As tens of thousands of Americans continue to protest the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last week, the world’s attention has focused on the problems of racism and police brutality in the United States. Thousands of miles away, in India, prominent public figures and Bollywood stars such as Priyanka Chopra have taken to social media to express their sadness at the way in which Floyd died.
But the U.S. protests also raise an uncomfortable question in the world’s largest democracy: Why are there no mass demonstrations over the frequent cases of police brutality in India?
While Americans examine the role of race in their society and how it impacts policing, the underlying factors behind excessive police force and corruption in India are more complicated, including the divisions created by religion, caste, power, and wealth. Some attitudes and structures enabling police brutality date back to colonization and laws put in place by the British. But while India was able to assert its independence more than seven decades ago, it has yet to conclusively address the inequities within its society.
In the weeks following India’s strict coronavirus lockdown that began on March 25, a gush of media reports told a story of unfettered police aggression. In the central Indian city of Pune, an ambulance driver was beaten by the police on suspicion of illegally transporting passengers in his vehicle. (He was not.) In West Bengal, a man was allegedly assaulted by the police when he stepped out to buy milk. He later died from his injuries. In just the first week of the country’s shutdown, the police assaulted 173 people and were allegedly responsible for 27 deaths, according to a report by a local nonprofit organization.
In the eastern state of Bihar, police sought a bribe from a man who was transporting potatoes during lockdown. When he refused, they shot at him. In Madhya Pradesh, the police punished a man who violated the lockdown by writing the words “I have violated lockdown, stay away from me” on his forehead. Punjab’s police punished one scofflaw by rubbing his nose on the ground. These instances disproportionately impacted the country’s millions of daily wage laborers, who needed to work to put food on the table, and out-of-state workers, who were displaced by the sudden orders to stay at home.
Some recent police activity seems vengeful. In the past six weeks, Delhi’s police have arrested several student union leaders and other dissidents who legally protested anti-Muslim government laws in January and February—demonstrations that came to a halt primarily because of the coronavirus lockdown. Since there is limited access to courts in this period, the arrests effectively thwart the potential for renewed protests once lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Delhi’s police force, which reports directly to the central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, faced blame in February when religious violence ripped apart neighborhoods in the city’s northeast. A clash between demonstrators for and against the government’s controversial citizenship laws flared into riots after police threw stones at Muslim protesters and beat young Muslim men to death, according to the BBC. One video caught cops smashing closed-circuit TV cameras, while another showed them helping men gather stones to throw. Several reports showed that policemen stood by while the attackers went about their business, leading expert observers to describe the rioting as a state-backed pogrom.
Not a single policeman has been arrested for the documented excesses during the riots.
Police overreach is not new, of course. Last year, United Nations experts said they were “extremely concerned” about a spate of extrajudicial killings by police in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The killings, known locally as “encounters,” are often defended by the police as necessary acts of self-defense.
Many of the problems with policing in India go back to the colonial era. The British Raj deployed the police largely to discipline the local population. When India become independent in 1947, its new government retained much of the old British playbook for policing, such as a tiered system for recruitment. The upper tier is reserved for those who pass highly competitive examinations, requiring years of focused study. Candidates who pass those tests are recruited into the Indian Police Service (IPS), where they are fast-tracked to high-level planning and strategy roles, creating a sort of upper class within the national police corps. Only those who can afford to spend several years studying after graduating college can hope to hold these positions. In India, many aspirants from the so-called lower castes are the first in their families to be literate, and so they start with an immense—and often insurmountable—disadvantage when applying to join the police force.
Outside of the IPS, police recruits usually undergo about a couple of years of mainly physical training and join at one of the lower rungs of the force, mostly the constabulary. The police system reflects the caste and class hierarchies of their communities, with entrenched beliefs about positions in society. Although police recruits go through training to sensitize them, prejudices are carried forward into their policing duties.
Fourteen percent of police personnel feel that Muslims are “very much” naturally prone to committing crimes, while 36 percent feel that Muslims are “somewhat” naturally prone to committing crimes, according to a survey by Common Cause, a nongovernmental organization, and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a social-science research institute.
Two in 5 police personnel are of the opinion that gender-based complaints of violence are likely false. A reason for that could be the massive underrecruitment of women in the police force, as well as a lack of training and sensitization. According to the 2019 India Justice Report, if the state of Madhya Pradesh continues to recruit women into the force as it is doing today, it would need 294 years to meet the official requirement of having one-third of its new recruits be women.
If India isn’t seeing mass protests demanding police accountability, it may be because the police itself broadly represents the problems within the country’s citizenry. The lived experience of an upper-caste, upwardly mobile man in a police station would be starkly different from that of an oppressed-caste, poor woman—just as it would be in businesses throughout the country. The 2016 Death Penalty India Report estimated that 74 percent of prisoners who were sentenced to death belong to economically vulnerable sections of society.
Corruption and power keep the system going. Police forces are supervised by the political executive—headed by home ministers of respective states. Recruitment and career advancement are directly overseen by political leaders, making the police accountable to the politicians and not the public.
Some attempts at reform have been made. In 2006, a Supreme Court judgment on police reform resulted in the drafting of a new Model Police Act, which was meant to have an independent body scrutinize police actions. But according to the nonprofit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, only 17 of 29 states had even ratified the act by 2018.
While celebrities, politicians, and regular Indian citizens might tweet angrily against police brutality in the United States, their words mean little if they don’t rise up to examine their own problems closer to home. But for many, that would mean giving up their own powers and privileges.