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UP Police’s brutality shows Indian law enforcement remains true to its colonial heritage

The 1923 Goondas Act, which laid the foundation for legislation like the UP Gangsters Act, established a principle: No crime needs to be committed for punishment.

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Liar,’ ‘sneak’, ‘coward’: When the beatings ended, the young Marquess of Kedleston would be marched through the village in a red petticoat, his sins pinned on for the edification of bystanders. To teach a child to subjugate a people is no small task. Kedleston manor’s governess, Ellen Paraman, the daughter of a prison warden, did an exceptional job. In 1901, as he considered how to discipline the rebels of the North-West Frontier, George Curzon, Viceroy of India, would turn to her teaching.

“Is it possible to flog these horrible scoundrels before we execute them,” Curzon wondered? Flogging, Peshawar district magistrate Harold Deane chimed in, “is infinitely more deterrent than hanging.” “If only we could flog, hang and burn.”

Liberal Indians watched in horror this week, as bulldozers backed up by armed police demolished the homes of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh—thinly veiled reprisals for protests against the government. Videos circulated of protesters being beaten, some while in custody.

The anger isn’t surprising—but the shock is. From the slaughter of an estimated 250 people in firing on an Eid-ul-Fitr gathering at Moradabad in 1980, to the mass execution of at least 32 at Meerut in 1987, killing of Muslims and destruction of property has been a leitmotif of Indian policing of communal violence. From fake encounters in Telengana to custodial killings in Tamil Nadu, there is no shortage of non-Muslim victims, either.

Also read: Before Kanpur businessman case, here are 5 times UP Police conduct came under fire since 2020

Licence to kill

Late one night in 1890, the widow Goshain Thakurani began a descent through the circles of hell. The dead body of a newborn had been discovered in a small village near Allahabad, and the village chaukidar claimed the widow had killed the child to hide a sexual relationship. Five police officers dragged her from her bed, and questioned her all night. They urged her to confess: “If you do, you will get off.” In court, the widow did exactly that, and was sentenced for murder.

There was a catch: When she entered prison, a medical examiner determined Thakurani was seven months pregnant. The murdered child simply could not have been hers. Thakurani was eventually acquitted; the police-officer in charge got a slap on the wrist. The murderer was never found.

Few colonial judges—like modern Indians—were unaware of malpractices of the police. “It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper in some poor devil’s eyes,” the judge and philosopher James Stephens observed in 1883, “than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence.”

The colonial state, though, was concerned primarily with the extraction of revenue, and uninterested in  spending the resources needed to raise a modern police force. The purpose of the police was to extinguish rebellion—not ensure criminal justice.

A licence to kill was provided in place of the rule of law.

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

The building of a barbarism

From the mid-1830s, the Malabar coast began seeing a series of attacks against Hindu janmis (feudal landlords), reinstated to their landholdings after the East India Company defeated Tipu Sultan. Fights sparked off by the eviction of Muslim tenants escalated into the destruction of temples and killings of Hindus. Led by religious revivalists, martyrdom-seeking suicide-attackers also engaged in a series of bloody skirmishes with colonial troops.

The British responded by seeking to strip the Malabar jihadists of their religious legitimacy. For a time, historian K.N. Panikkar has recorded, they considered burying the bodies of those slain with dogs or other ritually impure animals. They finally chose to burn them—a practice which would continue until 1921.

Events in the North-West Frontier, where imperial officials came under growing attack from rebellious ethnic Pasthun tribes, went the same way. The Murderous Outrages Act, historian Elizabeth Kolsky writes, allowed administrators to burn the corpses of those who killed British officers.

It didn’t work.

Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Gaisford was among many on the Frontier who insisted barbarism would work. “When I said they would be hanged, they answered they were quite prepared for that. But when I added that they would be subsequently burnt, their colour changed, and thenceforward they were different men.” Eighteen months later, the officer was murdered in his bed.

In the first thirty years of British rule on the Frontier, Kolsky notes, the British launched more than 40 punitive expeditions, in which crops were trampled, livestock slaughtered, and entire villages burned. Fighting continued until 1946, in spite of the frequent use of air power against Pashtun villages. The Malabar violence also dragged on until the murderous Malabar uprising of 1921.

Also read: Custodial deaths, claims of torture — how Adivasis suffer ‘police repression’ in Jharkhand

The search for scapegoats

Forms of collective punishment began to run through colonial criminal justice practice by early in the last century. In Kolkata (then Calcutta), communal violence began to escalate as the city’s fledgling political leadership sought to recruit religious identity to their cause. In 1910, disputes over alleged cow-slaughter in a slum mosque led to fighting. Then, in 1918, a local newspaper carried an article insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb—leading to a protest march and more violence.

For elites of both communities, historian Sugata Nandi has shown, it proved convenient to blame goondas for the rising violence. In 1923, a law was passed allowing goondas to be removed from the Presidency without being tried for an actual criminal offence. There was no definition in the law, notably, of who a goonda was.

The Goondas Act laid the foundation for legislation now used in several states—notably the Uttar Pradesh Gangsters Act, which is key to the Yogi Adityanath government’s high-profile campaign to seize the properties of alleged criminals. The Act makes membership of a gang illegal, in language many legal experts say enables abuse. District Magistrates may seize the property of any individual they believe is a gang member, even if no court has convicted them.

The victims of the Kolkata goonda law might have been working-class migrants of little consequence, but their persecution established a principle: No crime need have been committed in order to be punished.

Also read: Threat, fear were most common police tools during Covid lockdown, study finds

The convenience of collective punishment

Following the slaughter at Jallianwala Bagh, military law statutes were used to suppress an angry Punjab. The official Hunter Committee report recorded that of the 3,200 people arrested, one-fifth were never prosecuted, because “the evidence was ultimately considered insufficient.” Even of those prosecuted, most were charged with waging war against the King-Emperor, not an actual crime, like arson or murder.

Whipping was widely used—in one case, for attack on the missionary school teacher Marcella Sherwood, but also for offences ranging from tearing-down martial law notices, to “refusing to sell milk.”

In one case, the “three naughtiest boys” at a school in Kasur were sentenced to be whipped after students were accused of involvement in derailing a train. Assistant Commissioner Peter Marsden described this as “a most ordinary and healthy mode of discipline for schoolboys.” “If the occurrence had been in England no one would have made the least demur,” he claimed.

Firing against unarmed civilians became routine. In Ahmedabad, Simeon Shoul has recorded, eighty rounds were fired into a crowd of political protesters; machine guns were fired at Chuharkana (present-day Farooqabad in Pakistan) against crowds that authorities decided were planning “mischief.” In Gujranwala and nearby villages on 14 April 1919, Royal Air Force pilots fired over 800 rounds at fleeing crowds.

Like the imperial police, independent India’s coercive apparatus is designed to deliver terror—not ensure investigation and meaningful prosecutions, the bedrock of democratic criminal justice systems. For the most part under-staffed, under-trained, and under-resourced, police have often shown themselves ineffectual in containing real threats, from terrorism to riots to sexual violence.

The mass internment and torture of Adivasis in Telangana, the burning of entire villages in Mizoram, or the killing of protesters in Kashmir leave little doubt that Indian police are the children of their colonial predecessors.  Like Curzon, they’ve learned the wrong lessons well.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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