Home Opinion Police violence makes migrant labourers forget caste, bond economically & politically: Study

Police violence makes migrant labourers forget caste, bond economically & politically: Study

US-based researcher's survey of migrant workers in Lucknow finds that police repression induces new forms of solidarities rooted in shared experiences.

Workers in Bangladesh
Representational image | Photo: Jeff Holt | Bloomberg

Does police repression spark or quell everyday cooperation within frequently repressed poor urban communities? Are repression’s effects limited to particular forms of cooperation, or restricted by social and economic divisions within these communities?

Scholars have focused on how policing of civil disobedience and protests affects public willingness to support fellow citizens in such exceptional collective action against the state. Fewer have considered how routine police violence impacts patterns of everyday cooperation within frequently repressed communities. Scholars of US politics have worked to reverse the neglect of everyday policing of frequently repressed poor urban minorities, whose members often view the police as ‘the only government I know’.

This paper studies how police violence shapes cooperation within one frequently repressed population across cities of the global south: poor seasonal migrants from the countryside. The informal conditions in which migrants typically live and work expose them to levels of everyday repression they rarely experience in the village.

How might negative encounters with police affect the willingness of migrants to cooperate with one another? Some studies of policing during protests find repression can increases citizen willingness to support protesters by generating moral outrage and sympathy, or creating strategic incentives for them to band together. Conversely, other studies find police repression can fracture repressed communities by eroding trust and instilling fear within them. Extending this debate to the realm of everyday policing, we might ask whether routinised police repression galvanises poor migrants to unite in the face of their shared mistreatment or divide out of fear and mutual suspicion.

Unfortunately, studying poor migrants in Indian cities is challenging. These communities lack permanent addresses, have unpredictable patterns of work, and circulate between village and city. To address these challenges, I conducted five months of interviews and fieldwork at migrant-dominated marketplaces – labour chowks and street vendor markets – across the city of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. I then conducted a large survey of 2,400 seasonal migrants sampled from 51 marketplaces across the city.

This research underscored the preeminence of the police in shaping the urban experiences of migrants, relative to their rural lives. Remarkably, 33 per cent of respondents to my migrant survey personally experienced violent police action within their past year in the city, while fewer than 5 per cent had ever done so in their home villages. Second, I find respondents are systematically more willing to cooperate with migrants who have suffered from police action. Third, repression-induced solidarities vary across different types of cooperation: spurring political and economic cooperation at marketplaces, but not more intimate social cooperation within residences. Finally, repression can sometimes induce cooperation even across caste divisions and economic rivalries between migrants.

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Police and migrants in urban India 

India’s policing institutions evolved to enable everyday repression of the urban poor. First, policing protocols developed under colonial rule prioritised crowd pacification instead of crime prevention (Bayley 1969; Gooptu 2001). Second, postcolonial police lack the resources and incentives to socially embed within poor urban communities. This combination ensures Indian police have widespread authorities to repress poor migrants, but lack the capacity to selectively target individuals.

Contemporary policing in India continues to combine low social information and weak commitment to crime investigation. Significant postcolonial personnel shortages enable this orientation. India has 1 policeman per 730 people, half the global (333) average (BRPD 2016). While cities have relatively denser forces, urban police shoulder numerous additional duties centered on public order: patrolling election campaigns, religious festivals, strikes, and protests. Further, national and state-level politicians (who primarily live in cities) demand large retinues for protection and clout. Crowd control and ‘VIP’ protection further promote impersonal pacification and coercion over embeddedness and localised information collection.

Police training reinforces a commitment to repression over crime investigation. The vast majority of Indian police (85-90 per cent) are low-rank local constables, who are barely trained, poorly paid, and have weak investigative powers (BRPD 2016). Indeed constables, the police most citizens interact with, are not authorised to register crime complaints or initiate investigations.

By contrast, all police can engage in everyday repression. India’s National Law Commission reports domestic law grants police offers ‘a vast and sometimes absolute’ power to repress (Human Rights Watch 2009). Violent tactics against crowds include lathi (nightstick) beatings, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Individualised punishments include public and private beatings, destruction and confiscation of property, illegal detention and torture, and even extrajudicial killings. Officers admit violence and forced confessions are ‘primary tactics’ for crime investigations (HRW 2009). An ethnography of a police station near Lucknow concluded ‘police violence is ubiquitous and woven into the fabric of everyday sociality’ (Juaregui 2016).

The urban poor are especially vulnerable to such mistreatment, as they lack the resources and political influence to secure protection. They also live in close proximity to the public events and VIPs that attract police presence. Yet even among poor urban populations, migrants attract disproportionate attention. Colonial officers regarded them as especially prone to protest and disorderly conduct. Harsh treatment has persisted in postcolonial India. My informants cited frequent police repression as a primary difference between their city and country lives.

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Does police repression spark or deter cooperation?

Migrants specifically experienced repression while working. The labour chowks and street vendor marketplaces I studied are central sites of police repression. Visible, crowded migrant marketplaces attract elite displeasure and police attention. Police repress individual labourers and vendors, and conduct violent ‘market sweeps’ (Gooptu 2001: 120). Across both samples, 30 per cent of respondents said they witnessed repression at least once a week, and several migrants showed me scars they reported receiving from police hands.

My research sought to understand how such negative experienced influenced migrant willingness to cooperate with one another. I examined three key arenas of potential cooperation: economic, social, and political. To find important examples of each of these forms of cooperation, I drew on my fieldwork at migrant marketplaces.

This fieldwork revealed market entry — accepting other migrants into the market without complaint — as an important form of economic cooperation. Densely populated cities like Lucknow have limited public spaces. New arrivals force vendors to cram more tightly, compete for jobs and customers, exacerbate issues of littering and overcrowding, and thereby increase chances of unwanted police attention. The entry of a new worker into casual labour markets weakens the bargaining position of existing labourers, and can increase the prevalence of ‘rate-cutting’ (the undercutting of daily wage rates to secure employment).

For social cooperation, I focused on cohabitation. Finding a roommate was a crucial, frequent, and often unplanned form of cooperation between migrants. The rooms I visited were typically shared by two to six migrants. New arrivals sometimes stayed with family or friends from their home villages. However, migrants were equally likely to room with other migrants they have only known for a few days at their market. The frequency and abruptness with which migrants return to the village also ensures a constant demand for new roommates to split rent with.

For political cooperation, I focused on support for informal ‘market leaders’. Such leaders are especially important for poor migrants, who often lack the standing and documentation needed to participate in formal city politics. Among street vendors, market leaders were most often called the adhyaksh [president], who collected funds from vendors to pay for shared services and resolved disputes. These leaders were almost always selected through open discussions among existing vendors, or even through informal elections.

Casual labourers also frequently discussed the need for informal ‘union’ leaders to help organise workers at their market and prevent them from cutting each other’s wage rates in the hopes of securing employment. Having a market leader was also seen as a necessary step for pressuring the municipal government for necessary benefits, including the right to vote in the city.

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Testing the effects of Police Repression

To examine whether police repression affects everyday cooperation between migrants, I conducted an experiment with migrant vendors and labourers. Survey respondents were presented with three short vignettes about a fictitious migrant seeking entry into their market, seeking a roommate, and seeking support to be a market leader. I then randomly manipulated whether this fictitious migrant had recently been personally threatened by the police.

I also varied the caste and religious profile of this fictitious migrant by varying their name, indicating they were upper caste, OBC, Scheduled Caste, or Muslim. Finally, I varied whether the migrant was a direct economic rival of the respondent (a vendor who sold the same good, or a labourer who performed the specific kind of work) or not.


Labourers and vendors were significantly more willing to economically and politically cooperate with migrants who had been targets of police repression. Far from hurting the prospects of a potential entrant, police repression made them 5-7 percentage points (pp) more likely to gain market entry, which corresponded to a substantial 10-15 per cent over baseline attitudes. Support for repressed leaders was 7-8 pp higher than non-repressed leaders, translating to increases of between 10-13 per cent. However, repression-induced solidarities did not manifest across all arenas. The impact of repression on roommate selection was only 0-4 pp. This lack of impact may reflect the higher barriers to cooperation within the intimate arena of housing.

I also find repression-induced solidarities can extend across economic and ethnic rivalries that normally divide migrant communities. A migrant who was said to have experienced police repression was more likely to gain support for entering a respondent’s market, and to serve as market leader, even if they came from a different caste group. Respondents were also more willing to cooperate with a direct economic competitor, especially in the arena of leader election, if they had been targeted by the police.

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Why repression improves cooperation

Interviews and survey data suggest that repression induces solidarities rooted in shared experiences, not simply pity with targets. Such solidarities can spur cooperative actions, as one vendor mentioned: “We vendors face beatings from the police every week. So we may as well help one another..that is also how market leaders emerge among us. It is like how medicine is invented only in those places where people actually get the disease.”

Further, since police violence at chowks and vendor markets is often indiscriminate, repression reinforces a shared poor migrant status, in turn reducing the salience of internal divisions: “When people have troubles, they will forget this jati-bhed [caste differences] and come together as poor migrants. One day, way back in 1995, a Tiwari [upper caste Brahmin] who sold books from a cart across the street got very badly beaten by a policeman..when I came back from my work, there was a crowd of vendors who had come together to help him put his things together. It wasn’t just other Brahmins who came — it was everyone.”

Finally, I find migrants who have actually witnessed and experienced higher levels of repression reported more cooperative attitudes, such as having lent money to another migrant at their market. The fact that these results align with the experimental results increase confidence that the latter do not simply reflect cheap talk or the desire to give socially desirable answers.

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There is a need to study routine police repression of poor communities across the global south. The cooperative behaviour examined here can have profound effects: enabling migrants to find a footing in the city, or triggering efforts to select market leaders who will work to secure greater political voice for migrants within city politics.

As cities across the global south strain under the weight of rapid, unplanned expansion, conflicts between the police and urban poor are poised to intensify.

Tariq Thachil is Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.

This is an edited extract from the author’s paper ‘Does Police Repression Spur Everyday Cooperation? Evidence from Urban India‘, which was first published in the University of Chicago’s ‘Journal of Politics’. The full paper can be accessed here.