On 23 May 2021, a Dalit man in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district complained of three policemen forcing him to drink urine. The Karnataka Police were forced to order a “departmental inquiry” by the man’s disturbing account of a soul-crushing encounter.
“Policemen beat me up for a couple of hours. Then they asked another man who was in the lockup to urinate on me. He refused, but he was forced to do it. After that, they made me lick the urine on the floor.”Dalit man
Just over a week later, a Muslim man in Delhi’s Fatehpur Beri was mercilessly thrashed by three policemen merely for calling the police helpline to stop a scuffle in his neighbourhood. His injuries were so severe that he needed spinal surgery to survive, and he’s still recovering.
Torture and violence have for long been the grammar of the police’s engagement with the Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, and Muslim communities. The cases of custodial torture reveal that individuals belonging to these communities are attacked for “daring” to go against the “hegemonic structures prescribed by dominant castes and religious groups”.
Despite various judgments of the Supreme Court, directions given by high courts, and recommendations of the Law Commission and state committees, policing continues to remain an oppressive institution for marginalised groups.
This begs the question, should we even demand police reforms now? Is the entire discourse on police reforms an attempt to ignore the fact that the institution of policing itself is arbitrary, discriminatory, and stacked against the most marginalised?
The Lip Service of Police Reforms
Since 1966, when the first Working Group on Police Reforms was set up by the central government, multiple voluminous documents have spelt out ways to reform the police. The notable ones are the reports of the National Police Commission (1977), Ribeiro Committee (1998), Padmanabhaiah Committee (2000), Malimath Committee (2000), and the Expert Committee (2006).
The composition of these committees has not been inclusive, which reflects in the complete absence of intersectionality in their recommendations, as issues of caste, religion, and gender are largely absent. The committees had disproportionately predominant representation of upper-caste cis-gender men, while the representation of women and the marginalised communities was little to nothing. This led to institutional silencing of the lived experience of those who are the biggest victims of discriminatory and arbitrary policing.
The reports, therefore, whitewashed “radical changes” with recommendations that could fit within the existing dominant sociopolitical structure – “more internal vigilance”, “increase funding”, and “promotions and transfers”. These recommendations look at reforming the police as more of an administrative issue instead of foregrounding the sociological factors of violent policing.
The reforms discourse glossed over the inherently casteist, classist, misogynist, and xenophobic elements of policing. Concepts of “police brutality”, “corruption”, and “illegal arrests” were mostly seen from caste-neutral and religion-neutral lens, so that recommendations to reform doesn’t lead to upheaval of dominant sociopolitical structures that influence and control policing.
This culture of police reforms became the biggest critique of the entire police reforms discourse. These committees are formed by the government and their recommendations are not binding. Therefore, the entire process becomes a spectacle to curb the clamour for justice that ensues after instances of police violence.
Committing Torture With Impunity
The spectacle of police reforms discourse, being just that, a spectacle, has failed to deter the police from abusive behaviour. The “ornamental reforms” have neglected the interplay between the police officer, the institution of policing, criminal laws governing investigation, government and the judiciary, that allow police violence to proliferate with impunity.
Most instances of custodial torture never make it to national news. Out of those who do, many become victims of the police’s “media strategy” which uses terms such as “departmental inquiry”, “suspension”, “transfer”, and “pending inquiry”, to put up a facade of accountability. For the public, this facade is conflated with justice, and the cases are soon forgotten.
The police departments always portray instances of custodial torture as “alleged acts of individual officers”, completely refusing to take any accountability for the institutional practices and ideology that motivated such officers to commit such acts in the first place.
The injustice is embedded in the system. How can we envisage even the slightest sense of “reform”, when the only recourse to torture is the institution that allowed its member to commit that torture in the first place. Even in cases of custodial torture, the investigation, evidence collection, and prosecution remain the prerogative of the institution whose prevailing ideology allowed such violence to become a chronic problem.
Even the National Human Rights Commission, which was conceived as an “independent watchdog” to check custodial torture, lacks teeth.
The NHRC’s recommendations are not binding on state governments. Its recent annual report reveals that out of the 757 cases where compensation was recommended, state governments complied only in 151 cases – just 19 percent.
The very design of the NHRC is synonymous with that of the reforms committee: to hijack the discourse on state violence to ensure the perpetuity of oppressive dominant sociopolitical system.
The NHRC chairman is appointed by the central government. The recent appointment of retired Supreme Court Judge Arun Mishra as the new NHRC chief exposes the political favouritism that underpin the institution. Moreover, the NHRC’s mandate is restricted to recommending compensation, showing how even an “independent watchdog” should not end up disrupting the existing sociopolitical structures.
Tired of Reforms Discourse That Never Works
Both the quantitative data and the individual narratives reveal that the police reforms discourse has failed to prevent the exposure of marginalised communities to police violence.
The major reason behind the failure of police reforms discourse to bring about actual change is that it has failed to acknowledge that the very ideology, purpose, and practices of policing are inherently oppressive.
The culture of “violence” is embedded in the police’s idea of discipline and control as the policing in India is seen as an extension of what sociologist David Scott called “colonial governmentality”. The policing in India is directly controlled by the government and thus, used to operationalise the government’s ideology on the streets through force and incapacitation.
The extension of colonial governmentality has ensured that the police is envisaged as tool for “social control of the deviant and the dissenter”. Therefore, those who are deemed “undesirable” by the government’s schema of economic and political ideology. How can then, such “undesirables”, ever think of liberation or justice from an institution that is designed to control and contain them?
In 2018, the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission published a report to gauge perceptions of policing among the Muslim population of India. The study’s respondents unanimously expressed that the police targets and victimises Muslims, resulting in ‘kafkaesque’ feelings within the Muslim community – cycles of fear, intimidation, and the constant threat of being detained, abused and possibly incarcerated.
We could not find any nationwide study of such a scale to gauge the policing perceptions of Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans, and sexual minorities. This shows the degree to which the narratives of these communities have been stifled.
Abused, silenced, and eventually forgotten – that is what the marginalised communities have received in the name of “police reforms”. There’s a declining hope in envisaging justice within this system, and the reforms discourse it advocates.
The discourse on police violence needs what Sociologist and Professor Amna A Akbar called the “radical reimagination of law". Such discourse can only be meaningful when it decentres dominant castes, and privileges the narratives of the marginalised and the oppressed communities in the reforms process.