Why Police Brutality and Torture Are Endemic in India

A ‘macho’ culture in the police forces that valorises those who indulge in violence ensures that no one ever challenges the system.

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Most Indians are familiar with highhanded behaviour of the police in the form of the cops slapping people or, if they are pretending to manage law and order, beating them mercilessly with their sticks (lathis). However, the real face of police brutality often remains an arcane subject, their notions about police torture derived largely from what they have seen in films – only the victims knowing the truth.

Baptism in a dingy torture room

My first exposure to ‘real’ police torture came as a trainee officer on an attachment with Punjab police during militancy. That small, bare room in one of the police stations in Tarn Taran was dimly lit and was reeking of human excrement, urine and vomit. On the floor was seated a screaming, half-naked man as two men were stretching his legs apart, while one man twisted his arms backwards and immobilised his back with his knees. We, the beginners, were gleefully ‘enlightened’ that this technique of unnatural joint movement would not leave any visible injury marks on his body even if he managed a medical examination later.

Beating on the soles with sticks and suspending a man from a bar like an animal carcass being spit-roasted were derided as crude methods leaving tell-tale marks that could lead to trouble with the courts. Cops loved the ‘roller treatment’ in which a smooth wooden roller was placed on the thighs of a prostrate victim. Then two cops stood on the roller as it was rolled forward and backwards was excruciatingly painful but left no marks.

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A popular, filth-free technique involved giving low-voltage (approximately 80 volts DC, produced by a hand-cranked generator) shocks to the testicles of a man. Kashmiri author Basharat Peer has narrated horrifying stories of this form of torture in his book Curfewed Night. Many victims suffered permanent damage; most of them could not muster the courage to approach doctors out of shame and spent their lives in mental agony.

One old-timer proudly told me he had invented a technique of masking powder marks on the dead body if they had to kill someone in a fake encounter. A wet towel placed on the body of the victim blocked the muzzle flame as well as trapped the un-burnt powder particles! 

Peer pressure of being a macho cop

Many people find it paradoxical that police brutality continues be an integral part of policing in India, in spite of the fact that the Indian police has, in 41 years of the IP and 73 years of the IPS, been officered by highly educated people, selected through one of the toughest exams in the world.

The reason is that torture has been accepted as a ‘macho’ or the expedient way of dealing with things, which cannot be dealt with by the legal and ‘effeminate’ way of policing. This sub-culture consumes everybody, from constables to IPS officers. Torture is treated as a necessary rite of passage to initiate new officers into ‘real and practical’ policing. This is a very clever stratagem of imposing immense peer pressure. Privately, a race begins to prove who is the ‘toughest’ guy around. As Bhajan Singh Bhinder et al note in their work, Demons Within: The Systematic Practice of Torture by Indian Police, this sub-culture incentivises the most brutal to rise to the top.

Police baton charges on an African national during a protest over the death of Joan Joel Malu, a native of Congo, who was detained by police for allegedly possessing MDMA drug, in Bengaluru, Monday, Aug 2, 2021. Photo: PTI

The peer pressure ensures that they try hard not to get disgusted by what they do in the course of their duty or even feel ‘brutalised’ by it – no one wants to be labelled a ‘sissy’. Senior and junior officers both had laughed at my batchmate who could not withstand the screams and stink of that torture room in Tarn Taran. Yet another officer who was taken to the site of an encounter and had puked promptly at the sight of a dead body with its brains blown out by bullets, found the constables giving him sneering looks.

Mechanics of desensitisation

It is difficult to find a cop who is ashamed of what he does in his job or feels conflicted. Those who survive in the job manage to get effectively desensitised or de-humanised unless, in rare instances, they choose to chart their own path, at their own peril.

It is not that they become totally bereft and incapable of any feelings. Quite often they are ‘troubled’ – it is a different thing that they are too proud to admit it. What do they do then? One of the ways out is to drown themselves in alcohol in an attempt to banish from their minds all that troubles them. That is how hard drinking has come to be recognised as macho in their fraternity. Another is partying all too often, which is actually an attempt to avoid remaining alone, when the conscience troubles more.

A former editor of the Washington Post, Steve Coll, in his work On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia’(pp.167-72), narrates how he had a revealing conversation with K.P.S. Gill sometime before 1993. He was taken aback that Gill downed at least seven tall glasses of whiskey within an hour.

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The combined effect of the desires of belonging to the brotherhood and to be respected therein, and the incentive of rising to the top with the badge of a ‘go getter’, ensures that the restraining effects of good education, decency and values nurtured by upbringing are effectively neutralised as far as the workspace is concerned. For their families and loved ones, they continue to be the ideal men as expected in their position.

Even if they are not split personalities, the fact remains that they acquire the ability of morally disengaging from the sins they commit in their job. A phone tapping operation by Croatian Secret Service had revealed Slobodan Milošević, accused of crimes that affected hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the former Yugoslavia, was a loving father and husband. So are many of our illustrious police officers.

Police lathicharge at tractors in New Delhi on January 26. Photo: PTI

The other way of banishing guilt comes by invoking a ‘loftier’ cause. With the advent of terrorism in India, they bought a narrative that a large number of Indian Sikhs, Muslims, people of the north-east and left-extremists were part of an international conspiracy to destabilise India, and since our complicated legal system did not permit the ‘anti-nationals’ to be convicted easily, the simplest way to rid society of them was to extract information from them through torture and as their ‘utility’ ended after that, kill them extra-judicially. Thus torture and fake encounters came to be regarded as acts in ‘national interest’, rewarded with medals.

The Indian state plays an important role in perpetuating police image and behaviour that threatens, oppresses and brutalises people. First, hardly anyone is ever punished. Second, atrocities committed by abusing the AFSPA apart, even in day-to-day policing, the State makes it very clear that its coercive arm, that is the police, can kill you anytime anywhere. That is the reason that, in spite of all the pretence of modernisation, Indian street cops still habitually carry lathis (ranging from three feet to six feet long bamboo poles) and military rifles, even if there is no threat of a terrorist attack.

The British, who gave us the Indian police in form and feature, do not allow their own street cops to carry firearms in public. Jon Kelly had reported for the BBC that 82% of the Bobbies said in a survey that they did not want to carry weapons because the very principle of the British police was ‘policing by consent’ and they need not be seen perpetually in a threatening posture.

In complete contrast, the mantra of policing in India has become “Know thy master, protect thy master’s interests, harass or kill his enemies, and prey on the poor and the powerless with brutality to keep them perpetually suppressed”. There is nothing intrinsic to the job of policing that makes them brutal or highhanded. It is their identification with the rulers and their obsessive desire to hang on to the power, money and the lure of all the sleaze that flows from this intimate association, which brings out the perversity lurking in their subconscious to the fore. As long as these factors continue, tortured and brutality will continue to be an intrinsic part of police practices.

Dr. N. C. Asthana is former DGP of Kerala. Of his 49 books, the latest is State Persecution of Minorities and Underprivileged in Indiareviewed here.