It is an oft-repeated complaint that there are more police stations than schools in India’s Muslim neighborhoods, a suggestion of how Muslims apprehend and experience the state. Over seventy years after independence, they remain more familiar with the heavy hand of police machinery than with institutions of welfare and care.
To understand the relationship between Muslims and the police today, it is necessary to return to the force’s origins in the colonial period. Modeled on the Irish constabulary, the Indian police force was set up by the British in 1861 to control and surveil a recalcitrant subject population. The quelling of political protest and detection of potential offenders trumped the prevention and detection of crime. At the same time, “offenses against the state” were privileged over crimes against persons and property in the Indian Penal Code. Police work in India, then, has never been primarily about everyday crime solving. From the outset, the police have been a coercive force, backed by a harsh legal regime that viewed citizens with suspicion.
Neither the exit of the British nor the inauguration of the Constitution transformed the police into a “service.” It continued to operate under the logic that the people were to be governed by force. Violence was normalized, even legalized. Though Indian law expressly prohibits the admission of custodial confessions into evidence to prevent coercion, Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act effectively sidesteps this rule by allowing the entry of incriminating items recovered on the basis of confessions, even if they were made before the police. This has virtually rendered custodial torture the primary investigative technique. And it is near impossible to hold the police accountable for these crimes. Section 197 of Criminal Procedure Code requires government sanction for the prosecution of public servants for offenses such as murder, or causing grievous injuries, committed in the “discharge of their official duties.” If cases of police violence proceed at all beyond the filing of complaints, sanction is rarely granted.
By ascribing guilt to the deceased, by gesturing to their religious and caste affiliations, the Indian police connect certain social groups with criminality.
In 1961, Anand Mulla, a judge of the Allahabad High Court, was moved to call the Indian police an organization “whose record of crime” remained unmatched by any “lawless group in the whole of the country.” The Indian police have continued to provide frequent occasions to justify Mulla’s remarks (which were later expunged by the Supreme Court). Marginalized groups bear the brunt of police lawlessness. Study after study has shown that for religious minorities, Adivasis, and so-called lower caste groups, law and its enforcers are a source of terror. Overrepresented in prisons, Muslims remain vulnerable to custodial assault and risk humiliating brutalization for seeking their rights. Muslim representation in police hovers below 4 percent even as they make up 14 percent of the Indian population. Since 2014, when the present regime first came to power, the National Crime Records Bureau has discontinued even the practice of publishing these figures.
In 2013, the Director Generals of Police in three states—Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu—submitted a report to the Central Government on the relationship between the police and minority communities, mainly Muslims. The report was never made public, but it concluded that a wide chasm existed between the community and the police, and that the relationship was marred by the former’s perception of the latter as biased.
These findings would have come as no surprise to anyone who had bothered to read the reports of various commissions established over the decades to inquire into the causes of communal violence, which has plagued India more or less continuously since independence. Without fail, these commissions have indicted the police for their partisan role in handling outbreaks of sectarian conflict: ignoring mounting tensions and communal sloganeering, turning a blind eye to the gathering of arms and open provocations made by Hindus, as well as refusing to protect vulnerable minorities. Yeh andar ki baat hai / police hamaare saath hai, “it is an open secret that the police sides with us,” was the taunt that roving Hindu mobs raised when plundering, raping, and burning their way through Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat in 2002. The most charitable accusation that one could make against the Indian police would be laxity or dereliction of duty. In truth, it is difficult to ignore their criminal complicity with the rioters.
How little things have changed, and how consistent the Indian police’s modus operandi has remained, can be gauged from two events, set fifty years apart. In 1970, the Madon Commission, instituted to investigate the anti-Muslim violence that broke out in Bhiwandi in Maharashtra, recorded that police attitudes “encouraged the processionists in their misbehavior and led them to believe that either the police were powerless to stop them or were on their side.” More acerbic still were the Commission’s observation that the Special Investigation Squad, which had been set up to investigate riot cases, partnered with Hindu groups to concoct charges of criminal conspiracy against leaders and ordinary members of the Muslim community. The “working of the Special Investigation Squad, Bhiwandi, is a study in communal discrimination,” the report concluded.
Something eerily similar happened late last year, when protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act began in New Delhi. On December 15, Delhi Police stormed the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia—a university with a predominantly Muslim student population—beating, brutalizing, maiming, and even blinding students. As the anti-CAA movement consolidated, refusing to cower to these police clampdowns, leaders of the running right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party leaders openly goaded violence against the protestors, often on public television. Their campaign culminated in the pogrom in Northeast Delhi in late February, which unfolded as Donald Trump was enjoying state hospitality during an official visit.
The fragile roots of the rule of law in India’s institutions are equally matched by a strong popular approval for vigilantism and summary justice.
The brunt of the violence was borne by the Muslim community: over 75 percent of those killed were Muslim, schools and trading establishments destroyed were overwhelmingly Muslim, and religious structures razed to the ground were wholly Islamic. Yet again, complaints filed by Muslims have been disappeared, or sanitized to protect the Hindutva leaders. Worse still, young Muslim activists and students involved in the protests have been arrested for allegedly conspiring and executing the attacks, often under the draconian terror law. Once again, the victims have been transformed into perpetrators—and perpetrators rendered victims.
These pernicious terror charges are in keeping with the long legacy of frame-ups, unjust arrests, and wrongful and protracted incarceration of Muslims in independent India. By defining “unlawfulness” and “terrorism” imprecisely, terror laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have given wide latitude to the police to harass and frame along sectarian lines. Muslims, subaltern caste groups, and tribal groups (the latter two are invariably lumped together as Maoists) have been routinely harassed under the UAPA. Their trials may result in acquittal—indeed, the conviction rates in terror cases have been paltry—but the continued invocation of terrorism in relation to certain groups marks them out as “enemies of the state.”
While other groups have been victimized in the past—India witnessed an anti-Sikh pogrom in the 1980s—it is Muslims who are today’s designated “other,” as indigenous communalism and global Islamophobia conjoined in the post-9/11 world. The past two decades or so have seen a spurt in so-called “special operations” in the war against “jihadi terror.” India’s credulous national media—and the public—do not question security agencies when they claim to have nabbed operatives and masterminds of terror groups, as long as those arrested fit the profile. The willful fabrication of evidence in these cases is often patently obvious; bulk of the arrests are not connected to any actual incident of violence. As in the United States, police officers and intelligence officials follow slippery, unfulfilled conspiracies, passing off the recovery of Urdu or Arabic literature as “Jihadi material.”
As for Hindutva terrorism, that is deemed not to exist. A former police commissioner of Mumbai, confronted on television about the existence of Hindutva terror groups, flatly responded, that “[terrorism] just does not exist in the Hindu pantheon.” It should hardly be a surprise, then, that when a series of bomb blasts were carried out between 2006–2008—in the Maharashtrian town of Malegaon on the Muslim holy day of Shab-e-Baraat, at a mosque in Hyderabad, and at a sufi shrine in Ajmer—investigators arrested and even extracted confessions out of Muslim men. One can well imagine the techniques that might have persuaded innocent men to incriminate themselves when the evidence all along pointed toward Hindutva groups.
A survey last year revealed that one out of two policemen believe that Muslims are “naturally prone” to committing crimes. This attitude is not limited to the lower echelons of the hierarchy. When confronted by the disproportionately high numbers of Muslims lodged in jails, here is what retired DGP Prakash Singh had to say: “In cases of terror attacks or communal riots, if the police goes after the perpetrators of the violence, and they happen to be mostly Muslim, you cannot in the name of secularism, expect the police to act in proportion to their population.”
Prakash Singh is no ordinary police officer; in fact, he is seen as the torchbearer of “police reforms.” His idea of “reform” is to free police from the fetters of political control, rather than make the organization more accountable. Singh and others have repeatedly mocked human rights concerns, dismissing as “extreme” the National Human Rights Commission and Supreme Court’s call for investigations into fatalities resulting from police shootings. He claimed these were producing a “chilling effect” on the police, who were apparently now fearful of being “faulted” for the use of force. It is hardly a secret that these guidelines are followed only in their breach.
In a society as hierarchical and divided as ours, the pathologization and othering of some social groups renders them more expendable.
Some police officers suavely argue that encounter killings—really, staged, extrajudicial murders—are justified in cases of terrorism and extremism, and therefore should lie beyond the pale of judicial scrutiny. Singh has gone so far as to hail the Uttar Pradesh state government’s policy of eliminating suspects and alleged criminals without so much as an arrest or trial by arguing that “certain sections”—a dog-whistle for Muslims—which were allowed to run amok during previous regimes are now being reined in. It is revealing that Singh, who has campaigned for the depoliticization of police, should mimic the of rhetoric of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has effectively turned his state into a laboratory of toxic Hindutva. By ascribing guilt to the deceased, by gesturing to their religious and caste affiliations, cops like Singh are connecting certain social groups with criminality. This is how we have come to distinguish a genuine encounter from a fake one.
The bitter truth is that the fragile roots of the rule of law in our institutions are equally matched by a strong popular approval for vigilantism and summary justice. When he was chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi would often turn to crowds at his rallies to ask what the fate of “terrorists” should be. The crowd would jubilantly scream back: “kill them, kill them.” And it is not only terrorism but any crime that causes widespread moral revulsion which leads to demands for blood—often aired on prime-time television.
Last year, for instance, the brutal rape and murder of a young veterinarian in Hyderabad sparked public outrage. In the days that followed the crime, a member of Parliament demanded that rapists be lynched in public; meanwhile, communal hate was openly expressed on social as well as regular media, when it was leaked that one of the accused was a Muslim. The accused were apprehended promptly, but instead of going through the judicial motions, the police shot them to death just days after their arrest. They then trotted out a tired and rehearsed story of the accused capturing police arms in an attempt to flee while being taken to the crime site. A large number of celebrities and politicians—extending far beyond the BJP—tweeted their appreciation of the police action; ordinary people burst firecrackers and distributed sweets. It wasn’t that they were persuaded by the police story of the exchange of gunfire. It was the naked brazenness of the killings that they were celebrating.
In a society as hierarchical and divided as ours, the pathologization and othering of some social groups renders them more expendable. A coercive police machinery backed by draconian laws and a culture of impunity feeds and plumps itself on societal bigotry, producing incarcerable, encounter-able, and lyncable Muslim bodies.