Beatrice Jauregui is associate professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. She is most recently the author of Provisional Authority – Police. Order and Security in India. The book is based on an intimate and intense study of Indian police practices, most strikingly in Uttar Pradesh, and also on how the police’s actions reflect India’s politics and social faultiness and also enhances them.
The recent custodial murder of local criminal Vikas Dubey and talk of his close links with members of Uttar Pradesh’s police force, the role of the Delhi police in investigating the violence in Delhi in February that claimed 53 lives, and then the brutal murder of a father-son duo in Tamil Nadu in police custody for an alleged violation of a coronavirus-induced curfew has further drawn attention to the role of the police in India today.
In the way that India and other countries at the time, inherited the colonial police force, could it ever have been fair, robust and compatible with ideas in our constitution? Or did you get a sense that things have deteriorated in the past few decades?
Policing as a global form developed as part and parcel of colonial capitalist governance. Therefore, regardless of a country’s particular history of colonial encounters, its police institutions have baked into them various forms of social inequality and conflict. Perennial problems like poverty, homelessness, migration, racism, sexism and other bases of discrimination against marginalised peoples do not originate with the police; but everyday police practices do reflect and reinscribe these and other problems.
This reflection and reinscription may look different depending on context, even within different parts of India, with its extraordinary cultural and political diversity. Policing in Uttar Pradesh, where I’ve been conducting field research for two decades, looks different in many ways from policing in Kerala or even policing in major metropolis like Mumbai or Kolkata. Of course, there are many similarities, too. In sum, I don’t think policing anywhere has ever been completely “fair” or in line with democratic ideals of equality and liberty, since it is always already imbricated with politics.
On the concept of jugaad – remodification, recombination, or fiddling with process – being the opposite of due-process, how much has that hurt ideas of a fair police force?
Thinking of policing itself as a kind of jugaad can have both positive and negative impacts on the ideas of police “fairness”. On the one hand, jugaad karna (doing jugaad) can be seen negatively as relying on unofficial social relationships and processes instead of official legal structures of “due process” that are supposed to reinforce and conform to the ideal of the “rule of law”, and thus it may seem to render policing “unfair”. On the other hand, many people feel that not only policing and criminal justice but also the practices of most other government agencies and agents (from legislatures and the civil services to development schemes and other social services) are always already “rigged” and unfair – in such a context, doing jugaad may seem like one of the only ways to “get by” and potentially realize some sense of justice in the world. And this goes for the police as much as for the “aam aadmi” (common man).
So police doing jugaad may sometimes be seen as a positive thing, too. My sense from observations and conversations is that many people feel compelled to rely on jugaad to survive, to say nothing of thrive… this includes many police officers, who are often extremely under-resourced and overly restricted in ways that prevent them from providing help to people in need, which believe it or not they often wish to do.
You have recorded how caste, religion faultlines make their way into the way the police works. Can this ever be over-ridden? What kind of reform can help deal with problems like the police criminalising dissent or like in the case of Delhi, most recently using a protest movement to fix blame on for violence that killed at least 53 people?
Again, these problems – casteism, communalism, sectarianism and other kinds of cultural conflict – do not originate with the police, but are reflected and reinforced in their everyday practice. I don’t think any single reform to policing by itself will resolve these social problems. Sure, police sometimes act out prejudices on and of their own; but just as often, if not more often, they are directed by others to act in discriminatory ways and feel pressured to do so, especially when the orders come from senior government officials or social elites with great influence. This does not excuse discriminatory violence by police on any level – but they share the blame with many others.
In cases involving brutality, such as what a father-son duo experienced for ostensibly violating a COVID-19 curfew, what explains this level of custodial torture in supposedly normal times?
Excessive police violence is a systemic problem, in India as elsewhere, but the motivations and antecedents of custodial torture or other forms of brutality are case-specific. Sometimes, it is a matter of police officials acting out their own prejudices (related to the “faultlines” mentioned above). Sometimes, it may be what some refer to as a “power trip”, police visiting violence upon vulnerable people simply because they can, and no one will stop them, and they likely won’t be punished for it. On the other hand, sometimes police violence may be motivated by an impulse to vent frustration, a kind of indirect “vengeance” by police who feel generally impotent.
I do not know anything beyond what is reported in the news about what happened to the unfortunate father and son in Tamil Nadu; it is a heinous tragedy, a waste of lives. I think the biggest problem is that police violence in many parts of India, and other parts of the world, has just become so routinised, and the public so desensitised, that the brutality gains its own frenzied momentum, takes on a kind of life of its own that seems unstoppable, and the distinction between “normal” and “exceptional” times becomes a non-issue. The ordinary and extraordinary become difficult if not impossible to distinguish, and people accused of petty “crimes” or who simply “talk back” in a way that provokes police may be tortured to death.
Why has the police become the only instrument of the state to implement any order or policy, whether it pertains to public health or of a challenge to political authority or even of religious implications?
I’m not sure police are the only instrument for any and every job, but they certainly represent a powerful tool, especially for government leaders who wish to present themselves to the public as a force to be reckoned with. Police are authorised to deploy coercion “as necessary”, and this inspires fear in many people. Fear is a powerful propulsion, it can get things done, for better or worse – indeed, very often for worse.
Did the recent killing of eight UP policemen by a gangster and the subsequent actions of the UP police surprise you? Where do they fit in with your academic study of the UP police?
It is certainly extraordinary to have that many police killed in a single instance, including a Deputy Superintendent. Unfortunately, deaths in the line of duty among lower ranking constables, while not frequent, are not uncommon, especially in UP, which until recently reported over 100 police deaths annually almost every year. (It seems they may have changed their reporting practices, no longer including police who die in accidents or of illness, as has been done in the past.)
My sense is that Vikas Dubey received a tip off from someone inside the police institution who had fore knowledge they were coming, and perhaps he felt he had enough “inside connections” that he would be able to get away with murdering that many policemen. Of course, later he was killed in custody; and while this could be explained away as simple “revenge” by police for the cold-blooded killing of their colleagues, it also seems likely that Dubey either was not as well connected as he believed to powerful people in the current government or that someone associated with the “powers that be” wanted him dead. None of this is particularly new or surprising, there have been other lethal confrontations between police and organised crime bosses. But public memory and media cycles are short.
As I had remarked in an interview I had done earlier, I think what we are now seeing again, since 2017 in UP, that for many people, especially in general caste Hindu groups, is a kind of ‘come-up’ — it’s their turn again. Unfortunately, with chief minister Yogi Adityanath or under Yogi Raj, he’s making it okay. He’s trying to make it okay. As we know, he makes all kinds of statements that vilify people from various minority groups, especially Muslim people. And I am struggling because it’s so hard to watch. It was always hard to watch.
When I was doing my fieldwork, the Samajwadi Party was in power, and then BSP came back to power; however, since 2017, there’s just been a real kind of bleakness. It’s also because I am in the US. With the election of Donald Trump, which happened at the same time, I think there are a lot of parallels actually between what’s going on in India more generally, especially in UP, and what’s been happening in the US politically.
When talking about Yogi Adityanath, he also has a very highly centralised strong arm. I would say, authoritarian, even fascist, sensibility. Yes, that certainly will have a tremendous effect on how the police get used and how police leaders themselves get to make decisions or not.
There have been numerous criticisms of the UP police over the years but it’s behaviour during the recent anti CAA protests and the brazen nature of Vikas Dubey encounter seemed to have crossed a line. Is that a fair characterisation, and if so, why?
In many ways, this is all just more of the same. What seems different is the unabashed celebration and encouragement of police violence by the UP state government leadership under chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
Seema Chishti is a journalist.