Ask any kid over seven years old anywhere in the country as to what the police do and his or her response would be that the police beat up people—police maarti hai. Ask any adult the same question and they would tell with a little clarification that, without the ‘lubricating factors’ of some ‘connection’, ‘pressure’ or bribe, the default response of the police is to beat up people. At their very best, police are unsympathetic, rough and humiliating; at their worst, they kill people in custodial torture or fake encounters.
Two millennia of police brutality
These are not new phenomena. Historically, police in India has always been like that. The evil nature of the police was ruthlessly exposed even in the ancient Sanskrit literary work ‘Mrichhakatikam’ written by Shudrak in the first century AD. In this, the villain Shakaar happens to be the brother-in-law of the king and hence a powerful man. He kills the heroine Vasantsena after a failed rape attempt and then gets the hero, a poor Brahmin Charudutt falsely implicated for the murder! Shudrak foresaw the 21st century! Stories of torture by the police in the medieval period are legion with some of the most diabolical methods of torture invented by them. A separate book could be written on them.
At their very best, police are unsympathetic, rough and humiliating; at their worst, they kill people in custodial torture or fake encounters.
It is only the degree of their ‘badness’ that varies somewhat with the prevailing societal ambience or the proclivities of the people in power. Indians must collectively be ashamed that despite 74 years following independence, the Indian police has carried on its inglorious traditions with great diligence.
Even by the conservative estimates of the Supreme Court in the cases of Prithipal Singh (2011) and Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (2016), at least 2,097 people were tortured and killed in fake encounters in Punjab and 1,528 in Manipur. That is how, as Cathy Scott-Clark reported for The Guardian, in Kashmir, some 8,000 people had ‘disappeared’ from the custody of security forces. Greater Kashmir reported in November 2017 that the State Human Rights Commission had ordered a comprehensive forensic examination, including DNA testing, for all the 2,080 graves of unidentified people in the Pir Panjal region of Jammu within six months.
There are several political, sociological, psychological and economic reasons for such behaviour.
Political reasons of police highhandedness
Throughout the ancient and medieval periods, the writ of the rulers could run largely because the army/police could keep the exploited people suppressed by force. This made them identify themselves intimately with the rulers or the ruling dispensation.
It also made them look down upon the people and lowered the human value of their ‘victims’. Treating people as inferior beings came to be accepted as a sort of universal truth—it was the right of the ‘coercive arm’ to ‘lord’ over the subject people and keep them under the boots of the rulers. Eventually, they started regarding people as vermin bereft of any feelings (or sub-humans), and for whom they were not obliged to get any pangs of guilt after they debased, tortured or killed them.
In the modern era, even as India donned the veneer of Westminster democracy, this ‘right’ acquired the status of a ‘sacred duty’ because they made themselves believe that they were enforcing the laws or rules of conduct for the orderly existence of the society—never mind that the laws were invariably framed by the rulers primarily for their benefit.
Various governments in post-independence India have deliberately not enacted a law on Torture because they actually want this potent tool to remain intact in their hands
Treating people as pawns of the State
The very fact that the police can so ‘comfortably’ be brutal towards fellow citizens means that things like democratic values and human life mean nothing to them. We have a ‘confession’ regarding this. A former editor of The Washington Post, Steve Coll, in his work ‘On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia’ (pp.167-72), narrates how he had a revealing conversation with the KPS Gill sometime before 1993. Without any compunction, Gill maintained that people were pawns of the State and police was the essential tool for suppressing the rabble—democracy was no solution. Coll concluded that fake encounters were not aberrations but rather the product of a deliberate policy.
Even if most of the police officers of the past or present are not able to articulate their views in such a candid manner, they do subscribe to it wholeheartedly in whichever way they understand it.
Torture as a tool of State control
Winston Nagan et al have observed that the practice of torture is a powerful institutional expression of statecraft, power, and social control. Given this ‘approval’ of the State, cops try to justify it in the name of their version of ‘national interest’. The Indian State has deliberately not enacted a law on Torture because they actually want this potent tool to remain intact in their hands.
There have been many instances in which torture was inflicted at the behest of political parties or politicians. In such cases, the basic motivation of the police is ‘pleasing the master’—they are acting merely as ‘hired goons’.
Indian Police is not just inhuman but also brutal, castist and communal
Sociological and psychological reasons
Torture is also popularized as a ‘macho’, daredevil or expedient way of dealing with things, which, in their perverted logic, cannot be dealt with by the legal and ‘effeminate’ way of policing. This is a very clever stratagem. Few cops, including even women police officers, can resist the temptation of being branded macho. Anyone who is critical of such practices is derided and excommunicated from the fraternity as an ‘academic type’ who has no idea of how ‘tough and complicated real policing’ is. In their sub-culture, to be considered a ‘practical’ police officer, one must engage in all the illegal things including torture and extra-judicial killings, thereby bringing most of the cops under enormous peer pressure.
Fake encounters and their societal approval
The British imposed a criminal justice system on the Indians that was alien to them. They were arrogant and did not mind killing the subjects in riot control. However, asserting their authority by killing people surreptitiously was utterly repugnant to their ethical values. The Indian officials, always suffering from insecurity about their authority, never liked it. As long as they remained under the British, Indian police officers had no option but to obey their British superiors. The moment that control was removed after independence, the ‘beast within them’ leapt out with all fangs bared. Indian police officers quickly realized that the law was an ass. As long as they wielded adequate influence at the right places, they could get away literally with murder. That is how the culture of fake encounters was born.
The business of fake encounters really took off with the advent of terrorism in India. They sold a narrative to the people that a large number of Indian Sikhs, Muslims, people of the northeast and left-extremists were a part of an international conspiracy to destabilize India. Moreover, since our complicated legal system did not permit the anti-nationals to be convicted easily, the simplest way to rid society of them was to kill them extra-judicially.
According to Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of USA the police must obey the law while enforcing the law. Sadly, the Indian police cares two hoots about such noble sentiments
Police officers love fake encounters because they are acutely aware of the institutionalized ‘culture of impunity and the vocal support of a large section of bloodthirsty people who want nothing but instant justice, Bollywood style. Many Bollywood hit films have exalted this style of policing.
The cops are, in reality, driven by the desire of instant popularity and rewards like medals. Fake encounters have become an industry and a lucrative source of great income. ‘Contract killing’ by the police in fake encounters was exposed by the Supreme Court in Prakash Kadam (2011).
The police fraternity never wants any change
The State and the police leadership have never desired any change because the excessive powers granted by the archaic laws suits them. The 152nd Report of the Law Commission (1994), for example, had pointed out an old discrepancy that while a confession made by a person in police custody was not admissible, a disclosure statement leading to recovery was admissible—irrespective of how it was obtained. This provides a reason for extorting confession through torture—recoveries can always be planted. In Arup Bhuyan (2011), the Supreme Court had commented that even Joan of Arc had confessed to being a witch under torture.
For something that has been there since the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, why is it that generations of IP/IPS officers had not pointed it out? Either they must admit that they have been so dumb that it never occurred to them, or they must admit that they have had been approving of torture!
The Devil is not in the job but in the man
There is nothing intrinsic to the job of policing that makes them inhuman. Contrary to popular perceptions that in their job they have to deal with the filth and the dregs of the society, the desensitization or de-humanization of the cops takes place because they are obsessed with the desires of power, money and carnal pleasures. ‘Sleeping’ with the rulers ensures that they also get their share of these.
Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the USA had said in Spano v. New York, the police must obey the law while enforcing the law. Life and liberty can be as much endangered from illegal methods as from the actual criminals themselves. Sadly, Indian police care two hoots about such noble sentiments.