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Police Brutality, an American nightmare, once again becomes a reality in urban India

Protest against new Citizenship Bill see brutal crackdown on protests

Ananda Maitreya 02 Jan 2020

police brutality

The iconic images from Ferguson (Missouri) in the US of ordinary people standing up to police (“The woman in the dress”) or in front of armored vehicles found resonance in India when some young women students faced up to police beating up a colleague of theirs at the Jamia Millia University in New Delhi, even attempting to snatch the baton from the cops. 

When fatalities from police brutality in the United States were in the center of the world’s attention, there were examples advanced of low levels of fatalities from police action in places like India. This was attributed to the low-tech nature of the Indian police force - the average Indian policeman is not armed with a gun but with a stick. “Police brutality” as an issue has not been very high on the list of civil rights excesses till now in India, unfortunately.  

That is not to say that the Indian citizens do not face police violence - far from it. In fact, mostly 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 guerilla and separatist movements. In certain geographical areas, however, such as those with large indigenous populations, both the regular police and special police outfits terrorize the local populations. Just recently, “security forces” were indicted for killing 17 members of an indigenous tribe in central India in 2012. Such gross violations of human rights and lives is all too common in certain parts of India and indictments as the one above rare. The  demography of the accused in India’s prison system remains heavily biased towards the economically weak, the minorities, and those of lower castes. Also, importantly, the gross violations of human rights against the minorities have taken place often in areas remote from urban areas - in the habitats of the indigenous or various rural or semi-urban locations of the lower caste and Muslims. 

On Sunday Dec 15, the  police in New Delhi reacted brutally against protesting students from a state-run, central university, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). The students had organized a peaceful protest against the recently approved Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The bill, passed in the Indian parliament on December 11, ostensibly to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from India’s neighboring countries, is worded in exclusionary language - it allows refugees of the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi communities to seek Indian citizenship - but explicitly leaves out Muslims. 

Earlier the current Indian government, the Hindu majoritarian BJP, had given the final touches to a long-running process called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the north-eastern state of Assam. Under that process nearly 2 million residents of the state were declared non-citizens for want of proper proof of residence. Their fate is yet undecided, though there is some recourse to appeals - failing which they would be reportedly sent to detention centers

On the heels of the NRC in just the state of Assam, the government had announced plans for a  nationwide NRC exercise which would determine “true citizens” and weed out the “infiltrators.” The NRC exercise in Assam had ended up primarily targeting Muslims who were alleged to have come in “illegally”  from neighboring Bangladesh. Such a double whammy where Muslims have been singled out in exclusionary ways, first by the NRC and then by the CAA, has struck fear and anxiety primarily in the hearts of Muslims, but also in several other minority groups, as all of a sudden legal residents of India too could be required to prove their citizenship credentials.

But, it was the blatantly religious nature and wording of the CAA which rattled large swathes of the country, whether Muslim or not. Though the BJP won a second term to rule India for 5 more years jin Jun 2019, it is significant to note that it garnered less than 40% of the vote. Also, while it is undeniable that the BJP has managed to increasingly woo many Indians to its Hindu majoritarian agenda, the fact remains that India has a wide range of social and religious communities and for the longest time Indians have grown up with ideas that their country believes in state secularism, a policy that accords a sort-of equal treatment to all religions. 

The students at the JMI university called for a protest on Dec 13 but the march soon saw some disruptions. Whoever was to blame for these diversions and provocations, the police decided to retaliate with disproportionate and brute force. It rained blows indiscriminately on students and bystanders with the long batons (called lathis) they normally carry. Later that evening, the police even entered the library of the university, chased the students inside and burst tear-gas shells, vandalising the library in the process. 

On the same day, a student protest in solidarity with the Jamia protest at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), another central university, located in the town of Aligarh about 150 miles east of Delhi, was met with even more brute force from the police. Several students and bystanders were injured, some of them grievously, as a fact-finding report makes clear. 

Police violence against those continuing protests against the CAA was in evidence again 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. It has continued till the writing of this piece as police have been clamping down on protests swiftly and remorselessly, striking protesters with their batons and detaining them at sites of protests, and firing live bullets and killing innocent people. 

Such cases of very public and visible violence visited upon urban university students and the social-media savvy youth in general, especially in the capital city of Delhi,  which has finally enabled a recognition of wilful police brutality. As noted above, the police have also brutally repressed dissent in Muslim-majority areas in states not far from Delhi. It is the current awareness of and outrage over the police actions in Delhi which have also enabled the urban population across India to appreciate what it means to be targeted and exposed to vicious violence. 

Hopefully, such an attention on issues of policing, and also on repressive ways of managing dissent will bring into its ambit a discussion on the larger issue of routine police violence. But more importantly, it should place the police’s role in targeting minorities and those economically disadvantaged in the limelight. For all of us who have been insulated from the brutalities of police interactions, this will be a wake-up call.

The author is a Delhi-based writer and a student of social movements. He has been involved in various struggles of the marginalized people, including anti-caste, indigenous and the Palestinian struggle.

Police Brutality, an American nightmare, once again becomes a reality in urban India

Protest against new Citizenship Bill see brutal crackdown on protests

police brutality

The iconic images from Ferguson (Missouri) in the US of ordinary people standing up to police (“The woman in the dress”) or in front of armored vehicles found resonance in India when some young women students faced up to police beating up a colleague of theirs at the Jamia Millia University in New Delhi, even attempting to snatch the baton from the cops. 

When fatalities from police brutality in the United States were in the center of the world’s attention, there were examples advanced of low levels of fatalities from police action in places like India. This was attributed to the low-tech nature of the Indian police force - the average Indian policeman is not armed with a gun but with a stick. “Police brutality” as an issue has not been very high on the list of civil rights excesses till now in India, unfortunately.  

That is not to say that the Indian citizens do not face police violence - far from it. In fact, mostly 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 guerilla and separatist movements. In certain geographical areas, however, such as those with large indigenous populations, both the regular police and special police outfits terrorize the local populations. Just recently, “security forces” were indicted for killing 17 members of an indigenous tribe in central India in 2012. Such gross violations of human rights and lives is all too common in certain parts of India and indictments as the one above rare. The  demography of the accused in India’s prison system remains heavily biased towards the economically weak, the minorities, and those of lower castes. Also, importantly, the gross violations of human rights against the minorities have taken place often in areas remote from urban areas - in the habitats of the indigenous or various rural or semi-urban locations of the lower caste and Muslims. 

On Sunday Dec 15, the  police in New Delhi reacted brutally against protesting students from a state-run, central university, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). The students had organized a peaceful protest against the recently approved Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The bill, passed in the Indian parliament on December 11, ostensibly to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from India’s neighboring countries, is worded in exclusionary language - it allows refugees of the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi communities to seek Indian citizenship - but explicitly leaves out Muslims. 

Earlier the current Indian government, the Hindu majoritarian BJP, had given the final touches to a long-running process called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the north-eastern state of Assam. Under that process nearly 2 million residents of the state were declared non-citizens for want of proper proof of residence. Their fate is yet undecided, though there is some recourse to appeals - failing which they would be reportedly sent to detention centers

On the heels of the NRC in just the state of Assam, the government had announced plans for a  nationwide NRC exercise which would determine “true citizens” and weed out the “infiltrators.” The NRC exercise in Assam had ended up primarily targeting Muslims who were alleged to have come in “illegally”  from neighboring Bangladesh. Such a double whammy where Muslims have been singled out in exclusionary ways, first by the NRC and then by the CAA, has struck fear and anxiety primarily in the hearts of Muslims, but also in several other minority groups, as all of a sudden legal residents of India too could be required to prove their citizenship credentials.

But, it was the blatantly religious nature and wording of the CAA which rattled large swathes of the country, whether Muslim or not. Though the BJP won a second term to rule India for 5 more years jin Jun 2019, it is significant to note that it garnered less than 40% of the vote. Also, while it is undeniable that the BJP has managed to increasingly woo many Indians to its Hindu majoritarian agenda, the fact remains that India has a wide range of social and religious communities and for the longest time Indians have grown up with ideas that their country believes in state secularism, a policy that accords a sort-of equal treatment to all religions. 

The students at the JMI university called for a protest on Dec 13 but the march soon saw some disruptions. Whoever was to blame for these diversions and provocations, the police decided to retaliate with disproportionate and brute force. It rained blows indiscriminately on students and bystanders with the long batons (called lathis) they normally carry. Later that evening, the police even entered the library of the university, chased the students inside and burst tear-gas shells, vandalising the library in the process. 

On the same day, a student protest in solidarity with the Jamia protest at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), another central university, located in the town of Aligarh about 150 miles east of Delhi, was met with even more brute force from the police. Several students and bystanders were injured, some of them grievously, as a fact-finding report makes clear. 

Police violence against those continuing protests against the CAA was in evidence again 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. It has continued till the writing of this piece as police have been clamping down on protests swiftly and remorselessly, striking protesters with their batons and detaining them at sites of protests, and firing live bullets and killing innocent people. 

Such cases of very public and visible violence visited upon urban university students and the social-media savvy youth in general, especially in the capital city of Delhi,  which has finally enabled a recognition of wilful police brutality. As noted above, the police have also brutally repressed dissent in Muslim-majority areas in states not far from Delhi. It is the current awareness of and outrage over the police actions in Delhi which have also enabled the urban population across India to appreciate what it means to be targeted and exposed to vicious violence. 

Hopefully, such an attention on issues of policing, and also on repressive ways of managing dissent will bring into its ambit a discussion on the larger issue of routine police violence. But more importantly, it should place the police’s role in targeting minorities and those economically disadvantaged in the limelight. For all of us who have been insulated from the brutalities of police interactions, this will be a wake-up call.

The author is a Delhi-based writer and a student of social movements. He has been involved in various struggles of the marginalized people, including anti-caste, indigenous and the Palestinian struggle.

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