Updated: August 4, 2021 8:11:36 am
The latest trend of Assam Police personnel shooting alleged offenders in various parts of the state and the defence of such incidents by both the police establishment and the chief minister displays a dangerous politics. According to news reports, since mid-May, after the new BJP government led by Himanta Biswa Sarma came into power, at least 24 people were shot at by the police; five of them died. Each was allegedly in police custody when they were shot at, and most of their alleged crimes were robbery, drug peddling, cattle theft, etc. In some cases, the police themselves admitted that they discovered past criminal cases against the dead only afterwards.
The police killings of petty offenders or accused has often been perceived by human rights defenders and scholars as an integral part of the dark practices of an institution still under a colonial hangover in its structure and functioning. Civil rights organisations like PUDR started reporting cases of torture and killing in police custody in the early 1980s. Since then, scholars have studied torture and death in police custody and connected it variously to the inherent dilemmas of a liberal democratic state, where police violence is often practised on the ground but hidden by the state (Jinee Lokaneeta, 2012), the contingent or jugaari nature of police functioning where the police work under pressure from political and community leaders while dealing with lack of resources and transparency (Beatrice Jauregui, 2017). I have looked at how police violence, whether in the context of managing crime or fighting political resistance, feed on discourses of “othering” on the one hand, and promises of “protection” in the absence of other “efficient” institutions (Khanikar, 2018). All these works note how the de facto practices of policing in the country move away from rights and guarantees of the Constitution, and often violate various sections of the IPC. Lokaneeta, in her recent book, argues that such violence is hidden by a scaffolding of rule of law in post-colonial India. Legal technicalities, procedures, paperwork, etc. hide the violence of real policing, apart from taking recourse to denials and blaming rogue lower-level personnel.
The recent spate of police violence in Assam, however, doesn’t seem to be taking recourse to any of these masking techniques. There is no attempt at hiding or passing the buck. Chief Minister Sarma openly said that the state police has been given orders to shoot at the legs of “criminals”, though not at their heads or chests. When asked if police shoot-outs have become a pattern in the state, the CM responded by saying that police shoot-outs should be a pattern, using the word “criminals” while referring to the alleged offenders. He justified such shoot-outs in the name of “public good”. The police’s predictable defence in most of the cases involves either an attempt to flee or seizure of guns, where none of the police personnel ever gets injured but only the one in custody gets shot.
Though the NHRC has sent letters to the state police, the open support of the BJP government for such custodial violence makes justice hard to attain, if not impossible. The gains, however little, achieved through decades of work of civil liberties groups, and milestone judgments like DK Basu are reversed through the open endorsement of custodial violence by an elected government. It also belies the very promise of a liberal democratic society, of respect towards every individual as of equal worth, assumption of innocence until proven guilty, and of a reformative, not punitive, criminal justice system.
Extreme police action is not unknown to Assam. In a political context chequered with protest movements and their suppression, police and paramilitary state violence is a part of daily life for many in the state. Narratives of the brutality of the police, Indian army and CRPF operations in search of ULFA activists are part of village lore that children grow up with. The late ’90s and early 2000s were the times of the “secret killers”. More recently, there have been various incidents of police violence. The torture of three women in Darrang district in 2019, one of them pregnant, was widely reported and critiqued, and a police sub-inspector and woman constable were suspended and investigated on charges of torture.
But in all these previous instances of police violence, there have either been attempts to hide them or fabricate them as something else, or blame was placed upon lower-level personnel. The recent examples of police violence in the state, however, project a different ideology of policing and governance in the state. DGP Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta in a recent press meet regarding Covid-19-related restrictions talked about how the police would be forced to beat up people if they are found on roads, and followed it with actual beatings as well as more “innovative” harassment techniques like picking up morning walkers and leaving them stranded far away from their home. This openly vigilante nature of routine police practices gels well with the incidents of shoot-outs because, in both kinds of practice, the police are given an official sanction to act in authoritarian ways.
In the context of George Floyd protests in the US, and in the context of India after the custodial killings of Jayaraj and Bennix in Tamil Nadu, while police abolition movements are advocating alternative ways of ensuring public safety, government justification of such lawless police forces looks like a death knell for democracy and civil rights.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 4, 2021 under the title ‘Trigger-happy injustice’. The writer is assistant professor, JNU, and author of State, Violence, and Legitimacy in India (OUP).
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