On December 16, 2012, India woke up to its most haunting case of sexual assault. Going down in the darkest pages in the history of independent India, the assault- which resulted in the death of the victim – came to be known as ‘Nirbhaya’ case. For the past six years, the memory of this case has been kept alive for lighting the fire of protests worldwide and starting a conversation about women’s safety.
The investigation, which successfully nabbed all six culprits in the case in less than a week, also got a lot of media attention, as did the IPS officer who was in charge. Chhaya Sharma, who was DCP South Delhi at the time, has won the nation’s respect for her integrity in pursuing a case of such heinous nature diligently. The world took notice of Sharma as well. Recently, she won the Asia Society Game Changer award which honours leaders who are making a positive contribution to the future of Asia.
She is also the first Indian police officer to receive the McCain Award for Courage and Leadership in Solving Humanitarian and Societal issues, by the Arizona State University, US. The Economics graduate, from 1999 batch of Indian Police Service (IPS), has earlier led investigations in PNL Nidhi Chennai scam and Delhi Defence Colony bank van heist among other cases. Recently, Netflix released an original series, Delhi Crime, based on the investigation on Nirbhaya case, in which veteran actor Shefali Shah starred in Sharma’s role.
Putting justice in its place
“Six years down the lane, I am happy I can tell Nirbhaya’s mother that I have done what I had promised. But at that point of time, it was very difficult,” Sharma said while speaking at MAKERSIndia launch in New Delhi a few days ago. Looking back, she said the first 18 hours before tracking the bus and the first culprit was a hellish experience.
Sharma was informed of the case at 2.10am, after the victims were found by the police post-midnight. “I had told my team that for any cases which involve women and children, they are to call me however late at night it is. After I heard of this case, I was at the hospital within 30 minutes. Once I spoke to the victims, I realised that this was one of the worst cases I would handle,” she recollects.
As the perpetrators were unknown to the victims, it was hard for the investigators to connect the two. “It’s like a needle in a haystack situation. In the first 18 hours, we had to get the right team together and file the FIR to get the ball rolling. But victims often tend to clam up and may not talk to you. We were in a race against time, while the victim’s parents were also looking at us as the last hope.”
Everything Sharma had learnt from 12 years of work experience went into the Nirbhaya case; but she says it was team work that won the case. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) of 40 members, headed by Sharma, had the right skills and networks to solve the case. Even though the law allows 90 days to finish a case, there was too much pressure on the police to close this one at the earliest. Keeping up the motivation to continue work till the culprits are caught, the team together managed to nab all the six criminals in just five days.
A life-changing case
Sharma also recounted meeting the Nirbhaya victim at the hospital as a life-changing moment for her. “She smiled at me, and said she is happy that I was taking the case, as she had seen me on TV. She told me to catch them all, and that she would absolutely cooperate. Despite going through so much trauma, she was enthusiastic and courageous, and left an excellent statement that helped us with investigation. It became her dying declaration later.”
As the case progressed, there were mounting pressure on Sharma and her team from media, former batch mates, and even judges from other states. In the end, the DNA evidence sealed the fate of the convicts.
“If Nirbhaya is looking from above, I think she should be smiling and saying, ‘yes, you did your job,’” Sharma said with a teary smile.
New role, new responsibilities
For four years now, Chhaya Sharma has been the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) at the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC). She is heading the Investigations Division which comprises officers from BSF, Delhi Police, and other organisations, as well as a few judges.
In this position, Sharma says that she gets to understand the judges’ thought process and their perception of police. The victim-centric work, Sharma affirms, will give a different perspective when she goes back to policing duties.
The NHRC receives complaints on issues including death is encounter, judicial custody, accidents due to potholes or electrocution, etc. The complainants are mostly people who have already been to the police but feel that their grievance has not been addresses properly, or are facing apathy from the State – like anganwadi workers not getting their salaries, or schools not giving admissions to children from vulnerable backgrounds. The NHRC, which gives pan-India jurisdiction, is often the last resort for them.
“Putting the smile back on their face is immensely satisfying,” says Sharma.
As part of the MAKERSIndia launch, Sharma took an oath as well: “I pledge to make the police more sensitive towards women’s issues and make them more professional, so that their work ethics and deliverables improve too.”