The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has thrust the issue of police brutality on the consciousness of the whole world. There have been expressions of protests throughout the world, including in places like Syria and Greece.
Police brutality has a long history in the United States. In southern, cotton-producing US, a lot of the early policing was linked to maintaining the system of slavery. In the northern parts, even if the police started out as a municipal force, they were expected to control “a “dangerous underclass” that included African Americans, immigrants and the poor.”
The discriminatory regime of laws promulgated after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1865), called the Jim Crow laws, put into practice legalized racial segregation in the US. It was the police who were often called in to enforce the specifics of the laws, further entrenching the biases against the black population.
While instances of brutal police behavior have a long history in India too, it is only recently that “police brutality” has been talked about quite publicly.
When on Dec 15 2019, in Delhi, some young women students of Jamia Millia Islamia university faced the police, even attempting to snatch the baton from the cops who were beating up a colleague of theirs, they were hailed as powerful symbols against visible police brutality.
On that day, the police had reacted with excessive violence against students at Jamia protesting the recently approved Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The police allege that the protest got rowdy and some public property was damaged.
That was enough for the Delhi police for the retaliation which followed. The police indiscriminately rained blows on students and bystanders with lathis. Later that evening, the police entered the library of the university, chased out the students inside and burst tear-gas shells, vandalising the library in the process.
On the same day, a student protest at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in solidarity with the Jamia protest, was met with even more brute force from the UP police. Several students and bystanders were injured, some of them grievously, as a fact-finding report makes clear.
Police violence against the continuing protests against the CAA was in evidence in subsequent days in areas of the capital, Delhi, and in several other parts of the country, like in the states of UP and Karnataka. The police clamped down on protests remorselessly, striking protesters with their batons, detaining them at sites of protests, even firing live bullets and killing innocent people. A people’s tribunal held in Delhi in January 2020 found undeniable instances of targeted violence by the police.
The December incidents were largely characterized in the media with words such as ‘violence’, an ‘assault’ or an ‘attack’. Some reports, however, employed the term ‘police brutality, ’ such as this headline from The Hindu, Video of police brutality in Jamia Millia Islamia library goes viral or this later report from The Telegraph, ‘Jamia students move SC on December 15 police brutality.’
Several public protests that followed the incidents at Jamia, especially those in Delhi, saw protestors carrying placards and signs which had messages such as, “Condemn Police Brutality.”
“Police brutality” as an issue – especially with that nomenclature – had not been very high on the list of civil rights excesses till then in India, unfortunately.
That is not to say that the Indian citizens do not face police brutality – far from it. In fact, the poor, the marginalized and the minorities suffer from a brutal culture of police violence, when they are met with beatings, torture, rapes and executions for one flimsy reason or another. We are talking about the brutality of the “ordinary police” here, not the special forces and squads that operate in what are considered hotbeds of supposed guerilla and separatist movements.
In certain geographical areas such as the adivasi areas, both the regular police and special police outfits inflict violence upon the adivasis. Just recently, “security forces” were indicted for killing 17 members of an adivasi tribe in Chhattisgarh in 2012. Such gross violations of human rights and lives is all too common in certain parts of India but indictments as the one above rare. The reality of police brutality for India’s Dalits, Muslims and adivasis is as real as it is for African-Americans in the US.
The bias in police against minorities has been documented, for instance, by the late Omar Khalidi in his book, Khaki And The Ethnic Violence In India.
In former IPS officer V.N. Rai’s words, who conducted research on police bias: “I was stunned to discover that in most major communal riots in the country, Muslims were the worst sufferers, both in terms of loss of life and property. Often, the percentage of Muslim casualties was more than 60% of the total. Their losses in terms of property were in similar proportion.”
The demography of the undertrials in India’s prison system also remains heavily skewed towards the economically weak, the minorities, and those of so-called lower castes. This is another point of similarity with the policing in the US which targets blacks. The prison system in the US incarcerates blacks in overwhelming numbers.
Importantly, the gross violations of human rights against the minorities have taken place often in areas remote from urban areas. They occur in the habitats of the adivasis, maybe in forested areas of Bastar or Jharkhand, or in various rural or semi-urban locations in the case of Dalits and Muslims.
The case, such as at Jamia, was one of very visible violence upon urban university students in a public space. The violence was also carried amidst a social-media savvy public, and often with members of the mainstream media present. Of course, all this was happening in the capital city of Delhi, with national and international attention already on the incidents. This finally enabled some sort of a recognition of wilful, targeted and vengeful police brutality.
As has been written in the George Floyd case, it is the fact of public presence around the incident and the full video shot by bystander Darnella Frazier which established beyond doubt the innocence of Floyd. Otherwise, the victim of police violence is always under doubt for having done something criminal to have ‘deserved’ the punishment.
As Kevin Rashid Johnson of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party wrote, “[U]nlike in times past, this crowd didn’t cheer but instead pleaded over and over for the cop who murdered George Floyd, to let him breathe…Also, unlike days of old, this murder was filmed for the world to also witness.”
More often than not, for India’s Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, there are no bystanders who can intervene, no cameras to record the brutalities.
Some recent articles in the Indian media have wondered why there are no major protests against police brutality in India. Police brutality as an historically conditioned strategy of oppression by an arm of law-enforcement (non-military) against a minority has not been recorded in India. Moreover, the cases of more generalized police violence against all kinds of minorities have been mostly hidden from public view, as stated above.
But the protests one witnesses against the murder of George Floyd are in themselves a truly remarkable event. They are spread all-across the US, even in the more conservative southern states, which set up early police-systems to catch runaway slaves. They have also seen participation across races, religions and ethnicities.
A lot of this is spontaneous on account of the shocking nature of the incident. For, it is more the exception than the rule that protests against injustices against African-Americans are joined by masses across the US. America is a largely depoliticized nation, with its workers’ rights and organizations under attack, and its slightly more radical organizing in spaces such as minority rights often co-opted and hounded. Its education system is defanged with almost no student unions or politically-inspired student bodies.
By and large, it is a nation that has been silent over a lot of injustices year after year. But, to the credit of its defenders of rights and those who have struggled over various issues of justice over the years, especially African-Americans and other minorities, there is increasing awareness of the inequities, especially racial and economic, that beset America.
It is to that long history of organizing, protest and struggle that we can look to when we see the massive numbers who have turned out for the George Floyd protests. It is not an overnight phenomenon. How that will be able to take the movement for structural change this time around is another discussion which also needs separate attention.
India’s history of organizing and struggle, especially over minority rights, has been fragmented and lately, severely under attack. Also, since “police brutality” as a social justice or human rights category is not yet embedded in public consciousness, opposition to it can only be in the early stages.
For most others of us, who are so-called upper-caste, upper class and Hindu, our position is not different from that of privileged classes elsewhere, like the whites in the US and elsewhere. We are not regular targets of police as a group or community, or just on account of our economic status. We do not have long histories of run-ins with the police. And if ever we do find some entanglement with the police, we have “contacts,” or we can at least afford lawyers.
Such is not the reality for most of the Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims – and the poor – who find themselves at the receiving end of police high-handedness. Like the African-Americans, they end up being beaten, jailed – or killed.
Umang Kumar is a writer based in Delhi NCR.