Time’s Up For Colonial-Era Policing: Rethinking India’s Police & Public Safety

Time’s Up For Colonial-Era Policing: Rethinking India’s Police & Public Safety

What happened in Minneapolis, US?

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes while he was handcuffed face-down in the street. The incident has led to widespread protests all across the United States as well as all over the world in countries like Australia, Germany, and Britain. However, this is neither a solitary incident in the United States nor anywhere in the world. Violence engendered from the assumption of racial superiority is a phenomenon reflected in the demography of most countries with religious, racial, and ethnic plurality.

When was the institution of the police established?

Policing, as an institution, derives its genesis from the capitalistic nation-state of the 18th century. The first modern police force was established in 1829 in London. This was an institution that rose alongside the neo-liberal, capitalist state which swore by minimal state interference in social and economic policies, as opposed to the totalitarian state. For the first time in history, the state was able to mobilise its intentions through a system of power relations circulating within society without having to enforce its laws through any direct method of coercion. For Foucault, there has been a shift in forms of power circulating within society. The shift has been from a system where the king or queen is seen as the embodiment of the nation and power is dispensed from above, to a system where power is exercised from within the social body. The police force or the prison, as institutions emanating from the state’s need to regulate its citizens in a covert capacity, therefore gave rise to certain social and political institutions to discipline the subject, of which the police or the prison is just one of them. Hence the police as an institution, has its roots in systemic oppression of civilians, as perpetrated by the state.

The Institution of the Police in India

India’s colonial-era Police Act that came into effect 4 years after India’s 1857 uprising against the British, spawned the modern policing system of India. The ancient act was developed chiefly to control the colonial subject. It was later adopted by the postcolonial state to maintain social control over marginalized communities. The relationship between the police and the citizen, therefore, remains feudal to date. Article 246 of the Constitution of India designates the police as a state subject, which means that state governments frame the Police Acts, rules, and regulations that govern each police force. States which have not passed their own Police Acts are governed by the central Police Act. In addition, different aspects of police work and procedure are governed by a multiplicity of laws laid down by Case law and jurisprudence.

Police Atrocities in India

In the last few years, India has witnessed widespread police brutality as inflicted on students, protesters, the minority Muslim community, migrant workers, as well as anyone holding anti-Establishment views.

Protesters and university students being arrested on apparently false charges and being assaulted on campuses has become an everyday affair. In a CCTV footage from December 15, shared by the Jamia Co-ordination Committee, several policemen were seen entering the university’s library and beating students with batons. The incident occurred in the wake of clashes between the police and JMI students protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11, 2019. On January 5, 2020, about 50 masked men, allegedly belonging to the ABVP (the student wing of the ruling BJP) entered the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and attacked students and teachers, and vandalised buildings and public property. Since then, similar cases have been reported on numerous occasions in light of the anti-CAA protests being carried out in the country. The police had completely failed to control the situation, and had, in fact, been accused of complicity with the troublemakers. Recently, a Delhi court rejected the bail plea of ​​Jamia coordination committee media coordinator, Safoora Zargar, a 27-year-old pregnant woman, who was arrested in connection with the Delhi Riots amidst the pan-India lockdown. She is facing a UAPA case in connection with the Northeast Delhi riots and is locked up in Tihar jail.

However, these are not solitary incidents, and is just a speck in the numerous police brutalities in the country in the past few years. In 2018, 5 months after the caste-based violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon town the state police has shifted the focus of its investigation from Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide to a group of five social activists working with Dalits, Adivasis and political prisoners. After the investigation, the Pune Police arrested advocate Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen and activist Mahesh Raut from their homes in Nagpur. In a coordinated operation, the police also arrested activists Sudhir Dhawale in Mumbai and Rona Wilson in Delhi, and brought all five of them to Pune. They were accused of having Maoist links and charged under sections of the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. The UAPA has most recently been used against Delhi-based feminist collective Pinjra Tod’s activists and JNU students Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita.

The police justified the arrests by claiming that the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1, 2018 was incited by the speeches of Dalit rights activists at an ‘Elgar Parishad’ event held in Pune funded by banned Maoist outfits. Dalit scholar, Anil Teltumbde was also arrested for being part of an ‘urban Maoist’ plot to incite violence at Bhima Koregaon. On 16 March, 2020, he was denied anticipatory bail under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Assamese Sahitya Akademi awardee Hiren Gohain was charged with sedition for a speech he delivered at a rally in Guwahati on January 7, opposing the Centre’s decision to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha. The Centre has since then progressively tried to suppress voices of dissent by engaging in the systematic oppression of intellectuals espousing a strong liberal, academic ethos. In fact, in August 2018, Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, a senior BJP MLA from Karnataka’s Vijayapura, went so far as to declare that he would have ordered the police to shoot intellectuals had he been the Union home minister. This statement is not merely a casual declaration. It, in fact, gives a clear idea about how the police are being manipulated by the government to its own ends. It says a lot about the functioning and role of the police under the present circumstances, seeking to establish a proto-fascist state with a divisive agenda.

A strand of thought that further needs to be explored is the Hindu-Muslim rift in India, which has progressively worsened in the past few years, and has chiefly been intensified by the government in power, through violence inflicted on members of the minority community by the police forces of the country. Numerous instances of police violence on Muslim citizens can be cited in the past few years. In a brutal crackdown on protesters (anti-CAA protesters) in the Muslim-dominated area of Muzaffarnagar, UP, the police stand accused of unleashing rampant violence against Muslim bystanders in the streets, firing indiscriminately into crowds, while hurling Islamophobic slurs and Hindu nationalist slogans. They have also been accused of detaining and torturing Muslim children, as well as forcing signed confessions and filing indiscriminate criminal charges against thousands of Muslims who had never been to a protest. This was of course not a solitary incident, but just one among a long list of atrocities meted out to the Muslim community in India. The country has, in fact, harboured a sense of antipathy towards the minority Muslim population since the days of Partition. It has been made to percolate insidiously into the public consciousness through numerous political manoeuvres in post-Independence India, giving the police a social sanction to abuse Muslims indiscriminately. Also, after the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir (which has a majority Muslim population) there were reports of police open firing at protesters, injuring women and children with pellet guns, leading to a widespread crackdown on the states.

More recently, in a post-lockdown India, the media has reported several cases of police brutalities on citizens defying the prolonged curfew. The police have been seen resorting to rampant lathi-charge on citizens, a colonial-era legacy that is still deployed as an inevitable measure in regulating law and order situations in the country.

On March 26, Sonu Shah, a pickup-truck driver ferrying potatoes in Patna, Bihar was shot by the police after he reportedly refused them a bribe. In neighbouring UP, cops were seen forcing people to hop like frogs for simply being seen on the road during the curfew. They were among the millions of poor migrant labourers returning to their native villages after the Gwalior city factory that employed them in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh was shut down in the wake of the lockdown.

Section 129 of CrPc & Police Reforms

According to Section 129 of the CrPc (Code of Criminal Procedure), the police and armed forces can use force to disperse only a crowd of five or more people, which has been legally designated as an ‘unlawful assembly’. However, the use of lathis by the police in dispersing individuals off the streets during a national lockdown fails to meet this very fundamental criterion. In Anita Thakur and Ors. vs. Govt. of J & K & Ors. the Supreme Court had remarked that the use of excessive force by the police results in violation of human rights and dignity. Even The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials emphasise that the use of force by law enforcement officials should be commensurate with due respect for human rights, and need to be implemented with the utmost discretion only in unavoidable circumstances.

Despite the directives (police reforms) issued by the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh and others vs Union of India and others judgement in 2006, the reforms stayed largely on paper, due to the state governments’ dire inability to implement the protocols. In fact, the colonial-era Police Act of 1861 is still the basic instrument governing the functioning of the Indian police. Therefore, police brutality continues to be a problem in India.

How has the police helped during the COVID-19 lockdown?

However, it cannot be denied that in the wake of the nationwide lockdown, the police have extended their help in many ways. They have assisted the helpless and the needy by taking care of their basic needs, busted fake news intended to spread hate and bigotry against Muslims as well as misinformation against Coronavirus. Police forces in cities like Pune, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Goa extended their support in creative ways by lending their voice to old Bollywood songs. This a departure from the stereotypical notion of the policeman in uniform, to that of a compassionate figure who would stand by the citizens in their times of need. It is therefore not the policeman, but the nature of police culture rooted in systemic oppression that needs to be reformed.

Update: Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) Twin Deaths Amid Police Torture Allegations

Trigger Warning: Graphic Description of Violence and Sexual Assault

In a horrific turn of events, on June 19, 59-year-old P Jayaraj and his 31-year-old son J Fenix were arrested in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, for allegedly keeping their shop open post the set curfew. India Today informs that at a time when outrage over police brutality is at its global prominence, a Chennai-based news site The Federal has quoted eyewitnesses as saying that Jayaraj and Fenix were allegedly sodomised in police custody. Singer-songwriter Suchitra, in an Instagram post, explained that the kind of treatment that was meted out to the completely innocent gentleman should not even be served to serial killers. In graphic detail, she explains how their knees were smashed with lathis. Their faces were pushed to the wall and blows were rained on their bottoms till they bled. They were stripped completely and thrown into the jail. It has been further informed that they were taken to a place where there were no CCTV cameras where they were sodomised with steel-tipped batons and brutal violence was inflicted on their genitalia. Quoting friends and family, The Federal reported that when the father-son duo was released from jail, they were found profusely bleeding from their rectum.

“Between 7 am and 12 pm on June 20, the father and son had changed at least seven lungies (waistcloth) each as they had become wet due to blood oozing from their rectums,” The Federal quoted a friend of Fenix as saying.

The Federal further reports,“According to his friends who witnessed the incident, the duo was placed at a distance of at least 50 metres from the magistrate.” Citing one of Fenix’s friends, it continues, “Four police personnel had surrounded him when he was remanded in judicial custody. The personnel were constantly threatening the father and son. So, practically it was not possible for the duo to tell the judicial magistrate what had happened.”

Upon checking the father-son duo, when the doctor at the local hospital refused to give a fitness certificate as their blood pressure was very high, the police forced the doctors to give them a fitness certificate.

While Fenix fell ill with a fever and died at the Kovilpatti General Hospital on June 22, his father died on the morning of June 23.

Rethinking Punishment and Justice

The aforementioned incident has opened up multiple questions about police brutality in India during the lockdown. Custodial torture in India is a brutal and undeniable reality with a colonial legacy. The Police Act of 1861 which is primarily used as the basis of decisions belongs to the Victorian Era and was put in place in the context of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Other major loopholes and contradictory laws are also put in place to grant impunity to the Indian police.

In 2020, there is a need to re-define the implications of the concept of ‘punishment’. One of the responses to this incident has been along the lines of demanding punitive measures against the police personnel in order to bring justice to the two victims. It is, however, to be considered that whenever we talk about justice in this way, we necessarily imply revenge. Indian police also consider justice and punishment as ways to avenge criminals, which is why, they find it excusable to inflict lesser-than-human modes of ‘punishment’ upon the wrong-doers. Feminists have long critiqued society’s reliance on police and prison to deal with violence against women. The need of the hour is to re-consider our perception and implication of ‘punishment’, and move towards making it more restorative and transformative. There is also a need to think of an array of alternatives to the carceral form of punishment and justice.

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