Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bangalore Couples Turn to Cops for Counseling

As the three stars with a red-and-blue ribbon on his shoulder strap will tell you, M.L. Purushotham is a police inspector. But here’s his unofficial job description: redeemer of relationships and savior of marriages.

The description fits not just the inspector at the Yeshwantpur police station in west Bangalore but many of his fellow police officers in the city.

Meet a couple whose liaison the police inspector tried to salvage. She is from the eastern state of Orissa, and he from southern Tamil Nadu, both in their 20s, well-educated and working for different multinationals. The woman walked into the police station first.

They fell madly in love and moved in together, she said. After nine months of cohabiting, they were breaking up on the insistence of the man’s traditional parents. She wished to marry, but he was resisting. The woman asked to file a criminal complaint against him for cheating her by using marriage as a ruse.

As tumultuous societal changes transform Bangalore, many young, middle-class Indians are struggling to cope. They arrive in the city for work and live away from their families. Unmoored and besieged, many are taking their problems to the only symbol of authority that is accessible 24/7: the police.

In the good old days, a police officer’s job was to solve crimes and maintain law and order in the neighborhood, said BNS Reddy, a joint commissioner of police in Bangalore. No longer. An incessant rush of confused youngsters, squabbling lovers and bickering spouses at the 100-odd police stations in Bangalore has unwittingly turned officers into relationship advisers and marriage mediators.

“There is material for many, many Ph.D theses in these complaints that come to our police stations,” said Mr. Reddy.

Mr. Reddy enumerated the reasons for this surge: urban life is transforming and young people want to assert their independence. Women are financially stable and marital equations are changing. Partners’ expectations of each other are sky-high.

A working woman in her early 30s recently walked into his office to complain that her husband was abusive and cruel. Her husband came later and complained that she smoked, drank and partied. He insisted that she be a “traditional wife.” A few conversations later, Mr. Reddy got the couple to see that they had been smoking, drinking and partying together for many months before marrying. “They needed to adjust to the marriage and to each other,” he said.

The deluge at the police stations could stem from the woeful lack of counseling and mediation services in Bangalore.

It could also be ignorance. Of the many youngsters with issues, only a fraction seeks professional support, said Deepa Dasgupta, a counselor. “Some don’t know they can get help; others don’t know who to turn to,” said Ms. Dasgupta, who works with companies and counsels their stressed-out employees.

There is also the stigma attached to counseling, especially among the lower socio-economic strata, said Sridhar Ramanujam, a branding professional who is also a part-time volunteer at Vishwas, a free counseling service based in Bangalore. “If you say you are seeing a counselor, some immediately conclude that you must be mentally ill,” said Mr. Ramanujam.

The more serious abuse and domestic violence cases that arrive at the police are routed, as per protocol, to Vishwas and others for counseling.

Still, a steady line of the young and unhappy stream in with seemingly frivolous cases that are clearly outside police ambit, said officers. One man complained that his wife spent a lot of time in the toilet with her cellphone. Was she having an extra-marital affair, he wanted to know. A woman came to the police station saying her workaholic husband returned from office and switched on the TV. She wanted the police to get him to have a conversation with her.

Another griped that her husband invited friends over all the time and she was expected to put food on the table. A newly-wed man said his wife’s mother was constantly calling her daughter and interfering in the relationship.

“Our training teaches us how to put up cases, how to find evidence, how to set the law in motion, but no police academy can prepare you for this,” said S. Badarinath, an inspector at the Cubbon Park police station in downtown Bangalore.

To add to the stress, the young and restless generation expects instant, dramatic results when they walk into police stations. “They think we can create magic, police magic,” said Mr. Reddy, the senior police official.

Often, registering a complaint could be the easy way out. “But we constantly educate young people that a complaint and an ensuing arrest could ruin any chance of a patch-up,” he said. “The relationship would be as good as finished right there.”

In the case of the live-in Orissa-Tamil Nadu couple, however, the police could not cajole the man to marry his girlfriend. It took the woman many weeks to realize that a marriage held under the threat of a criminal complaint would not work anyway.

But when issues do get resolved, there is enormous job satisfaction in helping sort young people’s lives, said Anjumala Nayak, an inspector at an all-women police station in central Bangalore. “People waylay me in public events sometimes,” she said. “I may not even remember them, and they thank me for saving their marriages.”

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