared to the coercive policing that is generally practiced. I think having sensitive women police officers in the force can make a huge difference as it helps in the women and children in speaking about their problems. This is why I am a strong advocate for gender mainstreaming and encouraging more women to enter the Civil Services and the police.”
The most challenging part of her job was changing the mindset of people regarding Gender Equality. She had to constantly convince her own peers, subordinates, and superiors-to give priority to women empowerment.
“Any time you try to bring change and innovation in any field, you will meet with resistance. Same was the case with me. But I knew that it was high time for the police to adapt to the new realities of the world. Change has to begin from within, which is why one of my first programmes was gender sensitization training for the police. Once there are cognitive changes in the police, their response to the women and child victims undergoes a metamorphosis and it becomes very easy to implement women and child-sensitive policing.”
“I did not give up and slowly I began to see change take hold. In fact, over the course of a couple of years, many people started offering their wholehearted support in taking my initiatives forward. It was like a breath of fresh air and all the challenges suddenly became glorious opportunities.”
“Another big challenge was my posting as SSP in Kanpur. It is an important but very communally-sensitive district, with a sufficiently large floating population. The General Elections were also due that year and the atmosphere was highly charged. However, it was a matter of great satisfaction that we were able to hold a completely incident-free election,” she says.
Sutapa rose to become the first woman IPS officer to serve as Director General (D.G) in U.P.
As a Director General, she started the UP Police Mahila Samman Prakoshth (MSP), an innovative police unit protecting the rights of over 130 million women and children in Uttar Pradesh. She also created several programmes for fighting violence against women & enhancing Gender Equality.
Here are a few of the programmes:
Vikalp – India’s first police portal for reporting Violence Against Women (VAW), which helped women get easy access to the justice delivery system. Vikalp ensured over 97% police response to complaints registered.
Nav Chetna – A training module which carried out gender-sensitization of Law Enforcement officers, which was also recommended nationally to other states as a “Best Practice”. This training resulted in over 30% improvement in police knowledge of laws and procedures related to crimes against women and children. Most importantly, it changed the mindset and habits of police personnel and made them more gender-sensitive.
Akshaya – A self-defense and leadership training program for girls, which trained over 12,000 girls.
Citizen Cadet, a program that appointed women leaders in panchayats, self-help groups, and collectives, as special police officers, to help fight crimes like child marriage, domestic violence, etc. It’s very difficult for the police to be everywhere so these women could become their eyes and ears and help them in curbing crime, especially if it happened inside the homes.
Ru-Ba-Ru, a community policing program for increasing communications between the police and the youth.
She built successful Public-Private Partnerships with UNICEF, Action Aid, Plan India International, and other stakeholders in order to expand these interventions. In addition, she also led the state’s anti-human trafficking efforts and helped upgrade the capacity of 35 Anti-human trafficking units across U.P.
“Our work also focused extensively on the protection of children from evils like child marriage, child abuse, etc. I started 20 new child-friendly police stations and trained police officers in rescuing children and rehabilitating them.”
“MSP’s efforts were built from the bottom up and included not just women and children, but also involved the men in the fight for gender equality. I leveraged technology, mass media, citizen participation, community policing and in-house training to deliver a complete model for police transformation. From rescuing hundreds of women and children from trafficking to protecting thousands from domestic violence and helping them get justice, MSP’s work created breakthroughs in women and child empowerment in India’s largest state,” says Sutapa.
These interventions have been recognized by Govt. of India, the Govt. of UK, INTERPOL & US Department of State. She was invited to the UK by the British High Commission as part of an Indian Women Leaders Delegation to share these strategies for Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW). She also served as a member of the Govt. of India’s Micro Mission 7, which helps evolve policy recommendations for gender equality.
When asked about her biggest achievement, Sutapa says, “Starting Mahila Samman Prakoshth in Uttar Pradesh Police was my biggest achievement. It was a first of its kind police unit in the entire country because it implemented women security and empowerment measures that used technology, the human touch, and world-class practices.”
“I was able to help lakhs of women and children on issues like domestic violence, child marriage, harassment, etc. I particularly remember the case of a woman, whom we rescued from a situation of domestic violence, who went on to start a profitable enterprise. She became financially independent, was able to provide for her children and was extremely happy and grateful for our work.”
“We tackled many such cases, and even though it was unglamorous hard work, seeing women like her succeed made it all worth it! It was a matter of deep satisfaction to me that we were able to reduce the existing trust-deficit between the police and the citizens and help women see the police as a service-oriented friendly force. I wish more police units would follow these principles and truly help women come out of their toughest moments in life.”
She has been awarded the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Services, Police Medal for Long and Meritorious Service and ‘Lokmat Samman for Public Administration’ from the Hon. Chief Minister of U.P. Shri Yogi Adityanath, apart from several other awards and honours.
Gender Equality begins at home
Sutapa believes, like charity, gender equality also begins at home.
“The most important stakeholders are parents, who must treat their sons and daughters equally so that they, in turn, carry the message forward.”
“We must also stop giving false messages of “machoism” and stereotyped gender roles to our boys. It puts too much of an emotional baggage on them and makes them into insensitive men whichin turn becomes a threat to the women around them. It’s also important for teachers, employers, bosses everyone to change their attitude and mindset. Most importantly, I think women themselves need to stand up for their rights and empower themselves. Know your rights, ask for what you deserve and support each other in this fight for gender equality.”
Advice to Young Girls.
She believes Indian society is changing, and there are unprecedented opportunities for women today.
“Never before has so much opportunity been available – use it. Use your voice and talents as a woman and stay focused on what you desire. Be clear about your dreams. Most importantly reach out to women and role models who are already succeeding in the field you choose. Mentors can truly change your life and women must form a network of well-wishers around them. Remember, behind every successful woman is a group of people-her parents, children, partner, friends, bosses and other women who support her. Build your circle of support! Do not bother about the world if it judges you unfairly. Everything will fall into place as you move ahead towards your goal,” she says.
I totally subscribe to the legendary quote “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
“The only life lesson that I practice and spread to others is: Follow your own heart and everything else will fall into place. Women should trust their own instincts and discover their own power. Then nothing can stop you. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams and conquer every obstacle with hard work and faith. The world is full of opportunities-go ahead and claim them.”