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Suspicious Women

I am in a cramped office space somewhere in a commercial complex in North Delhi. There is no company or person’s name mentioned outside. I am huddled over a laptop screen to watch surveillance footage. The image is shaky and unclear but I know right away that the young couple standing by the motorcycle are important. I see them hold hands and talk candidly. They seem to be oblivious of the camera’s presence. The camera then pans to the number plate of the motorcycle and the video ends abruptly. I am told that a woman, who probably looked like a harmless bystander to the couple, was in fact a private investigator with a keychain camera in her hand. This was damning evidence, enough to close the case. I am not told any further details about it since the privacy of the client has to be safeguarded.

This interaction took place during a research project, when I met with a number of women private detectives in New Delhi. Most of them were business owners with some field experience, and a few were exclusively field investigators. It was around the time when privacy had just been given the status of a fundamental right in India. Our conversations focused on the business of private investigation (PI) and the role of women in it. The lines of legality and ethics appear blurred since the PI business has continued to grow as an unorganised industry in India.

Women are said to be uniquely suited to this line of work. It helps that a professional qualification is not required to get a job. All you need is a quick wit and a great amount of patience. In addition, women PIs often use gender stereotypes to their advantage. One responder said, “In today’s times, both men and women find it easy to open up to women because they trust women more than men. So we benefit from that.” She continued, “When we go for an investigation, we try to create a scenario where the person we are trying to get information from gets emotionally invested in our problem and wants to help. I can walk into any space, taking advantage of the fact that a man will not be rude to me, and will not suspect me right away.” Another responder added, “If women are homemakers, they have a habit of suspecting. That is an asset in our profession because without suspicions, investigation cannot happen.”

PIs need to use different names, made-up professions, wigs, wardrobes, fake visiting cards, etc. but surveillance is not a glamorous job by any measure. It can involve activities like waiting around a street corner for days on end, chatting up domestic workers and security guards, following someone on foot or on a bike in crowded areas, lying your way in and out of tricky situations, thinking on your feet and being ready to escape at a moment’s notice. The danger of getting caught by either the subject of the investigation or even the authorities is something they have to live with. “When we leave, we are slow and careful so we can make sure that we are not being followed. Of course there is fear – I can’t say there is no fear – because it is very tough answering questions if you are trapped. We don’t keep any real IDs. What if I shoot a video and then the subject asks us to show them our phone? We are trapped. It’s just that over time we get used to this fear because it is a part of our profession.” Ensuring safety for women on this job can be challenging in certain situations. In those instances, they generally enlist a male colleague to accompany them or stand by at a safe distance.

The job of the PI is limited to handing over the evidence to the client. After that it is up to the client to hand it over to the police or use it as they please. Though there is the risk of the evidence being misused, the PIs believe that they always side with the truth. They see themselves as doing the work of the police, and that too without any respect or authority attached to it. “People blindly pay 15-20 lakhs to anyone to get admission in MBBS. They hand over the money in cash, and then they come to us saying that person took the money, did not get the admission done and now we can’t find him. They cannot go to the police because the police will say we don’t take up such small cases. Our limitation is that we can only find the man and tell the client his location. We cannot recover the money for him – that part is the police’s job. The police have a huge role to play but it is not able to perform it, and if we try to help, the government and people tell us that we are doing illegal things.” Another responder said, “If we had the authority, it is possible that the crime rate goes down. Solving personal matters amicably can affect the rate of crime. If we find a suspect, we hesitate in going to the police, but if we were able to be open about our work, that hesitation would go away. That would make a difference, because in other countries, all PIs have licenses whereas in India we have nothing.”

PIs do enjoy a good relationship with lawyers, who often hire them to gather evidence. The evidence has to be acquired in an ethical manner or it is not admissible in court. ‘Ethical’ is used subjectively here. After talking with several business owners, I came to understand that since they do not run a legal business, only a few things are off limits – such as obtaining call records, which is illegal. “If I wanted, I could have sourced call records in that case unethically – I could have got addresses also, it would have made my job easier – but that is not possible for us because we work ethically. If we look at a divorce case, all the evidence we gather will be legally valid and is meant to be for legal submission.”

“India is not what it was 20 years ago. We get to see every day how ugly life has become with new technologies, how lying has become so easy…but so has getting caught!” On asking about the keychain camera, which looked just like any other keychain, I am asked to visit a spy-gadget vendor in the area. This store has huge signboards outside and a large display window of cameras. When I walk up to the counter, I am unimpressed and a bit confused. I see shelves against the wall with rows of hand wash dispensers, lens cleaning fluid bottles, phone chargers, medicine bottles, a couple of soft toys, and a selection of other such random items. It is only when I speak to the gentleman at the counter that it all starts to make sense. “We are like a doctor’s office. You tell us what your problem is and we can hand you a solution, custom made to serve your needs. We can convert any household item into a camera for you.”

Looking at the wide range of available products, and the unlimited possibilities of custom-made spy cameras that are now easily accessible, one can quickly become consumed by paranoia. There are abundant examples of the misuse of spy gadgets, especially against women, in India and around the world. With power comes responsibility, but in this case the responsibility lies precariously between the sellers and consumers. Even though the business owner informed me that they do not sell any products without proper vetting of the customer, he also operates an online store on which it can be challenging to ascertain the intentions of the buyer. “When you go to a knife store, you buy a knife from someone who has a permit to sell it to you. Just like that I sell cameras and I am allowed to do it. What you do with the knife – chop vegetables or something else – is not in my hands.”

The common perception of the PI business is that it relates to background checks, particularly in matrimonial cases. In fact it is corporate espionage, often involving international clients, financial frauds, and HR background checks for private companies that contribute significantly to its revenue stream. Divorce cases and individuals seeking surveillance on cheating spouses (collectively known as post-matrimonial cases) also bring in a lot of business. A new trend in the industry involves parents looking to keep a check on their teenage children. “Nowadays both parents tend to be working, too busy with their lives to be able to keep an eye on their children. When they doubt that something is up, that’s when they come to us. Drugs and affairs. Cases involving homosexuality have become very common nowadays, mostly in pre-matrimonial cases. People want to know if the person is gay. We can tell by their body language and their friend circle. We cannot prove 100% what they are doing in private, but we do get an idea about the person.”

In this age of surveillance, for the sake of convenience/safety/communication, nothing is sacred anymore. Our lives are exposed, and wholly accessible to whoever is willing to pay a price for it. What keeps these women detectives going is their faith in the value of the work. They believe that people come to them only when the situation is very bad, and that they are often someone’s last ray of hope. A young field investigator speaks up, “Girls my age get fooled so easily by men. The husband will abandon her, or she will find out that he was already married. These cases are very common. With what I have learnt on this job, no one can fool me.” After a pause, she adds with a smirk, “If they do, they would have had to work very hard to do it.”

Cover Photo: Pixabay

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Article written by:

Surbhi is an independent documentary film director, writer & producer. Her films connect personal portraits to larger socio-political landscapes. Themes of migration, gender and conflict feature prominently in all of her work. Surbhi has produced award-winning content for various clients with her New Delhi-based production company, Painted Tree Pictures. She is a member of the International Association of Women in Radio & Television, India chapter.

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