The Particularities of Indian Police Violence

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Image: Wikimedia Commons; Policeman facing women in a protest march, Kolkata India

On Friday the 19th of June in Sathankulam, a town in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, police arrested two men. P. Jeyaraj, 59, and his son Bennicks, 31, were accused of keeping their small mobile phone accessories shop open past the evening curfew, a restriction imposed in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus. Officers took Jeyaraj and Bennicks to the local police station for questioning. The following day, they were transferred to judicial custody. By Tuesday evening, both men were dead.

When the case was reported and discussed outside of India, it was as an accompanying story to the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, just under a month earlier. The epithet “India’s George Floyds”, which many news stories called Jeyaraj and Bennicks, functioned a useful descriptive shorthand for a larger common narrative concerning entrenched cultures of police brutality and impunity, and their energetic repudiation by the public. Elsewhere, the comparison functioned as a bid for a greater share in the online marketplace of attention – custodial deaths in India, suggested some critical tweets, deserve our outrage too. But the comparison also blurs the lines of too many particulars: the brutality of the Indian police forces, and of the Minneapolis PD, are particular. The killing of Jeyaraj and Bennicks are particular. The particulars are terrible and important. [1]

The night of the arrest, Sathankulam station cops assaulted Jeyaraj and Bennicks, beating them through the night and into the early hours of the next morning. Testimony was provided by a single policewoman, the only eyewitness in the case who was willing to speak out. By the end, the officers’ lathis (batons wielded by Indian police) were covered with blood, she said, and so was the interview room table. Video evidence should have corroborated her testimony, but according to the investigating magistrate the station’s CCTV cameras were programmed to auto-delete daily, “despite enough storage of 1TB.”

Friends and relatives of the arrested men, who kept an anxious vigil outside the station that night, reported hearing cries for help. At around 7.30 the following morning, Jeyaraj and Bennicks were brought out of the station and arrangements were made for their transport to hospital for a standard post-arrest physical exam. They were in “bad shape,” said family members who saw them. One friend said they could barely speak; several people reported that both men were bleeding from their rectums, injuries understood to have been the result of sexual torture while in custody. At the station, relatives helped Bennicks and Jeyaraj change into clean lungis (wrapped men’s garments, worn on the lower half of the body) which reportedly needed changing again before they entered the hospital. An advocate who accompanied the men claimed that nothing was done to ease the bleeding, despite entreaty. Eventually, the necessary medical certificate was issued (noting “abrasions”) and the men were taken to Kovilpatti Sub Jail. According to jail administrators, Bennicks was still bleeding when he arrived.

Bennicks died on Monday night, shortly after being brought to Kovilpatti General Hospital with chest pains. His father Jeyaraj was admitted to the hospital a couple of hours later. He died just before sunrise the following morning.

***

According to data collected by the National Human Rights Commission, 1,723 people died in custody in India in 2019 alone. A report released this year by the National Campaign Against Torture found that 125 of those deaths took place in police custody (as opposed to jail), noting, “deaths in police custody occur primarily as a result of torture.” In fact, the report’s tally found that 93 of the 125 deaths in police lockup last year were attributable to alleged torture or “foul play” , while a further 24 “died under suspicious circumstances” explained by the police as suicide, illness, or, in one case, slipping in the bathroom. Most of the victims were very poor, or belonged to socially and politically oppressed groups such as Dalits (members of the lowest-status caste, formerly subjected to the practice of “untouchability”) or Muslims. Four of them were children.

Not a single police officer has been convicted for any of the 500 deaths that occurred in police custody between 2005 and 2018, though fifty-four cops were charged. A 2016 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that a judicial inquiry was pursued in only 31 of 97 custodial deaths on record for the year 2015. Twenty-six of the dead never even received an autopsy. This neglect may have made little difference to the outcome, however, since “autopsy and forensic reports frequently support the police version of events even when there is no apparent basis,” according to HRW.

A report published in 2019, which drew on interviews with 12,000 police officers from twenty-one states, found that 36% of Indian police personnel preferred to dish out “minor punishments” to perpetrators of minor offences rather than bring them to trial. 75% of police personnel agreed that it was appropriate for the police to “be violent towards criminals” for “the greater good of the society”. A follow-up question asked whether beating up criminals to extract confessions while investigating serious cases was justifiable; more than 80% said yes. One in five cops answered that it was better to kill a dangerous criminal than bring him to trial.

It’s comforting to imagine police excesses as unforeseen but reformable errors, as moments of lethal power slipping its leash, as in the well-rehearsed “bad apple” narrative. The brazenness of the Indian police’s sense of entitlement to judge and inflict harm on their fellow citizens, their willingness to ignore their rights and freedoms, points to a much more fundamental rupture of democracy. In this light, it’s worth considering the origins of the contemporary Indian police. 

The Police Act of 1861, Indian policing’s foundational document, was drawn up by the occupying British in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It was designed to subdue the people, not to serve them. The commission which drafted the law was instructed to bear in mind that “the line which separates the protective and repressive functions of a civil force from functions purely military, may not always, in India, be very clear.” Though the Rebellion had failed, it triggered what David H. Bayley, in his 1969 book Police and Political Development in India, called “a period of agonizing reassessment”. Writing more than twenty years after Indian Independence, Bayley examined a system that was still moulded to the colonial prototype. True, an elite cadre of Indian police officers, recruited from across the nation, had stepped into the shoes of the ranking colonial administrators. In the ways that counted most, the structures and ideologies of civilian control, however, Indian policing was a hand-me-down.

In the decades since Bayley’s work, successive government-appointed commissions have recommended legislative overhauls which have more or less failed to materialise. In most states, the 1861 Act either remains in force, or is closely imitated by new laws meant to replace it. The police remain, in large part, housed in barracks and therefore physically and socially separated from the communities they police. Here, it is important to note another particularity of Indian policing: across all states, Indian police answer to the political executive in government, a structure which makes the force’s politicisation almost inevitable. In 2017, in Uttar Pradesh, shortly after landslide election win for the ruling BJP, a Hindu fundamentalist cleric called Yogi Adityanath with a rap sheet that included hate speech against Muslims and charges of inciting riots, was elevated to the position of Chief Minister, with direct jurisdiction over the police. The impact on policing was immediate. “Before this new government, especially Muslim boys were not afraid,” one police Inspector told me, jubilant that this would now change.

The direct accountability of the police to political representatives, rather than a government acting on behalf of its citizens, also underlines the development of Indian policing as an outgrowth from a colonial machine. The persistence of this outdated, anti-democratic organisation of governmental relations with the police is remarkable. Despite a 2006 Supreme Court order demanding state-wise legislative amendment to this effect, several Indian police forces have created no serviceable system for public accountability

In comparison with its global peers, the Indian police force is organised along particularly brutal hierarchical lines. The constabulary make up 86% of the national force, and are recruited from poor communities where a career in the police is sold as a rare lifeline to a stable income and professional identity. Despite this, a typical constable may only ever hope for one promotion – from constable to head constable – in a long career of low pay and high pressure. Unvarnished class prejudice colours the treatment of constables by the 13% of the forces whose better educational backgrounds make them eligible for service among the “upper subordinates”, and by the elite 1% who constitute the officer cadre. Sociologist Beatrice Jauregui has conducted sensitive ethnographic research into the Indian police, and describes a “still strong conception” of constables as “poor specimens of humanity.” She writes, “I conducted my field research among all ranks of police, and repeatedly heard senior officers describing the constables they command as, among other things, “lazy, lying cheats… a mob in uniform.”

Some particular effects of this class segregation can be seen in the limits on constabulary powers in India. Unlike, for example, police constables in the UK, the lower ranks of the Indian police have fewer powers vis à vis the public than their superiors. They are empowered to act only by explicit command, but still expected to exert control. As such the police rank-and-file are, as Jauregui writes, “structurally disempowered” at the same time as they are “situationally hyper-empowered.” Their disempowerment, she writes, encounters quotidian challenge from “a multitude of other forms of authority”: their superiors within the police, their ‘social betters’ in the multiple hierarchies of Indian society. This can explain, but never excuse, the particular violence meted out by low-ranking police officers towards those members of Indian society who are less empowered than themselves. It merits mention that, in the case of the lethal assaults on Jeyaraj and Bennicks, the policewoman who testified against her colleagues at Sathankulam was only a head constable. The pressures against which she made her courageous choice, perhaps even greater than those of her silent male colleagues, were no doubt heavy.

So what happened to the police at Sathankulam? At first, very little. Some twenty-four, or twenty-seven (reports differ) officers were transferred out, a similar number shipped in, as is the three-card-trick familiar in controversial cases of Indian policing. Locally and on social media, the volume of the outrage grew. The hashtag #justiceforjayarajandfenix and its variants began to trend. Celebrities chimed in and were called out for the insufficiency of their responses. Police officers were suspended. At the start of July, Jeyaraj and Bennicks’ cases were transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigations. Since then four, then five officers have been arrested for the murders of the father and son. Unusual enough, but not unusual enough. An interim victory, and thin soup.

***

In the wave of commentary that has flooded social media feeds in the wake of George Floyd’s death, James Baldwin’s 'A Report from Occupied Territory' has bobbed like a beacon, luminous with insight and cold fury,. “I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face…”, writes Baldwin.

In the context of my own anonymity, I should tell you that I don’t know any of these things; I don’t know what it feels like to encounter a cop who believes it’s his job to punish me. My physical appearance and my surname, which registers as Hindu and upper-caste, telegraph the kind of privilege that go a long way towards insulating a person from violent policing. I am lucky, I do not belong to occupied social territory. An example: in late March, when India’s quarantine was uniform and among the most stringent in the world, I also violated the lockdown and was caught. I took my dog down to pee on the leafy streets of my bourgeois neighbourhood. The streets were empty of traffic. The coconut-man’s cart stood empty under a blue tarp. The only people out were walkers wearing Adidas or trailing Labradors, people a bit like me. Two cops rode up on a motorbike. “Ma’am, it’s a lockdown, you have to go home,” one said. I said, stupidly, “My dog really needs to pee.” He repeated, with polite exasperation, “please ma’am, just go home,” and they drove on without waiting to make sure that I did.

But even from my vantage point, the dehumanising injustice of Indian policing is plain. The pandemic’s restrictions – part public health measure, part social control kink of the ruling autocrats of the current government, and of all the little social autocrats, uniformed or not, who come out of the woodwork at times like this – have only made it plainer. Prime Minister Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on the 24th of March and whatever (already insufficient) checks existed on public police brutality seemed to give way. Migrant workers, the worst victims of a callous national policy that ignored their citizenship, were suddenly jobless and facing starvation. They fled the cities on foot and found themselves targets of further violence and humiliation. On the 26th of March, a group of migrants were filmed being made to frog-hop along an Uttar Pradesh highway by lathi-wielding khakees. In Delhi, labourers travelling with small kids and bundles of belongings lashed to a bicycle wept as they told a BBC reporter that the cops had beaten them for pausing to rest and eat. There are too many examples.

Reports of “excessive force” killings during lockdown came in from various towns around the country, weeks before George Floyd’s death, before his death could act as an amplifying signal. In the first two days of lockdown, a man out buying milk in West Bengal – a permissible “essential activity” – died after being battered by cops in the street. Rumours of similar attacks circulated on WhatsApp. According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), at least twelve people died between the 25th March and the 30th April after being publicly beaten for alleged lockdown violations. Three of the twelve deaths, the report said, were suicides impelled by public humiliation.

But this kind of policing – which casts an entire population as non-specifically criminal, and under whose eye the label “criminal” invites dehumanisation – doesn’t really represent a step-change for India during coronavirus. If the Indian police forces understand the bulk of the population as a dangerous mob to be controlled, that’s a feature, not a bug.

***

There is so much I haven’t been able to tell you about what it means when the police answer to politicians, and then, about what happens when the politics are dangerous. How, one Sunday in mid-December last year, as the nation erupted into unprecedented protest against the freshly re-elected Hindu nationalist, right-wing government and its new anti-Muslim citizenship law, the Central Reserve Police Force, India’s centrally-controlled riot and counter-insurgency specialists, stormed the library of an eminent university in Delhi. They bloodied students bent over their books; rumours circulated that they broke an early edition of the Indian Constitution in a protective display case.

A month later, at a Peoples’ Tribunal across the road from the Supreme Court in Delhi, a jury of distinguished figures – ex-high court Justices, well-known academics and activists – concluded that the best way to describe the deadly response of the Uttar Pradesh police to Muslim citizens after protests was “a complete collapse of rule of law.” After the day’s testimony, after video of Muslim bodies shot down in streets that looked like warzones, the judgement sounded euphemistic. A month after that, in February, while Donald Trump was in the country, there were pogroms in Delhi. Riots, if you insist – but mostly Muslims died, and the police stood by the sides of the perpetrators. A horrible video shows a group of Muslim men, injured and laid low, being made to sing the national anthem by Delhi police. One of them, a young man called Faizan, died shortly afterwards.

During those months, between December and March, a 24/7 protest took place in the capital against the government and its discriminatory citizenship law, at a place called Shaheen Bagh. It was led by Muslim women from that locality, who sat close and cross-legged on the ground in resolved occupation of a rectangle of the highway, beneath a coloured tent festooned with the pictures of freedom fighters. Early in the mornings their numbers dwindled to just a necessary few, but each night after work, the site became almost a festival, thronged by tens of thousands. There was music, and speeches, and art-making, and articulations of Indian democracy that had almost, almost begun to sound like obsolescent idealism.

Through February, the nights were cold, and the police sat to one side of the barricades, warming their hands over small fires. For a long time, it seemed wonderful that they hadn’t yet lined up with sticks and shields to break up Shaheen Bagh. Granted, the optics of lathi-charging the seated Muslim ladies and their cradled kids would have been poor. But that final violence seemed imminent all the time the protest continued. I waited nervously to hear of it. It never came, though, it didn’t have to. The virus came instead.

[1] Areas of India with insurgent movements, like Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Northeast India, have spent long stretches of their independent histories under what is functionally an occupation by military-style police and military units. Their situations are sufficiently particular that they will not be addressed here, as they deserve more focused and critical attention.

Anonymous is a writer in South India who is increasingly afraid. She has never written as Anonymous before.