Amidst a Lockdown, Why Must Cops Wield the Lathi With Such Impunity and Callousness?

Incidents of police beating up citizens and those in essential services owe their origins to socio-historical and psychological reasons, apart from vagueness in government guidelines.

There have been several reports of police highhandedness – beating with lathis and resorting to public humiliation to enforce the lockdown – not only against common people but also those associated with essential services. Incidents of such misbehaviour have been reported from across the country, indicating that they reflect a problem with the fundamental character of the police in India and are neither isolated nor region-specific.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also listed incidents of assault against journalists from Delhi and Hyderabad. Incidents of people on their way to hospitals or to buy essentials being lathi-charged have been reported from several parts of Assam, Tripura, Delhi and other parts of the country.

According to media reports, several videos have surfaced in which police were forcing people to do squats, scramble on their hands and knees as well as lie down on the ground and roll over several times in opposite directions. In one video, a female doctor was slapped by a Khammam police official while she was on her way for her night duty, and abused saying, “With whom are you going to sleep at this time?” Vehicles of those caught were impounded.

In Maharajganj, Gorakhpur, people who had gone to the vegetable market, were lathicharged. The police circle officer said that only wholesale shops could be opened. The cops, of course, were intellectually incapable of understanding that even if only retailers were allowed to purchase from there, some people had to go to the mandi—you cannot allow shops to remain open but not allow any customer to go there!

Against the backdrop of such incidents, the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was obliged to assure people, “Have requested police officials to allow anyone who is seen delivering essential commodities despite not having a pass or ID.” Ignorance of law is so rampant that, Telangana chief minister, K. C. Rao threatened people with shoot-at-sight orders. Little does he know that this is plainly illegal as, in the celebrated judgment in the case of Jayantilal Mohanlal Patel v. Eric Renison And Anr., it has been held that police have no authority to shoot at anyone for a mere breach of the curfew order.

Also read: Fair and Unbiased Policing Still a Far Cry in India

How vagueness in government orders added to confusion

There is an ambiguity inherent in paragraph 15 of the guidelines on the measures to be taken by the authorities—a classic example of hurried, poor drafting of even such momentous orders. It reads, “All enforcing authorities to note that these strict restrictions fundamentally relate to movement of people, but not to that of essential goods.” This is clearly self-contradictory.

On one hand, the people were told to draw a Lakshman Rekha on their entry doors, that is, stay put at home. On the other hand, paragraph 4 of the guidelines tells people that grocery shops, etc. would remain open, and that media personnel and bank workers have also been exempted. It further says that ‘district authorities may encourage and facilitate home delivery to minimise the movement of individuals outside their homes.”

A policeman wields his baton at a man riding a motorbike as a punishment for breaking the lockdown rules, after India ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, March 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Two things are clear from this. The government admitted that, even as they would try for home delivery, common people and people of the exempted category might have to go outside to buy essentials or for their duties. Now the question is, if the police are preventing people from going to the shops, how will they buy essentials? You may recall that people were also urged to desist from panic-buying and hoarding of essential goods such as food and medicine.

I have not come across any effective government home delivery system anywhere in the country, either by road vehicles or by drones. Thus, for the bulk of the items, people have no option but to go to shops. Bajrangbali Hanuman ji had also done aerial delivery of only sanjivani during a crisis – Lord Ram’s entire army had to fend for itself on the ground!

Paragraph 15 has not given any clear direction to the cops as to how they have to regulate the movement of the people and determine their purpose of movement. If someone is stopped with a bag of groceries or vegetables, it can be presumed that he went to purchase them – what proof of purpose for his ‘outing’ could he furnish if he were stopped while going for purchasing?

In a residential colony of 300 houses, almost every household will need something every day. Even if they depute just one person once a day, 300 people will have to venture out to shop in the neighbourhood. Under what authority are the cops shooing them away, beating them up or seizing their vehicles? Bikes or even cars may be required—after all, how many people are strong enough to carry 20 kg flour on their shoulders for even half a km? Moreover, it is ridiculous to presume that all shops are located in places where chalk-mark circles one meter apart could be drawn for people to maintain ‘social distancing’. Most shops do not have any place in front of them for even five people to stand a meter apart from each other!

Also read: The Misuse of ‘Lathi Charge’ by the Indian Police

Standard excuses are no excuses

When questioned, police officers have a standard excuse that the presence of limited manpower means a strain on those performing their duty. This is a clichéd argument. All over the world, agencies of the state have to manage with the resources available. No nation can afford to recruit half of its population in the police to serve the other half. The stress of work is no excuse for committing atrocities.

In this video grab provided on Thursday, March 26, 2020, a group of young men are made to hop on the road by policemen for violating prohibitory orders during the nationwide lockdown, in Budaun. Photo: PTI

An argument that many people want to be out on the streets for fun is not acceptable. With the kind of scaremongering about the disease we have, I do not think that any man in his right mind would run the risk of contracting the disease just for fun. Some other police officers seem to have realised this and have appealed for exhibiting compassion, selfless service, empathy, tolerance, etc. Well, neither words nor pious desires cost anything!

The rot runs deep

The current spate of abusive behaviour by the police is only an aggravated form of their ‘routine’ behaviour in normal times. It gets aggravated during such times because; first, there is little accountability during crises. The supervisory system is occupied handling more serious issues, and has little time to spare for such complaints. Second, the cops know that, having have had a very long history of subjection, subordination and consequent servility, a large number of Indians have developed submissive personalities. As a result, they do regard imperious, overbearing behaviour of state officials as a sign of ‘good or strict administration’.

The habit of cops to swing their lathis first and ask questions later is a reflection of some systemic problems. Is this overenthusiasm? No, it is plain and simple abuse of authority. Those who do not know the police intimately, think that to the Indian police, every situation can be solved with a bit of violence. No, it is not a belief system; abusing power has been their socio-historical as well as a psychological prime mover. When it comes to abusing power, cops do not think—they behave like zombies!

Also read: The Laws That Could Ensure Police Accountability and How They’ve Been Ignored

Socio-historical reasons for the police’s highhanded behaviour

Historically, in India, the state existed for the ruler, not for the ruled. All the agencies of the state and particularly the armed components, that is, the army and the police, existed essentially to repress their own people than to protect them from some external threat or depredations of criminals. This bred a very characteristic pattern of behaviour in them; uncontrolled, impertinent, aggressive, rude, abusive, arrogant, barbarous, and brutish. The very traits characterize the behaviour of the police of even today—a perfect example of historical continuity.

A police officer wields his baton against a man as a punishment for breaking the lockdown rules after India ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, March 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The word ‘uddanda’, in Sanskrit, is composed of two words, ‘ud’ and ‘danda’, that is, ‘one who has his stick (danda) raised-up’. Now, who carried his ‘danda’ raised-up? The cops carried their lathi/stick (danda) raised-up. They were asked to do so because in ancient India, most people habitually carried some sort of stick—to drive away aggressive dogs, to fight with each other, to kill snakes, to ford rivulets, to pluck fruits from trees, and a thousand other reasons.

Since in that era, the cops did not wear any uniform, they were asked to carry their lathis raised-up for easy identification. Since the cops used to be uncontrolled, impertinent, aggressive, rude, abusive, arrogant, barbarous, and brutish, and continued to remain so for centuries, gradually the word ‘uddanda’ itself came to acquire the meaning of these very behavioural traits!

Psychological reasons for cops abusing the power vested in them

There are several psychological reasons also for the highhanded behaviour of cops. One of the anxieties that perpetually consume, especially the lower-level cops relates to the lack of social prestige associated with the job, and the fact that they have to deal with criminals and the scum of the society—leading to a ‘guilt’ that the ‘filth’ somehow rubs off onto them. This breeds an inferiority complex.

A realisation that by abusing power, they can make almost anybody, irrespective of his achievements in life, grovel before them assuages their inferiority complex. This is precisely what the great Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler had propounded in his theories of ‘individual psychology’, after incorporating Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’. Adler held that the main motives of human thought and behaviour are individual man’s striving for superiority and power, partly in compensation for his feeling of inferiority.

Also read: Backstory: To Understand Police Brutality in UP, Observe Media in the State

Psychologist Rachel Gillet explains that power inevitably changes people—sometimes, it can get downright ugly. Columbia University professor Heidi Grant Halvorson in her book No One Understands You And What To Do About It says that when in a position of power, people more likely to focus on the potential payoff than risky behaviour or the potential dangers. Rachel Gillet cites a Berkeley study in which they found that drivers of high-status cars like Mercedes and BMWs cut off other drivers 30% of the time, compared to only 7% for the lowest-status cars. They also failed to yield to pedestrians almost half the time. Speaking of the dehumanising effect of power, Halvorson says that it is not so much that powerful people think they are better than you are as it is that they simply do not think about you at all!

A policeman removes air from the tyre of a labourer’s cart carrying vegetables, to dissuade people from crowding outside a market during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the old quarters of Delhi, India, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

For cops, controlling other people’s lives and behaviour becomes their idee fixe. Starting from ‘control freaks’, they rapidly transition to what is known as ‘abusive power and control’ in which they gain and maintain power and control over people in order to subject them to psychological, physical, sexual, or financial abuse. This explains extortion, torture, fake encounters and rapes in police custody. Nothing gives a high better than the power of life and death over others, particularly when you have the backing of the entire system for it.

How has police leadership failed?

No concern has been expressed by the police leadership over this except some lip service by way of statements to look into the complaints. They are not bothered because they want the status quo to be maintained. The present system allows them to wield unbridled power over the people the way their predecessors have wielded since centuries. A colonial system, which was devised to keep a potentially untrustworthy population under control, enables the servants of the system to wield enormous powers. That is how, their basic philosophy has become, “Why bother to change something if you can pass your time comfortably in it.”

Ramifications and repercussions of police highhandedness

Going about such a tremendously gigantic task as the lockdown in such a cavalier manner with such little planning is a painfully sad commentary on the way the government and administration are functioning in the country—as if someone tried to launch the Saturn-V rocket from his backyard! In the short-term, police misbehaviour will be counterproductive to the lockdown drive as a population desperate for essentials will certainly find innovative ways of bypassing the police checks. There may be violence, affray or minor rioting too—somebody, whose self-respect is deeply hurt, might even kill them. Police misbehaviour has long-term adverse effects too. Moreover, it makes the people lose any modicum of respect for this important arm of the state and thus engenders potential lawlessness in their minds.

N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Of his 46 books, two books – Leadership Failure in Police and Khaki mein ye Darinde – analyse police behaviour.