Against all odds, TN women police march on
In 1973, Tamil Nadu floated a women’s wing in the police, until then an exclusive male bastion. File Photo: Wikimedia Commons

TN women police march on, 50 years after the first batch

With the women police force in Tamil Nadu set to celebrate its golden jubilee this year, The Federal takes a look at how the force evolved over the years, the portrayal of female cops in Tamil films, and the challenges ahead

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From the time when they first joined the police in Tamil Nadu 50 years ago, women have come a long way donning khaki in a state which now boasts of 222 all women police stations.

With 30 per cent of all posts reserved for women in the police, Tamil Nadu now has more than 20,000 women police officers and constabulary.

This wasn’t always the case. In a society where it was considered a shame for a man to step into a police station even to lodge a complaint, it was hard to think of a woman entering the premises, forget working for the force.

With the women police force in Tamil Nadu set to celebrate its golden jubilee this year, The Federal takes a look at how the force evolved over the years, the portrayal of female cops in Tamil films, and the challenges ahead.

Women breach bastion

It was in 1973 that the first barriers were broken for aspiring women cops in Tamil Nadu. The DMK, which gave a boost to inter-caste and “self-respect marriages” in its first term between 1967 and 1976, upended the perception that the public in general and women in particular had about police stations.

In 1973, the state floated a women’s wing in the police, until then an exclusive male bastion. The new journey began with a sub-inspector, a head constable and 20 constables.

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In one way or another, it was a dream of Periyar, the rationalist and founder of Dravidar Kazhagam, the parent body of DMK.

In 1929, during the Chengalpattu Self-Respect Movement Conference, Periyar passed a number of resolutions one of which stated that women should be included in departments like police and army. DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, who was five years old then, implemented Periyar’s idea in 1973, when he was the CM. 

Not the first 

Renowned Chennai historian V Sriram wrote in Madras Musings that the first proposal to recruit women in the Madras Police was made as early as in 1919. “That was when the city police were trying their best to eradicate prostitution. F Armitage, then Commissioner of Police Madras, was all for tightening laws and the Government of India went to the extent of suggesting that the Government of Madras hire women police personnel to tackle the issue. PC Moore, then IGP, concurred but nothing came out of the suggestion thereafter,” said Sriram. 

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It was to happen only half-a-century later.

Contrary to popular perception and to the claims of Dravidian politics supporters, Tamil Nadu was not the first state to bring women into the police force. The credit goes to Delhi and Punjab for allowing women into the police department in 1949.

“The Punjab Police Commission headed by Justice Mahajan, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, was appointed in 1961 to consider the recruitment of women into the police. This body sought the views of the state governments in 1961-62, and the then Chief Secretary and IGP of the ­Government of Madras declared in no uncertain terms that ­recruiting women into the police department would be most unwise. This perception, ­however, did not last long,” said Sriram.

Highs and firsts

In the years following the first recruits of 1973, women police in Tamil Nadu saw several highs and firsts. In 1976, Letika Saran and G Thilakavathi became the first women IPS officers from the Tamil Nadu cadre. While the former became the first women DGP of the state and the second in India in January 2010, the latter was promoted as DGP and became the chairperson of Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitment Board in June 2010. 

Thilakavathi, who is also a prolific writer, went on to win the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005 for her 2001 novel, Kal Maram.  

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The number of women police personnel was below 1,000 till 1989, when the government enforced 30 per cent reservation for women in the department, thus vastly expanding the intake. Today, Tamil Nadu has over 20,000 policewomen.

Where the state scores

This resulted in the state capturing the top place in having women at all levels — DGP, Additional DGP, IGP, DIG, AIGP/SSP/SP/Commandant, Additional SP/Deputy Commandant, Assistant SP/Deputy SP/Assistant Commandant, Inspector/Reserve Inspector, Sub-Inspector/RSI, ASI/ARSI, Head Constable as well as Constable, according to data provided in the Lok Sabha in 2022.

In 1992, Tamil Nadu became a pioneer by establishing an all-women police station. There are 222 such stations in the state now.

In 2003, the state formed a women police commando force, the first in the country. The next year, the state police formed an exclusive women battalion, another first in India.

Changing roles

Talking to The Federal, Thilakavathi said that when the women police force was started, the major duties assigned included providing protection to women, escorting women offenders, assisting male police during raids, controlling the crowds and offering protection in political meetings.

“Over the years, women police have come a long way. Now they are assigned to investigate high-profile cases,” she said.

“Compared to when only those who had passed SSLC were selected, graduates and post-graduates are recruited now. So, they get cases related to economic offences, vigilance and cyber frauds, where their role is chasing the documents instead of thugs,” she said.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. There have been complaints of sexual harassment from male seniors. Some have died by suicide due to work pressure. Women police personnel too have been caught in bribery cases. 

Women cops in Tamil films

Women police personnel have impacted Tamil cinema as well. According to Thilakavathi, they are portrayed as either heroes on par with male colleagues or thugs a la male criminals.

Actor Vijayashanthi’s cop roles in Telugu films that were dubbed into Tamil were a rage in the late 1980s and ’90s. Lakshmi, Gautami and Jyothika have aced tough cop roles, too. There have been bad cops as well — in Prabhu Deva starer Kadhalan (1994), Kavithashri sent a chill down the spine of the audience. 

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Some films have shown the problems faced by women cops, such as Miga Miga Avasaram (2019) and Writer (2021).

Producer-director Suresh Kamatchi’s Miga Miga Avasaram revealed the problems faced by women deployed in remote areas where there would be no shade to take shelter in, no privacy to pee and no place to lean back.

Suresh Kamatchi told The Federal that the government should provide only eight-hour duties to the women instead of round-the-clock shifts.

“The government can also show some mercy in their uniform. In Kerala and other states, the women police are allowed to wear churidars and even sarees,” he said. In Tamil Nadu, the women personnel wear trousers.

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