Shattering barriers In a freewheeling interview, Archana Ramasundaram, India’s first woman paramilitary force chief, busts a few myths, such as policing is only about muscle power.

At the SSB office in Delhi.
At the SSB office in Delhi.

She was initially reluctant to join the IPS, “being more interested in dance, dramatics, debates and didn’t fit the stereotype of a police officer, being neither athletic nor masculine.” But her father convinced her to take up the challenge, and today she holds the distinction of being the first woman IPS officer to head a paramilitary force — Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) — with a 78,000 strong force.

Meet Archana Ramasundaram, the 1980 batch IPS officer from Tamil Nadu cadre, whose most recent award was from India Today for being the “most inspirational woman of the year”.

At home with her dogs Leo and Simba.
At home with her dogs Leo and Simba.

Archana was born in Delhi and as her father joined the Rajasthan judicial service, she studied in Jaipur, getting her PG degree in English Literature and Economics from the University of Rajasthan. Along with the IPS, she also qualified for the Indian Economics and Statistical Service, and preferred the second, but on her father’s advice, reluctantly opted for the first. Finding herself the only woman in her batch at the National Police Academy “made me even more nervous, but my batch mates made me feel comfortable.”

I didn’t face any discrimination as a woman but gender bias is always there. For instance, as an SP I was allotted Nilgiris district, which is considered a “light district”.

Another shock was allotment of the Tamil Nadu cadre, a State “I had read about only in textbooks. I was very nervous, didn’t know the language and wanted to quit.” But she stayed on, and 36 years later, has evolved into one of the finest police officers TN has produced.


Early career

First posted to Madurai, she slowly learnt Tamil and liked the place and the people, “who showed so much respect for women”. In 1984 she married S Ramasundaram, an IAS officer. After a brief stint in Salem as ASP, on promotion as SP in 1985, she moved to Vellore. “To avoid family dislocation, I settled for a less important post as SP ­Prohibition Enforcement Wing (PEW), as our elder son was very young. At that time, my career took a backseat; this was the time my batch mates were in important district postings. This is the dilemma many working women face in the early phases of their career; they concentrate on family and children while their male colleagues consolidate career gains in important postings,” she says.

Lending a shoulder to a cadre killed by militants
Lending a shoulder to a cadre killed by militants

But the less coveted job of PEW gave her insight into the plight of women. “When I went for raids,
I found women being arrested just for being on the spot as they were wives of Prohibition offenders and couldn’t run away fast enough. I would set them free, ignoring the grumbling of my junior colleagues for bringing their statistics down. ‘Every time Amma comes for raid, we lose out a few cases,’ was the refrain.”

With children from the Northeast
With children from the Northeast

So surely it is the woman in the police officer who takes such decisions, I comment. “Maybe, partly it is gender, but it is something which any good human being would spot. Why should such women languish in prison just because they are married to those criminals? Our system is such that the women’s lot is linked with their husbands’.”


Gender blues

We next discuss the attitude of male police officers to their women colleagues, who were then too few in number in the IPS. Striking an introspective note, Archana says, “I didn’t face any discrimination as a woman, but gender bias is always there. As an SP, I was allotted Nilgiris, considered a “light district”. Now of course, things have changed as there are too many women in the service and they can no longer be ignored and hence have to be given important postings. Recently in Gaya (Bihar), a tough district where the SSB is deployed for tackling Left Wing Extremism (LWE), I found the SP is a woman! This wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago.”

With sons Pravir and Kartikeyan and husband S Ramasundaram at home
With sons Pravir and Kartikeyan and husband S Ramasundaram at home

So were they trying to be protective, I ask her. She responds firmly: “No, it’s the attitude that a woman cannot handle tough law and order situations. The belief is that at the cutting edge level, policing is all about muscle power. Of course some toughness is required, going by the violent nature of the agitations we face these days. I recently said in an interview that the police force is not a place for delicate darlings. But at the supervisory level, leadership qualities are required, and more than muscles, something inside has to be strong… courage and inner strength.”

In the police, we do need women who are physically fit but more than the muscles, it is something inside you that has to be strong… courage and inner strength.

After Nilgiris, she returned to Chennai; from 1989-91 the couple went on a two-year study leave to the US and she did a Masters in Science in Criminology from the University of Southern California. “There the focus, concept and treatment of
various ­subjects were very much different from ours and much more scientific.”

Receiving the degree Master of Science in Criminology in 1991 at the University of Southern California
Receiving the degree Master of Science in Criminology in 1991 at the University of Southern California

Important posts after return were SP, Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, and then a promotion to DIG Headquarters. To my comment on hers being a mixed career with varied postings, Archana quips: “Well, there is a less charitable explanation; women often opt for less important postings due to family reasons. Men prefer and get more coveted law and order postings which are considered more important due to prestige and paraphernalia.”


Glitter and salutes

The result is “as a woman you end up getting the worst deal; you are not in a limelight posting but slogging nevertheless!” She gives the example of her posting at the DIG Headquarters; “if you ask me did you do anything ­spectacular, I can’t pinpoint anything. But I worked very hard, the personnel welfare schemes took so much time, and I developed acute neck pain. They said aap purey waqt jhuki rehti hei (you are bent all the time) on the files! And you don’t get any recognition for such work. The system also exploits you. Don’t forget there is no paraphernalia at the Headquarters postings. And in police, paraphernalia is very important… You yourself took so many photos outside when we entered my office!”

Receiving an award as State topper in 1973
Receiving an award as State topper in 1973

And this office is an impressive, glittering edifice exuding power, with uniformed men in red and gold headgear saluting her smartly at the entrance to her room, a huge colourful red SSB flag, along with the flag of India, pictures of Archana greeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of India Pranab Mukherjee, and the rest of the “paraphernalia” she talks about!

Often, men corner the creamy law and order postings and as a woman you end up getting the worst deal; you are not in a limelight posting but slogging nevertheless.

Compared to that, she laughs, at her previous posting as DG, NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) “there were only few people in the office when I entered; even the CBI doesn’t have anything like this, which influences and impresses people! In law and order, you have both the opportunity and the capacity to help people, but in other jobs such as welfare training, you can’t dole out favours to anybody.”

As SP in Vellore
As SP in Vellore

Moving into a reflective mode, Archana adds, “Now that I am at this stage in my career — 36 years and about to retire — after five years my views will be more frank. But then we as women also choose these postings, because hamari apni majbooriya hoti hei… you don’t want to be summoned in the ­middle of the night, and because the children are young and need mother’s care.”

And often, out of sight becomes out of mind! She gives the instance when she remained at DIG Headquarters for two years. When she approached the DG requesting a posting to a range, he said, “But your husband is here! You are made to feel kaisi bekar aurat hei (useless woman), who wants to go away from her family! So I said it didn’t matter, I’d be away for a while but it would get on my CV. And he offered me a post as DIG CB-CID, but again the same catch was there.”

On duty as SSB chief
On duty as SSB chief

But she has also paid a price for not kowtowing to politicians. As DIG Vellore she was transferred in 1998, in less than a year, after a tiff with a local politician. When she was posted as DIG Civil Supplies, she told the DGP: “Sir, there are a lot of corrupt people there, I don’t know what to do. Give me DIG Training, which is falling vacant. He almost fell off his chair and said ‘Archana, for the first time somebody is asking for a training post.’ I’ve always liked training assignments.”


Good stint at CBI

Next came a rewarding posting as DIG in CBI in 1999, where she handled many good cases, including corporate frauds.

In 2002 she was promoted Joint Director in the CBI’s Economic Offences Wing, where she handled with distinction the infamous Telgi fake stamp paper fraud. “It was challenging work and I enjoyed it; we were able to expose that racket. It was an excellent seven-year period from 1999–2006 and I remember the names of each and every person in my team,” she beams.

receiving the India Today award from Hema Malini
receiving the India Today award from Hema Malini

In February 2014, she was posted as Additional Director of CBI, but the TN government wouldn’t relieve her. She joined the post in May 2014, only to face disciplinary action and suspension, which were set aside by the Central Government and the courts, “but the scars remain”. Archana remembers this as a battle in which she suffered professionally, emotionally and also financially. Asked to comment, she says, “I wish this chapter in my life wasn’t there. Unfortunately, I became a victim of misunderstanding. Life is a mixed bag, and looking back, I often face turbulence, but have now reached a point where I’ve accepted that life is not always fair, and once you reconcile to this reality, it becomes a lot easier.”

SSB stint

In February 2016, Archana became the DG of the Sashastra Seema Bal, earlier known as the Special Service Bureau. A unique organisation started in 1963, it’s a 78,000-strong force, having grown from just 25 battalions in 2001 to 67 now. With six frontiers and seven States (Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim) under it, SSB guards the Nepal and Bhutan borders.

In law and order, you have both the opportunity and the capacity to help people, but in other jobs such as welfare training, you can’t dole out favours to anybody.

“It is a tough but interesting assignment,” she says. SSB tackles trans-border crimes such as human trafficking and narcotics and smuggling of wildlife and forest products. SSB has its own informal intelligence system; both authorised and unauthorised routes are used for movement; “and as these are friendly neighbours, we have to exercise restraint.”

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The SSB has 634 border outposts or workstations, and she has initiated a special training programme for the jawans “who are posted at these far flung areas and their welfare is our priority. I’ve set up a cell in my office to monitor redressal of their grievances.” Recently SSB signed an MoU with the National Skill Development Corporation for better skilling of jawans and their families. “The families bond with me very well as for the first time, the DG and President of the SSB Wives Welfare Association is the same person!”


SSB is engaged in LWE areas too, and also does counter-insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and recently a picture of hers lending a shoulder to the coffin of one of her cadres killed by militants in the State, was widely carried in the media. But what she loves most about her present job is organising civic action programmes, “which has become our USP. We have a budget for welfare, and we do medical camps, training, and other activities as confidence building measures.”

Recently SSB rescued 533 victims of human trafficking and child labour. “We work with NGOs, and if they are found in areas of our jurisdiction, we rescue them.” As Additional DG, Crime Branch, CID in Tamil Nadu, human trafficking was her passion, and she set up anti-human ­trafficking units in the State. Child rights is another area of interest and she hopes to work in it after retirement.

Paying homage to the martyrs on Martyrs' Day in Ooty.
Paying homage to the martyrs on Martyrs’ Day in Ooty.

She is grateful to the Central government for this “wonderful opportunity to head one of India’s finest paramilitary forces. However, I believe that this posting was less due to my gender and more due to my seniority and outstanding track record.”

At the end of the day, she says “it feels great to have broken a glass ceiling and in a way facilitating my junior women IPS colleagues to reach such positions in the future.”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat & Special arrangement

At a glance

Preparing pongal for the harvest festival.
Preparing pongal for the harvest festival.

Fitness: Would like to be fitter than I am. I do yoga for 30–45 minutes and do walking.

 Music: I am fond of music, but Indian music, halka phulka, hamarey zamane key Hindi songs.

Movies: Watch very few; my all-time favourite movie is Teesri Kasam. It was not well recognised, but is the story of most of us. Each frame of that film was classic.

 I like to cook when I get time, but knitting and embroidery, I simply can’t do!

 Food: I am a vegetarian and eat simple food… daal-roti. Am fond of potatoes which is not good for fitness!

 Cooking: I can manage, but don’t cook at home; my father was in service too, so we always had staff at home. But when I was in America for two years, I cooked. I like to cook when I get time, but knitting and embroidery I simply can’t do! I’ve told my husband when I retire, I’ll cook a different dish each day, and he looked a little scared!

 Reading: Love non-fiction, historical stuff, but don’t get time to read. We have a huge collection waiting to be read once I retire.

 Women police officers today

Things have improved; today’s junior women IPS officers are much more confident. Women ‘adjusting’ to the system is no longer there. They want the system to adjust to them! Feels good. Since their numbers are growing, no system will be able to ignore women for important positions, and then their merit will take them forward irrespective of gender.

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