Police brutality: The unavowed reality of India

The colonial legacy of the Indian police highlights how the use of force is endemic to policing in India, manifest in the organizational structure and the professional culture which often tolerates and even promotes abuse, write Subhranil Ghosh and Sreemoyee Majumder for South Asia Monitor


A society can be said to have reached its nadir when its security providers turn into perpetrators of violence. While this has historically been the feature in different polities, the modern democratic state is expected to prevent this. However, taking the case of India, ostensibly an example to the world for its democratic values, it is quite clear that violence is engendered into the very institution of control and the police are by no means an exception to this rule.

The police system in India comprises a fairly complex structure, and powers for maintaining a police force are extensively diffused among all the constituent states of the Indian Republic. The police exist under the State List in the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and therefore, there are 29 distinct police forces. The Centre has under its control seven armed police forces, the collective nomenclature of which is the Central Armed Police Forces, directly under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Now, the primary role of the police is to uphold and enforce the law, investigate crimes, and ensure the security of the people of this country.  

In a large and populous country like India, especially given the immense diversity of the country, police forces must be properly trained and equipped with state-of-the-art technology and weaponry in order to face a myriad of social issues. It is important that the police in India be treated as a professional workforce, institutionally organized and constitutionally sanctioned to demand a right to satisfactory working conditions, in the form of regulated work hours, a minimum degree of job security, and opportunities for promotion.

In this context, the police are justified to demand operational freedom.  it is also absolutely essential that the police must be held accountable for any instance of abuse of its power and failure to safeguard the interests of the citizenry. These last two points reveal a major contradiction in how the police are supposed to function and how it actually does; the following discussion germinates from this very contradiction.

The colonial legacy 

Investigating the extent of police brutality in India, one need not even go that far back in history. Between April 2017 and February 2018, the country recorded a staggering 1647 custodial deaths, translated into roughly a rate of five deaths per day. The police on its part has issued statements in its defence, claiming it has only eliminated “anti-socials” and “social-undesirables.” It has also put forward statements sighting the inevitability of ‘collateral damage’ in the operation to clean up crime.

The colonial legacy of the Indian police highlights how the use of force is endemic to policing in India, manifest in the organizational structure and the professional culture which often tolerates and even promotes abuse.  Indian police forces were designed to avoid local accountability. The British colonial model advocated the rule of India 'with a firm hand and ruthlessly, if necessary'. The colonial encounter with the police has been etched in the minds of the ordinary citizens and lived experience dictates them to distrust the police wholeheartedly. The problem here is that the British Raj modeled the police along the lines of a disciplinary task force. The Police Commission of 1860 submitted a telling report in the aftermath of the Great Revolt: "functions of the police are either protective and repressive or detective" and 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." The ambiguity in decision making stems directly from this lack of clarity of functioning of the police. Unfortunately, the institution is still dependent on such anachronistic laws like the Police Act of 1861; it is a Victorian-era legislation which doesn’t even have the criterion for disciplining the police.

Even the present-day legislations are designed explicitly to provide indemnity to the police forces. For instance the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was constituted in 1993 which came in the garb of reform with the intention of providing a platform to the victims of police brutality to seek justice. It was even given a statutory basis by the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993. But legislative procedures have been laid down such that it creates consequential hindrances in the very effective functioning of the Commission. Although it is supposed to operate independently, laws have kept it dependent on the government for two very fundamental yet crucial components: finance and manpower. What more, the Commission’s decisions are not enforceable; it can only recommend the government which rejects the reports in most of the cases. 

The laws against police wrongdoing are so weak that cases of human rights violations recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) have almost always been deemed as false by the police department itself. There is no public knowledge as to how the police exercise discretion in quashing such cases. This lack of accountability is so explicit in the existing legal clauses that it has proved to be a major obstacle in providing justice to the concerned victims.

Social conditioning of a policeman

Going beyond the structural deficiencies, basic social conditioning is problematic in itself. Sociologists have argued that one explanation of this poor performance of police force is that India is a transitional society, where the individual "lives an institutional life in a traditional set-up transmitted to him by his culture and under various affiliations of blood ties, family roles, kinship behaviour, age-old conventions, ethos, and value ideals".  Thus, coming from and having to operate in such a social set-up, the Indian policeman finds himself in a piquant situation. The contradiction in the mental outlook of an average Indian citizen has no better evidence than in his strong sense of loyalty to his communal and caste group. This is precisely the reason why police brutality towards Muslims and lower caste is so pronounced. While use of extra-judicial force by the police authorities is certainly not limited to any class, the frequency of the same on minorities and the vulnerable section is explicitly higher than that on their privileged counterparts. The Indian police display unprofessionalism in these instances because it fails to dissociate itself from the embedded position it finds itself to be in when dealing with a problem. The policeman prioritizes his affiliations towards his caste and creed and readily compromises with his duty. 

According to a study conducted by Centre for Study of Developing Societies, 14 percent believes Muslims are "very much" naturally prone to committing crimes and 36 percent hold that Muslims are "somewhat" naturally prone to committing crimes. Furthermore, 2016 Death Penalty India Report estimated 74 percent of prisoners who was sentenced to death belong to the vulnerable sections of society. These reports are nothing but glaring examples of the discriminatory treatments meted out by the police and its psychology.  

What’s more intriguing is, however, the deeper public conscience prevailing in India that facilitates the institutionalisation and perpetuation of this violent culture amongst the so-called security providers of the society. Thus the association of efficient policing with merciless use of force, violence, and inhumanity is the direct result of a deeply colonial bent of mind. This line of thinking has got entrenched not only within the institution concerned but the general public as well. Here soft power has over the years played a very significant role. Various media and entertainment platforms have glorified a ruthless police officer, masculinity and machoism being his signature identity.

Police reforms

While force is undoubtedly one of the prime modus operandi of the police authorities, it needs to be exercised within a certain clear legal and constitutional parameters. Here lays the fine line between democratic policing and an authoritarian style of disciplining people, a line that the Indian police fail to maintain.

These points finally lead us to the question of reform. The key issues that need to be addressed are the following;
● Poor level of training combined with very low pay-scale and insufficient sensitization programmes that result in incompetency, frustrations, corruption, and persistence of casteist mentality.
● Indian law grants extraordinary discretionary powers of arrest to police officers. The law leaves the determination of grounds for arrest entirely at the discretion of the police officer involved.
● Although there is no independent data available on police violence and abuses, frequent use of force is demonstrated by the occurrence of encounter killing - a severe symptom of police malfeasance.

It is thus clear that the use of extra-judicial forces by the police is not a new phenomenon. But it has garnered attention in the context of the COVID-19-induced lockdown in the sense that the pandemic has exposed its blatancy. The COVID-19 lockdown has witnessed peculiar phenomena, one that may be termed as carceral spillover. The prison is no longer the site of disciplining and/or torture. The streets have witnessed the use of violence by the police to discipline.

Multiple reports of police brutalities have surfaced on various media platforms, with the visual evidence provided by social media playing the most crucial role. One week into the lockdown, 173 people were assaulted by the police authorities across the country with 27 resulting in deaths and this is not an isolated state affair but a nation-wide occurrence.

The police have certainly been vested with the responsibility of enforcing the lockdown rules and regulations, but the Indian police have abysmally failed to draw a line between law-enforcement and repression. As a result, in spite of the government guidelines specifying that essential service provider like medical professionals, food and water transporters and individuals seeking essential items are exempted from the otherwise criminal proceedings that violators would be subject to, it is this section of the Indians that is most vulnerable.

Police brutality has become a threat greater than that of the pandemic. These people, the load-bearers of our society, be it migrant workers returning to their village or the food and medicine delivery boys are in the direst situation. With the pandemic on one hand and the police brutalities on the other, who is to guarantee their protection? Unfortunately, it’s neither the state nor its security providing apparatus. People have reported that out of fear of the police they are not going out of their homes even if that means starvation for days. This is the extent of distrust that characterises the civil-police relation.

Apart from all the above-mentioned shortcomings that already exist what has exacerbated this illness is lack of legal clarity regarding citizen rights during the lockdown that was issued by the government. The consequential gap has thus been widely used by police forces to carry out as well as justify their heinous acts.

Silence of the elite

As many scholars have noted that while the Indian elite is so concerned about police brutality and State-promoted discrimination in the US, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black American man who was killed by a white police officer, it is these very people who choose to remain silent over similar discriminations that are a regular affair in their own country.  

At this juncture, formal reforms through judgments or mere passage of legislations are not enough. Undeniably, it is necessary, but other factors need to be settled as well. On one hand, its implementation at the civil society level has to be immediately ensured and on the other the entire Indian psyche has to undergo a metamorphosis, especially the elites. It is this class-driven division of mentality that is highly advantageous for the State and its brutal apparatus.

(The writers are postgraduate students at the Department of International Relations,  Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Subhranil Ghosh can be contacted at ghoshsubhranil00@gmail.com.  The views expressed are personal)

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