“I can’t breathe”, “please, please, please”. These words are still fresh in the mind of netizens all around the world and will continue to ring shock and anger in their hearts for a long time to come. These were the last words of African-American George Floyd before he was consciously murdered by a group of Minnesota police officers. His last moments were captured and shared by helpless bystanders and everyone who watched it was enraged at the officers’ sheer callousness. Soon after, The United States of America erupted into flames driven by the fiery anguish in the hearts of the people. The violent police attacks, use of tear gas shells, and unlawful arrests by the Trump administration, targeted at the peaceful protestors, did not weaken their morale. Horrific police brutality born from the deeply rooted hatred of African Americans was blatantly showcased. And the world united online, in solidarity, to stop the systematic oppression against African Americans with the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement.
The debate and outrage over police misconduct in the United States of late, in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd captured the attention of the world, including the subcontinent of India who is no stranger to police brutality. For instance, while the world was crying along with the family of George Floyd, a family in Delhi had been mourning a similar loss. 23-year-old Faizan, their son and four of his friends, were beaten and bruised and forced to chant the national anthem, for no reason other than being born into a minority religion. They were surrounded by five looming lathi’s as their muffled voices reverberated with harrowing pain. Forty-eight hours later, Faizan succumbed to his physical injuries. George Floyd was a Black American and Faizan was a Muslim minority. Both were unarmed, and both were killed, at the hands of the men who swore to protect them. However, while the US flared up in protests and the guilty police officer was charged with murder, in India, apart from the “quick-to-fade” moments on social media, there was no visible public outcry, and the guilty officers walked free after a fruitless departmental inquiry.
The brazenness and high-handedness of the police in India have been on full display of late. During the anti-CAA protests, police brutality and complacency were at its worst at JNU and Jamia. Protesters and University students were arrested on false charges and assaulted on campuses. At the time of the Delhi riots, policemen either just stood by while Muslim properties were smashed, looted, and burned or caught damaging CCTV cameras as they allegedly sided with the rioters.
Such brutality is in most cases, seen against the poor minority and marginalized communities of society. According to a Common Cause – CSDS survey, half of all Indian police officers believe that Muslims have an instinctual tendency to commit crimes. These prejudices also extend to Scheduled castes, Scheduled Tribes, Adivasis, Dalits, and Transgender people.
The number of deaths, happening to people, while in the custody of the Indian police are staggering. Between 2010 and 2019, 935 people died while in Police custody. In the year 2017-18, the NHRC registered a total of 1674 deaths out of which 1530 were deaths in Judicial custody. As per “Torture in India – 2011“, published by an Asian Centre for Human Rights, 14,231 persons, i.e., about four persons, died every day in custody from 2001 to 2010.
What can be the cause for such brutality? What changes, when these people don their police uniforms? The Police “rank and file” are drawn from a world, that is fond of creating discriminatory tags such as Black Skinned-White Skinned, Hindu-Muslim, Upper Caste-Lower Caste, etc, and they carry this kind of Racial or Communal hatred, imbibed from their communities, into the profession. And to top that, they are poorly trained. As stated by Ashis Nandy, a sociologist and political theorist, there is something drastically wrong with their training, if they think violence is the answer. The “Status of Policing in India Report – 2019” found that 2 out of 5 police personnel surveyed in Bihar, and 1 out of 5, in six other States, had never received Human Rights training. Without proper training, most police personnel believe in violence towards criminals, whether accused or convicted. As part of a survey, Police personnel were asked if it was alright for them to adopt a violent attitude toward criminals for the greater good of society and whether it was right to use violence to extract confessions. To this, 75% and 83% respectively answered in the affirmative. And that’s not all, if the Police force, thinks that violence is okay in a society that condones it, there will never be any retribution.
In the “Status of Police in India Report of 2018,” over 15,000 people were asked if Police violence to the criminals was in the right. While 16% chose not to respond, 34% partially or completely disagreed, and the remaining 50% fully or to an extent, condoned police violence. This report goes on to state that the Media plays an important role here. There is a tendency to glorify, the depiction of Police as the “Judge” and “Executioner” and this seems to influence both the Police personnel and the ordinary citizen. For instance, the suspects of the Hyderabad gang rape in November 2019 were all killed in an encounter with the police, while reconstructing events for investigation. The death of these men who were still only suspects earned much public approbation.
The present act governing the Indian Police, in the “Indian Police Act of 1861,” is Victorian-era legislation under which disciplining the police was not a priority. This legislation was drafted by the British colonizers as a direct consequence of the first war of independence to ensure the police system’s subservience to the executive and to remain authoritarian in its contact with the public. Many attempts at reform, took place at the State and Central level since 1971. Though there have been five major reform committees, most of the recommendations that were made, went to cold storage. Consequently, the Supreme Court’s hand was forced to issue binding directions, to establish “Police Complaints Authorities” at the State and District levels, through the judgment of Prakash Singh v. Union of India. The recommendations of such authorities for action against delinquent police officers would be binding, as per the directives of the Court. “The Justice Thomas Committee” appointed by the Supreme Court to monitor compliance to the recommendations, in its 2010 report, exhibited the total indifference of the states. In the NITI Aayog document, published a decade later, it was revealed that still precious little had been done to implement the recommendations.
On June 19th of this year, in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, Jayaraj and Benicks were taken into custody for violating lockdown. Jayaraj’s son Fenix who rushed to the police station was detained along with his father. They were stripped, sexually assaulted, with knees smashed whilst ripping out chest hair and left to bleed till their clothes were soaked. Fenix succumbed to his injuries on June 22 and Jayaraj on June 23. Although the police officers involved in this brutality were suspended, this was not an adequate response to this flagrant abuse of authority. The police brutalized and violated the accused. The public should no longer turn a blind eye to this kind of violence and brutality. Let us all raise our voices, in print or in person, to wipe off these gruesome injustices amidst us and build a better tomorrow.
Naina Elizabeth Matthew is a fourth-year student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies in Kochi, India.
Suggested citation: Naina Elizabeth Matthew, Police Brutality in India: George Floyd and Faizan, JURIST – Student Commentary, July 1, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/naina-matthew-police-brutality-india/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.