For most Indians, the best cops are the ones who beat bad guys. The more angrier and violent a police officer, the more agreeable and upright he or she is. Pop culture’s portrayal of such cops is cheered on by the public, depiction of police brutality savoured like justice. The alleged custodial torture and ‘murder’ of a father-son duo, Jayaraj and Bennix, in Tamil Nadu is just one of the repulsive fallouts of that culture ingrained in India’s police system.
In 2019, custodial torture claimed lives of 1,731 people in India; in 2018, a total of 1,966 people were killed this way, according to ‘India: Annual Report on Torture’ released by a consortium of NGOs.
But as citizens happy with ‘instant justice’ — which is mostly carried out against poor people, members of lower castes, and all those unable to pay bribes — we have played a key role in perpetuating this culture of gratuitous violence by the police either through vocal support or mostly through our silence.
Police brutality is cheered
In the beginning of lockdown, families sat and watched videos and clips of police officers ‘punishing’ violators — raining lathis, making them do sit-ups and hop like frogs. On social media, commenters approvingly wrote, “Yehi hona chahiye aise logon ke saath (such people deserve this treatment),” happy in their ignorance that their support is not for ‘justice’ but for a system of oppression, which could make them one of its victims too.
The police were clearly flexing their muscles on the poor by forcing them to do these humiliating acts that the public and media cheered without batting an eye. Many roadside shopkeepers and people who had stepped out of their homes just to buy milk and vegetables — termed ‘essential goods’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the start of the lockdown — were beaten up black and blue, with some even allegedly dying as a result of the beating. The rage was justified as police ‘just doing their duty’.
The concept of justice in India is itself violent, with people baying for blood by calling for public hanging of the accused. The common opinion for the police to teach criminals a lesson, instead of taking them through the defined course of justice and correction, is very strong. The widely celebrated act of Telangana Police shooting dead four people accused in the Hyderabad rape case in December 2019 is a case in point.
‘Teach them a lesson’
The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) became an open call for India’s police to put its barbaric side on full display. Lathi-charge and custodial abuse became a norm. From students in universities to citizens on streets, no one was spared.
When the Delhi Police entered Jamia Millia Islamia to beat up students in a library, a section of the crowd celebrated the thrashing because, according to it, the police were teaching ‘anti-nationals’ a ‘lesson’.
Congress worker and social activist Sadaf Jafar was tortured by the police in custody but failed to get any support from the public.
Who can forget the gut-wrenching video of five injured men being forced to sing national anthem by officers of the Delhi Police during the northeast Delhi riots? One of them died but four months later, not a single officer has been charged for the crime captured in a video and widely shared.
At least 31 anti-CAA protesters were killed all over India, one as young as 17 years old. He was allegedly shot in the head by the police. Videos of Uttar Pradesh Police firing upon protesters in Kanpur were also widely shared. But the government of Yogi Adityanath continues to be celebrated for giving its police a ‘free hand’ and presiding over what is being called an ‘encounter raj’.
It is this active support to police violence — by the public and the State — that has emboldened violent officers to think they will get away with torturing citizens such as Jayaraj and Bennix. Perhaps they will and this culture will continue to persist because all of us are tweeting Black Lives Matter over the police brutality in the George Floyd case.
Dalits and Muslims main target
Police brutality is caste and class sensitive. While the middle and upper classes or privileged upper castes can’t even imagine getting thrashed by the police in broad daylight, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and labourers live with this reality.
A Common Cause and CSDS report on the ‘Status of Policing in India’ found that 50 per cent of police personnel have a bias against Muslims and think they are more prone to committing acts of violence.
This is reflected in the many instances of police atrocity against Dalits and Muslims in India. Police in Kashmir can shoot citizens ‘point blank’ for allegedly ‘fleeing’ security points without facing any consequences. Personnel such as IPS officer Bhagyashree Navtake proudly declare filing false cases against Dalits and Muslims.
These are not isolated cases. Of the 1,731 people killed in custody last year, 60 per cent of the victims belonged to marginalised communities.
Need for police reforms
Indian police is imperialistic because it is based on the model devised by British colonists more than one-and-a-half centuries ago. It was designed to oppress anyone who raises their voice against the colonial rule, and the Indian State uses this to its full advantage.
About two in five personnel in Bihar and one in five surveyed in other states received no formal training on human rights. Training in modern concepts of justice and in human rights is the need of the hour.
According to the Status of Policing in India Report, Indian police officers have 15-hour shifts and function on 77 per cent of the ideal strength. Personnel’s work conditions are physically and mentally taxing, and lower-ranking personnel are grossly underpaid.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed lives of at least 60 police personnel, has affected the police force too just like everyone else. In such a scenario, mental health briefing and regular counselling becomes a necessity.
But while such measures can improve the daily lives of personnel, a bigger, more impactful intervention is needed to overhaul the daily policing and officers’ attitude towards citizens and justice.
Because we have failed to hold the police accountable even as they have acted as state-appointed goons out there to subjugate voices of dissent.
Violence now runs in the veins of Gandhi’s nation. It demands lynching of those who eat beef and beats those who don’t sing the national anthem in cinema halls. Jayaraj and Bennix’s brutal killing shouldn’t shock or surprise us but it must wake us up to demand for a policing system that doesn’t take the law into its own hands.
Until systemic changes are brought in, India’s police officers sworn to uphold the Constitution will keep doing what an imperialist system knows best — oppress, subjugate and even kill. Because as a public, we expect and support police violence. That’s the problem.
Views are personal.