Just four-and-a-half months into her role as SP of Jogulamba Gadwal district in Telangana, Rema Rajeshwari has proved her worth by successfully tackling the issue of crimes due to fake WhatsApp forwards and social media rumours. While this is her most recent success story, the list of her achievements is quite long. A champion of gender sensitivity in the police force and an inspiration for girls in Telangana, Rajeshwari is also the first female IPS officer from Munnar.

“SHOCKING” SOCIAL MEDIA CRIMES

In an exclusive conversation with SheThePeople.TV, Rajeshwari spoke about the new form of social media crimes, how she sensitizes male police officers, taking charge of close to 400 villages and much more.

Talking about how she first came to know about the fake forward terror in villages, she recalled, “Initially, I heard that people were scared to sleep outside their houses in the night and that was shocking for us because this was never a law enforcement challenge in the past. We never heard about people getting anxious about something they saw in a WhatsApp group or a Facebook page and the scale of the issue was very serious.”

It is a routine for people in the villages to sleep on their terraces or in the verandah because of the cool environment at night, especially during summers.

“I was reviewing these districts as the SP for the first time and while I have served in troublesome districts, sensitive districts and even served in the largest districts of the state, we had different set of law-enforcement challenges there like political agitation or communal issues etc. But the issue in the villages of Jogulamba Gadwal district was completely different. So we started awareness campaigns and outreach programs but the first week was not easy for us.”

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED?

Rajeshwari came to know about the issue on 27 March during one of her review meetings. A police officer told her he found during a community outreach campaign that people of six villages were in a state of alarm. She then formed teams of police officers and sent them back to more villages, who then came back with similar instances from over 30 villages. Villagers everywhere were basically afraid of some gruesome videos they watched on WhatsApp and one voice message that warned them to take certain precautions to be safe as a criminal gang was on the prowl.

“This was more like a self-imposed curfew,” said Rajeshwari, adding that until then the rumours of a child-kidnapping gang had not reached the villages. There were videos that showed a man surrounded by several people and another man putting his hand inside that man’s organs with blood oozing out.

DOOR-TO-DOOR CAMPAIGN

To tackle this problem of horrific forward messages and videos, she said, “We collected samples of these messages, videos and images from almost all the villages. I put up a team of four constables who are tech-savvy. They sat through the day and analysed these pictures and videos. The videos were quite realistic but two videos weren’t from India at all. We reached the conclusion that by and large those images and videos were morphed.

So in the first phase of the campaign, we went door-to-door telling people not to believe in the rumours and if they still feared something or were suspicious of strangers entering their village, then they should inform us and not take law and order into their own hands. Because these forwards had made people move around in anxious groups and some of them formed themselves into village volunteer forces. They were wielding sticks and patrolling on their own. And we couldn’t have encouraged that kind of a practice.”

Rajeshwari’s teams went over to people’s houses, agricultural fields, women’s centres, anganwadis, schools, colleges and possibly everywhere they could find people. Amidst this, another set of messages went viral. They were the infamous forwards of a child-kidnapping gang on the prowl.

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SECOND PHASE OF CAMPAIGN

“That really worsened the situation. We were taken aback because we were hearing about this for the first time in South India. This was the time we had to intensify our campaign in the second phase. We employed the local drummers or dappu artistes who go around beating drums and gather a crowd to convey a message. We taught these dappu artistes to give out a message in one minute.

We wrote the number of the local sub-inspector on that wall of every village’s Gram Panchayat building. Police personnel also exchanged their numbers with the villagers. Then we rented auto rickshaws and fitted them with a public address system and put up a banner in the front, saying “Say no to fake news” etc.,”.”

Her team incorporated all these measures in April, which is when lynching incidents started happening in other parts of Telangana.

IPS Rema Rajeshwari
Rema Rajeshwari during an outreach program (Pic by Yahoo News)

During this same time she also came across a real child kidnapping incident in Kottakota in Wanaparthy district, which she holds additional charge of. The IPS was able to solve the case in 18 hours and rescued the tribal boy who was on a train to Pune with the accused. She then highlighted this incident in her campaigns to gain the public’s trust in the force.

By May and June, several incidents of lynching because of fake forwards started doing the rounds across the country. And while Rajeshwari’s districts did not have any case of lynching, there were at least 13 cases where people were restrained, folk singers were locked up in gram panchayat office etc, people taking advantage of the situation and forwarding images of their enemies as child-kidnappers.

However in the last four months, Rajeshwari has been successful in building trust between the villagers and the police in her districts and bringing down the number of crimes happening because of social media. In the latest survey that she did 10 days ago, Rajeshwari found that now people are not forwarding these messages anymore. “Even if they receive a video, they know that they should not forward it but bring it to the police station. We have managed to bring in awareness but when it comes to regulating the content which is circulated digitally, we find it extremely difficult,” said Rajeshwari.

‘MAKE SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTABLE’

Talking about making social media platform accountable, she said, “When we start investigation in a cyber crime happening on Facebook, we write to them and request them to take it off and even though it takes time, it does respond and take down the content or block the user.”

But when it comes to inflammatory content circulating on WhatsApp group, whom do we talk to? I can only tell the citizen to not believe in them but what if these messages keep coming? How do we know if a message is true or not? Now WhatsApp has started tagging messages with a ‘forwarded’ label. Also, they said that they are going to limit the number of forwards a person can send in a day. Law enforcement does require some help from digital platforms where they can help us in building up a case, otherwise all these cases will end with acquittals.”

LESS THAN 10% WOMEN IN FORCE

A true believer in equality, Rajeshwari wants to see more women officers in the police and has some compelling perspective on it. “We need more women in the forces because if you look at the ratio even today, it is less than 10%. I completely welcome the step announced by the Home Minister to bringing in 33% women in the forces, but at the same time if you are not making the efforts to make the job appealing to these women, then not many women will come forward. If you look at people’s perception of police officers, particularly women police officers, it is very bad because of our representation in Bollywood and all the regional cinema. The way media projects police officers is that they are manly, overly aggressive etc. which acts as a deterrent for many women to come forward and join the forces.”

She said society often projects that if a  woman joins the security force, then she won’t find the right man for herself. Secondly, people say that because of the job profile, we can’t have a family or children. “These are mere misconceptions because we have all the govt. benefits like maternity leaves, childcare facility, gender sensitive infrastructure. So my contention is that merely announcing reservations is not sufficient,” she said.

SENSITIZING THE FORCE

Rajeshwari has also incorporated many changes during her time in the police force. She talks to a lot of male police personnel on how to talk to sexual violence survivors and also on increasing the percentage of women police officers. She stated, “Of late there are some efforts on the part of different police organizations to give sensitivity training as part of basic police training. But at the end of the day, people who are joining the police force come from the same society which reinforces the idea of patriarchy. So there are certain prejudices that comes with the police officers who join the force. So police trainings must have some methods to help the officers get rid of these prejudices.”

“We trained constables for six months and the result was amazing. They ended up performing well, had re-energized confidence in the community and citizens wanted to talk to those constables more than any other. This was the professional transformation. But personally, most of them ended up cooking at home and helping their partners in household chores” – IPS Rema Rajeshwari

“I did an experiment last year when I was SP of Mehbubnagar district. I took the help of a Delhi-based NGO and conducted a gender sensitivity program called Gender Peace program. We carefully selected 30 constables who were sensitive, empathetic and positive about learning new things. We trained them for six months and the result was amazing.,” Rajeshwari added.

She maintains that it is the duty of police stations to sensitize officers against common prejudices in society.  She also runs campaigns such as Saving Child Brides, Child Laborers’ Rescue, SHE Teams, Legal Literacy for Underprivileged Rural Women, and Rehabilitation of Joginis for girls who forcefully enter prostitution.

Officers like Rajeshwari are a true inspiration.

Picture credit- Indiatimes

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