Wonder Woman - Aruna Bahuguna talks with You & I

Aruna Bahuguna is the first female director of the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA). The 1979-batch IPS officer graciously welcomed us into her office, amidst a busy day at the academy’s sprawling campus. Her soft-spoken and unassuming nature makes one believe that power need not be synonymous with being loud.

Tell us about how your police career has developed.
I joined in 1979. I was straight out of college so didn’t have any work experience, and was the only girl in my batch. I joined the service to work with the underprivileged, and I thought this was the perfect field to be in to make a difference. My very first posting was in Madanpally. It was a great opportunity because the area is in Rayalseema, which wasn’t very developed, so there was a lot of disparity in class and caste. And because of the poverty, so many people were driven to things like crime, prostitution and child labour. I was in the State then in the Centre, and before coming here I was in the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) where I worked in the northeast and Naxal-affected areas like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where circumstances drive people into undesirable activities. It has been a very satisfying journey because of the direct impact I’ve been able to make on people’s lives.

You must have been a minority as a woman, both in the workforce in general, and especially in the police. How did you break the glass ceiling to become successful?  
I was the only girl in my batch, the first in the state of Andhra Pradesh (undivided). Coming from an exclusive girl’s school and women’s college, it was a great challenge to be constantly surrounded by male colleagues and subordinates in the department, as the only woman on the team, because their thinking and attitude was very different. During the course of my career most times men were encouraging and very supportive but it was normal to come across the oddball who would be hostile and pass negative comments. For instance, when I took maternity leave twice, I received a lot of flak for taking time off. Later as my children were growing up, during difficult times, I was at the receiving end of hurtful and spiteful comments, that working mothers neglect their children. I learnt to shrug off such remarks as I realised I was working in a generation of men who were not used to working women and probably could not adjust to gender equality or women performing the same job as them. However, I realised I had to do what I had to do. I had to provide for my children, be strong and keep going even amidst the negativity.

Has being a woman in your field worked in your favour in any way?
It has definitely worked in my favour. The image of the police in the public eye has been so poor, and the picture people have of the police force is inhuman or very hard-hearted, not compassionate. Being a woman in this environment has helped because people saw me as more approachable, and would come and talk to me about their problems, personal or professional. When there are women in the group, the behaviour of the men also changes. In the CRPF, I found that whenever there was a woman in an operation, men would behave much better; their language would be more civil, and it reflects in even how they are with the public. Their whole attitude is different.

What are the most important skills that helped you become successful?
To a large extent, being straightforward has worked for me. I never got into any political groups; I stayed neutral. I was a loner and never really had any support or lobby pushing for me, and I think people saw me for what I was and not as part of any bigger group or clique.

You are a role model for boys and girls alike, but probably more so for women, who are often under pressure to give up their careers once they get married. What would you tell them?
It is very important for women to realise that they should have a career even after they get married and have children. Yes, women are homemakers and play an important role at home and keeping the family together. But when you have a career, there is some satisfaction beyond this that is truly your own. A career woman will also be able to contribute to the house, and this not only helps the family but helps children to have correct attitudes towards women. When they see their mother in society working with other men, their attitude towards women is also more respectful. It is important for women not to feel guilty when they are working; not only are they contributing to their families, but also to society on a macro level.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I play the piano, I used to be an active theatre actor and I play golf. Also, I am part of a choir and poetry society, and a member of the Sarvodhaya trust, which propagates ideals of Mahatma Gandhi.

What message would you like to share with the youth of India this Independence Day?
It is important for the youth to use their education and increased awareness to overcome the prejudices our forefathers had, like gender, caste and class. If we can get over this and work in a united way, we can truly go places as a nation.                         – as told to Suneela