The brutal torture and death of a father and son in custody in Tamil Nadu brings the issue of police impunity to the fore once again. The deaths were not caused by bullets, which might have been less painful, but by organ damage that shows how merciless the policemen were. The victims were dragged to the police station for a non-violent crime — a civil offence of keeping the shop open longer than allowed — very similar to the George Floyd case in America. But where is India’s Floyd moment?
Earlier this week, the Maharashtra government reinstated four policemen accused in the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus in 2003. Yunus’s mother has filed a contempt of court petition since a suspension done by a court order cannot be legally revoked by the government. Her son, an IT engineer, was taken by the police and never returned. She could not even see his dead body.
The family went to the Bombay High Court. A CID enquiry revealed that while the police claimed that Yunus had absconded, he had died in police custody. He was allegedly stripped and beaten on the chest and abdomen with a belt in a lockup. Out of the 14 indicted policemen, only four were charged by the Maharashtra government. The case for murder, voluntarily causing grievous hurt to extort confession, fabricating evidence, and criminal conspiracy, is still pending.
We feel awed and overwhelmed seeing the uproar in the US, followed by rallies in London and Paris in support of Black Lives Matter. This has been long overdue. The US police reportedly shoot and kill around 1,000 black people every year. Racial profiling marks African-American youth as “criminals” and fills American prisons with them. Historically, some of America’s first police units were actual patrols to catch runaway slaves. Later, police units participated in or abetted lynching and enforced Jim Crow laws. Floyd was handcuffed and pushed down on the road with the policeman’s foot on his neck. His last words were “I can’t breathe”.
Marathi journalist and writer Samar Khadas wrote a story called Bakryachi Body (The body of the goat) based on the Yunus case. In the story, a Muslim youth is arrested and tied to the chair in the police station. They put a towel on his face and keep throwing water on it. The man struggles, keeps begging, then slowly his pleas and voice become guttural. In the end, only silence. All the while, the policemen are sitting around joking, eating and watching TV.
Successive governments have failed to charge policemen indicted by Srikrishna Commission for their inaction or direct violence in the Bombay riots of 1992-93, for shooting Muslims point-blank, for sending families back to rioters.
This kind of police behaviour often gets justified as “stress” or because “the police are common people too”. This is a twisted argument that allows the police on one hand, to be egoistic, vengeful macho men, and on the other hand, provides them with arms, closed spaces and immunity from consequences.
In India, the structures that enable police brutality date back to the British Raj, when the colonial government used bullets, torture and branding as criminals to discipline the lowest strata of Indians, including tribals, Dalits and Muslims. After Independence, the police departments continued to be brutal, prejudiced and bereft of scientific policing techniques. A survey by Common Cause, a non-governmental organisation, and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Delhi, showed that 14 per cent of police personnel feel that Muslims are “very much” naturally prone to committing crimes, while 36 per cent feel that Muslims are “somewhat” prone.
This bias comes handy when the current right-wing political regime tries to “teach a lesson” to its political opponents. From Kashmir to Northeast Delhi, from JNU and Jamia to Aligarh Muslim University, we have seen aggressive police actions against protesters.
The Hindu-Muslim rift that started before Partition has been successfully fuelled by the right-wing in the past three decades. The “dangerous minority” discourse overshadows that systemic discrimination and economic deprivation of Muslims has resulted in Muslim OBCs (lower castes amongst Muslims) sinking on social and economic indicators — as revealed by the Justice Sachar Committee report in 2006. The propaganda that portrays Muslims as villains creates impunity for the police.
India does not follow the “command responsibility” principle for police chiefs — the commander of forces is not held guilty for failing to curb illegal activities of those in his charge.
Nor does the law permit common citizens to sue a police officer – only the government has that discretion. Governments and superior officers have been alleged to shield the guilty, making the path to justice thorny for the survivors of police brutality.
Black people in the US are now demanding the total dismantling of police departments, not token reforms within existing structures. They have been marching the streets chanting, “I can’t breathe” in memory of Floyd. I can’t breathe also means, “with their foot on my neck, I can’t be free”. I can’t move around, I can’t hold a job, rent a place, pray, go to university. I can’t be a citizen.
Thousands of white people are on the streets of Europe and the US, supporting black people in their demands, saying, “No Justice, No Peace”. Can we hope the Indian majority classes and governments will follow suit?
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 4 under the title “Crime and impunity.” Husain Dalwai is a former Rajya Sabha MP and Sameena Dalwai is professor, Jindal Global Law School.
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