There are two main drivers, closely interconnected, of the protests that rocked the United States, and were echoed in other parts of the West, over the past weeks. The first is the persistence and prevalence of structural forms of racism. And the second is the brutality with which policing is carried out.
The simple fact is that, however harsh and violent the militarised police in the United States may be, any Indian knows that our reality is much worse. In any interaction with a policeman, he is aware he can strike you with impunity unless you are one of the tiny sliver of this country that can call upon some connection to state power. We hear complaints about the incarceration rate of the United States; in India, not only are our prisons overflowing, but they are overflowing with people who have not even been convicted. The continuing abuse of “undertrials” indicts our system as nothing else can.
Even our notion of “good” policing has been poisoned by our long experience of police repression and judicial delay. We celebrate, for example, “encounters” — a euphemism for extra-judicial executions, or to be accurate, murder by cops. These are the subjects of laudatory popular films; when the Telangana police shot dead the four men accused of the shocking rape and murder of a veterinary doctor in Hyderabad last November, they were praised across social media and news television.
The fact is encounters let policemen, prosecutors, and politicians off the hook. If you murder a suspect, you do not have to make a case or prosecute him/her. And, if you control a police force that specialises in such murders, as politicians across the country do, you will end up using it to eliminate the inconvenient. Another high-profile encounter death this week should return this fact to the forefront of the national conversation. The Adityanath government in UP sought to use encounters and repressive policing as a sign of good governance. It won praise and plaudits. If it then ever uses the same instruments for political convenience, nobody should be surprised. It is a natural progression.
The American policeman that killed George Floyd has been charged with murder, and the others on the scene as well. Many guilty of such crimes in the US have escaped punishment, but more and more are being held accountable. In India, meanwhile, even the high profile Delhi police
force, which is under the Union government itself, fails to be held accountable for the most basic and obvious breakdown of law and order. Consider the riots that swept over the capital earlier this year. In the words of The New York Times, there is plenty of evidence that “the Indian police
took part in violence against Muslims or stood aside during fighting in the capital”.
There are videos that many of us have seen where policemen are hitting unarmed Muslim men, some of whom later died of their injuries. The air of callousness and impunity is hard to miss, given that the video includes the policemen laughing at the time. The Union government should have immediately held those particular policemen, and their entire chain of command, accountable. Yet, months later, the main response to the Delhi riots from the police has been the arrest of student activists on the absurd British-Raj charge of “sedition”. One of them, Safoora Zargar, a sociology graduate student, was three months pregnant when she was arrested in April, charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act — which everyone knows means “we have no evidence, but wish to put you in jail” — and held in Tihar for more than two months during the pandemic. Meanwhile, neither have the policemen been held accountable, nor have those politicians caught on video making provocative statements.
The courts have not been helpful. As the lawyer Vrinda Grover has pointed out, they have shied away in particular from the issue of custodial torture and murder. When in 2014-15, the Supreme Court acquitted more than a dozen Muslim men falsely accused by the Gujarat police of complicity in the Akshardham terror case, and held in prison for 11 years, it came down heavily on the mistakes made by the Gujarat investigators, and by extension reproved them for extensive and horrifying physical torture. Yet, as Grover points out, when some of those acquitted went back to the Court to demand action against the police officers, and compensation for themselves, their plea was dismissed.
Most of all, perhaps, a large mass of the country, while fearing the police, is happy if the lathis are turned, especially on minority religions and oppressed caste. The difference from the multiracial protests in the US is stark, and it is not a difference that reflects well on us.