‘SAB CHANGA SI’: OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS OF POLICE BRUTALITY

Around 7 pm last evening, I received a text from a person I didn’t know, carrying a hysterical tone commanding me to post whatever they are sending. As I was just going through the text, it was followed by a spree of pictures and videos with an urgent message totag media houses”. The sender was a student from Jamia Milia Islamia who was texting from the locked library in the college, crouched under a bench. Soon videos and terrifying audios of window panes being shattered, shots, and screams followed. It took me a moment to process this was happening at a popular university in the capital of the country.

Students being beaten-up by the Police outside Jamia on Sunday.

Before I could reply, another text from another stranger with videos of tear gas grenades and police ‘Lathicharging’ students followed. It was nothing like I had seen before. My first instinct was to run a google search but there was absolutely no coverage, there were only immediate, urgent social media posts from students held hostage inside the campus and getting out whatever information they could in the form of mass media.

 

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On December 9th, the lower house of the Indian parliament passed the controversial citizenship amendment bill that grants citizenship to all illegal migrants except Muslims. Soon, the news was flooded with images of massive protests in Assam opposing the influx and acceptance of any more migrants. Similar protests erupted in mainland India continuing up until now albeit, for different reasons, opposing the communal angle of the bill.

Protest against Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Assam, Source: PTI

Despite the stark difference in the motives, the scenarios, the images and the state response were uncannily similar. Several troops were immediately moved from Kashmir to Assam in order to quash the protests. Till now, at least four deaths have been confirmed at the hands of the police in Guwahati. Heavy police mobilization was seen around Jamia again on Monday. The media houses soon caught up and since then the nation has witnessed unprecedented levels of police brutality (the “witness” being unprecedented and not police brutality in itself).

Student thrashed by the Police in Jamia Milia Islamiya, Source: AP

Scores of videos of bloodied, fractured students lying across various spaces in the college campus, from the washroom to library to classrooms surfaced. After hours of tear gas shelling, Lathicharge, forcibly dragging students, holding them hostage, the police rounded the first few they could lay their hands upon, even dragging one from ICU, and detained them.

 

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As we waited with bated breaths, any further news of the detained protestors, news started pouring of similar brutal attacks on the students of Aligarh Muslim University. There was little to doubt the Police was targeting minority institutions and Muslim students. The same was confirmed by students who accused the police of enquiring their religion before rounding them up. In the videos circulated on social media, one can clearly hear some of the gendered and islamophobic slurs spat by the police personnel as they assaulted unarmed students.

The last night, the public education family of India kept awake. Minute after minute as you refreshed your news feed, one another university marked itself on the map, protesting in solidarity with students of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia. As the number of casualties in the university grew, so did the pointers on the map of protests.

Neither protests nor police brutality is new to India. So what triggered these solidarity protests?

Police Personnel fire teargas shells to disperse the students of Jamila Millia Islamia University, Source: ANI

In general, the Indian public no matter how much unhopeful of the efficiency of the police are indoctrinated to believe in their righteousness. Time and again several accusations have surfaced against men in uniform of brutal crimes and overstepping of laws. Either they could not be proved or when proven, the media has found it unimportant to provide much space. Perhaps for the first time, the nation saw in live-action the police brutally assaulting unarmed young boys and girls in the full view of cameras and social media.

Just two days before the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha, the Indian police had found itself in the limelight once again although for completely opposite reasons. The police were widely hailed, congratulated, garlanded and exemplified throughout the country for “immediate and required action”.

People showering flowers on Policemen who encountered the alleged rapists in Hyderabad. Source: AP

During the wee hours of 7th December, the Hyderabad police had killed 4 men accused of raping and murdering a veterinary doctor on December 2. The police’s official statement claimed that a team of about 50 policemen had escorted the accused at the location of crime in order to reenact the crime scene during which the accused seized the weapon from the police and tried to escape. In “self-defence”, the police had to kill or “encounter” as said in local parlance, the four men in order to protect their fleet of fifty men.

Vigilantism: Vigilantism refers to the practice of unofficial violent action which seems to prevent crime.

Keeping all technicalities of the encounter story and the legality of attack aside, what’s notable is that the action of the police in these two scenarios is no different. The police, in the dispensation of its duties and under severe political pressure resorted to extreme violence. The use of force continuum for the Indian police seems to have only a single step, which is lethal assault.

A student getting beaten-up by Police at Aligarh Muslim University.

The Force Continuum refers to a standard for acceptable violence from the police when faced with different circumstances. It progresses from “officer presence” to “communication” to physical control” to “defensive weapons” to disengagement” and finally “lethal force”. What is to be noticed is that none of these standards is quantifiable, just like the righteousness of police is ‘non-quantifiable’. It is completely subjective to the police to make the decision whether lethal force is required on a bunch of unarmed students or accused rapists.

The history of police brutality is probably as old as modern police setup itself. It should not be difficult to understand that the police being a part of the highly unjust society that we live in would inadvertently reflect the same bias. As such people who tend to have the same bias when they are put into positions of power and have their attacks legitimized, it tends to give them an air of righteousness and superiority.

Policemen firing teargas inside the campus in Jamia. Source: PTI

The reason why India had been derailed in the discussion of police brutality is because of how the media and our education have portrayed the men in uniform. There is a sort of unquestionable reverence and moral uprightness for the state-backed apparatus of force which hinders the public from holding them accountable.

Moreover, oftentimes the burden of guilt is subtly shifted to the public itself. “For you”, they say. It is implied that the police had to resort to inhumane measures for us, the common public. The police that couldn’t prevent the rape had to extrajudicially murder rapists before they rape anyone else. The police that was to ensure smooth democratic protests in the national capital turned off the lights and blindly assaulted the students, for us. To resume normalcy, “For us”. Hence, oftentimes years of this indoctrination makes us believe, that the violence perpetrated by the police is mandated by the common public…which is not exactly inaccurate.

It would not be wrong to say that not all violence is viewed the same despite the methods and intensity being one and same. The brute force and vigilantism of police are appreciated in the case of accused rapists because the society collectively believes in death as a form of punishment. Similarly, a large chunk of society was aghast to see the same police use the same force on students. But you cannot eat the cake have it too. Validating and appreciating one form of violence inadvertently invites all other forms of violence.

Students raising hands, taken away from the Jamia University by the Police. Source: Reuters

This mix of bias coupled with legal immunity to a high extent and supported by a sense of moral superiority gives rise to blatant abuse of power. The police force is composed of members of the society and they reflect the prejudices of the same society. More often than not, the system of crime regulation in any society serves the interests of the dominant group. For example, a black man is 21 times more likely to be shot by police in the USA than a white man.

Similarly, Status of Policing in India report 2019 enumerates several concerning biases in the words of the police themselves. Some of them being:

  • One out of five police personnel feels that killing dangerous criminals is better than a legal trial
  •  Three out of four personnel feel that it is justified for the police to be violent towards criminals
  • Four out of five personnel believe that there is nothing wrong in the police beating up criminals to extract confessions.

Not just that, a significant number of Indian policemen believe it is acceptable for the mob to lynch Muslims and Dalits on suspicions on cow slaughter. I see no difference between Gaurakshaks and the police of the country. Both are a form of vigilantism in their own limits.

People protesting against mob lynchings of Muslims. Source: Reuters

Such uninhibition about the exertion of force stems from the preconceived notions of the righteousness of the police, if not the action then the intention. Such unquestionable trust in a limb of the state leads to cases of profiling. For example, in the same report, as cited above, every second Indian policeman believes that Muslims are more prone to crimes than any other people. The effect of such bias can be easily seen by the disproportionately high number of Muslim undertrials in Indian jails. A similar trend is seen in the USA where the current number of black men in prison is higher than the number of black men enslaved at any point during slavery!

People protesting against Police Brutality in the USA, Source: Gettyimages

The truth is that the Muslims of India have never put their confidence in the police. The only relation we have with any structure that wields power is that of intimidation and appeasement. It is no news how often the police uses intimidation tactics, getting forced signatures on blank sheets of paper, torture and even encounter as a part of the “process”.

It is common for fellow Muslims to be accused of crimes they have never committed all the while knowing why they have been picked up. It is not uncommon to the ear of Muslim names whenever you hear of “encounters”. One case that made news out of the several hundred lost in oblivion was that of ISRO scientist Nambi Narayan. Narayan was accused of spying, of which he was acquitted in 2018. After he was released, a statement about the police forcing him to give any Muslim name around which they would build a case, if he wants to be released. Surprisingly, the statement hardly ruffled any feathers, For Muslims, it was nothing out of ordinary, for the rest, it was dismissed as an exception of a case.

Nambi Narayan, former ISRO scientist. Source: Wiki

So what was it about Jamia? If you go through the footage available of the night, you see the police acting with such impunity, look straight into the cameras, screaming Islamophobic slurs, openly boasting of assault, you are convinced of two things.

The first being the belief of the police in the mutual prejudice with the majority of the Indian population. Since the collective conscience of the nation as a whole largely sees the punishment and execution of Muslim men as a spectacle, the police lay its confidence in the bias of the people. And they weren’t entirely wrong. The only two universities to be this brutally manhandled are the two leading Muslim institutions of India, that have in recent times seen a fair share of controversy. The police probably relied on the nation’s complacency with Muslim profiling while carrying out the attacks. After all the continuous Islamophobic vilification of the community, you can expect little outrage at our miseries.

Source: The New Indian Express

The second deduction from these videos is the assurance of protection by the police. The defiance with which the state-backed forces mercilessly beat up students makes one wonder whether they were following specific commands.

How were the modes of repression this similar in AMU and Jamia? Out of all the universities protesting, why were only Muslim universities targeted? The implication was not lost on people and soon #Amitshahresign started trending on twitter. Delhi being a Union Territory, has its police force under the control of the centre, more specifically the Home Minister Amit Shah. It is not too far fetched to assume that the police were acting on direct orders and assured protection. Meanwhile, the videos and audios have not stopped. The testimonies keep pouring. The stories are ever so chilling, to some, unfortunately even reminiscent of previous trauma.

We have no idea where the mayhem will stop, how many more students will be targeted and how long the government will maintain its façade of normalcy. The incidents of the last few days have been an eye-opener to a vast majority of Indians who saw it ‘live’ as it happened, the mode of dealings between the police force and Muslims. But more than that, amongst all this chaos, amongst the incredulity of unabashed brutality of men in uniform, there was a whisper of silent solidarity to all Indians coming from a faraway valley under siege that said, “Told you so”.

Hanan Irfan
Hanan Irfan

A voracious reader, writer, literary critique, social activist, engineer, and a raging feminist. A political enthusiast and a feverish debater. Ever likely to be found around a stack of books, free Wi-Fi and a power point. Tries to paint and fails.

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