Last week, Kerala police detained a theatre professional and a male friend for eight hours after finding them riding a two-wheeler late in the night. It was the latest in a series of such incidents that has earned the cops criticism for moral policing. Friends and even married couples have faced such humiliating experiences in a state that has one of the highest literacy rates in the country, and where constables usually boast higher qualifications than the mandatory class XII.
A month earlier, a TV channel showed Kochi police demanding money from young men and women travelling together on two-wheelers. The police were found stopping riders on the pretext of vehicle inspection and blackmailing them saying they would inform the parents of the girl.
And last year, police in Alappuzha arrested a man and a woman from the beach. They felt that the couple were causing a public nuisance, and suspected “immoral activity” as the woman was not wearing any accessories to suggest that she was married.
For the latest incident, theatre performer Hima Shankar and Sreeram Ramesh, an associate cameraman, have moved a complaint with the Police Complaint Authority “to ensure a man and a woman their right to move together”. Four personnel with Kollam East police station, who allegedly insulted the two, were transferred.
“I am not asking for suspension of the policemen involved, but for a change in the behaviour of the police force,” says Hima Shankar.
Riding the two-wheeler from Kollam to the state capital, she and Ramesh were waylaid twice, first by a policeman on night duty. “He first tried to take the key of the vehicle. When we resisted and showed him our vehicle papers, we were allowed to go,” says Ramesh.
Less than a kilometre ahead, a second police team confronted the riders.“When we told them that we had been stopped by the police a short while earlier and questioned the ground for another inspection, one of them told us that many more such inspections were awaiting us,’’ Ramesh says.
The policemen allegedly asked Hima Shankar whether she had informed her parents about the late-night trip and if her parents knew about the man she was riding with. Ramesh says the policemen asked him for his father’s mobile number, and called the latter to verify the son’s version. “My father informed the police that we had just begun the journey from home after dinner and were on our way to Thiruvananthapuram. However, the policemen told him that we were being taken to the police station as we had been found under suspicious circumstances.”
Hima Shankar says the policemen sought the numbers of her parents too. “I did not want to give them the numbers. I am an independent woman. My parents have given me freedom.”
She insisted on the presence of a woman cop and the police got one from a nearby station. Around 12.30 am, they were taken to Kollam East police station. Although Ramesh’s father came to the station, they were detained until the morning.
By Hima Shankar’s account, the policemen were looking at her the way someone would look at a woman of loose morals. Both she and Ramesh say the policemen also passed lewd remarks.
“I am fighting for a woman’s right to travel with freedom. She has every right to travel along with a person of her choice. She has the right to love a person of her choice. Such rights cannot be denied because of the pseudo-morality of policemen,’’ she says.
State Police Complaint Authority member P Muraleedharan, a retired judge, says there was no reason for the police to detain them. “It showed the arrogance of policemen. They were bona fide travellers who should not have been taken into custody. Police should not use abusive words when a man and a woman travel together; the policemen need to correct their behaviour.”
The authority has sought an explanation from Kollam city police commissioner Dabesh Kumar Behra.