Police brutality and intimidation, particularly against Muslims and lower castes, has been rampant in India for decades. Under prime minister Modi’s COVID-19 lockdown, it is getting even worse. Several cases have been making headlines in recent months. In the context of the global movement against racism and police brutality, ignited after the murder of black American George Floyd, Marxists vigorously raise the demand to end police brutality but explain that it is impossible without a fight against the capitalist system itself.
The police in India have long been the judge, jury and executioner among the working class and poor. The Indian police force was built during British Raj and has historically been used to suppress and divide its subjects. Modi’s Hindu nationalist “Hindutva” agenda has led to an increase in police violence particularly against the Muslim minority and lower caste groups. Reports show that 90 percent of religious hate crimes in the last decade have occurred during Modi’s time in office. Congress and other regional parties are not much different and they have also used this institution to strengthen their hold on power and terrorise the working class through the brutal state apparatus and force them to continue their miserable lives under the exploitative system of capital.
On 19 June, Jeyaraj and his son Fenix were brutally beaten and tortured in police custody in Sathankulam town near Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. Both men were accused of keeping their shop open past the lockdown curfew. The police officers beat their knees until they shattered, pulvarised their faces into the wall and rammed batons in their rectums. They died at the hospital a couple of days later. This level of inhuman brutality was only carried out because the officers thought they could get away with it.
After a national outrage, the police officers who killed Jeyaraj and Fenix were suspended and transferred. It was later made known to the public that this was not the first time they have tortured and beat those in custody. These two officers have had past convictions for high level abuse and torture against other villagers.
Tamil Nadu has the second-highest number of custodial deaths in India. Its regional police have been known to carry out third-degree torture methods on prisioners since the era of British colonialism. With the help of magistrates and judges they have also been known to write off life threatening injuries from custody abuse as ‘slippery toilet’ accidents. But this is not isolated to Tamil Nadu.
It is estimated that there have been 5,476 judicial deaths over the past three years in India. Yet between 2001 and 2018, only 26 policemen were convicted for over 1,700 custodial deaths.
War on migrant workers
On 30 March, eight Dalit farmers from one family in Gujuart were brutally beaten by the police for allegedly gathering together during lockdown. A young teenage boy from the group of eight boys said he was only getting milk for the hungry family and so ventured out. On 16 April, Mohammed Rizwan, aged 19, living in a village in Uttar Pradesh, left his home to buy biscuits. He was detained and beaten by riffle butts and lathis (iron-and-bamboo batons). He was taken to the hospital where he died two days later. There has been no report of the police officers being charged. These are but a few of the hundreds of cases of police brutality during the pandemic lockdown.
Up and down the subcontinent, the pandemic lockdown has meant a war on migrant workers, who are predominantly very poor, lower caste or minorities. The lockdown on 24 March left millions without wages or a roof over their heads. Forced out of cities, these workers tried to get home to villages hundreds of kilometres away. Images and videos on social media have exposed the ruthlessness of the police against migrant workers.
There have been more than 200 recorded migrant worker protests against the starvation, police brutality and lack of transportation. As one migrant worker said during the lockdown, “we won't die of COVID, we will die of lathis and hunger”.
Modi, communal violence and the police
The Hindu nationalist chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Glory to Lord Ram) has become the fanatical war cry against Muslims, which thunder during the rallies of the ruling BJP party as well as communal attacks. Last year, Tabrez Ansari, a 24-year-old Muslim was beaten and lynched by a Hindu mob that forced him to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ with each blow. When the mob turned him over to the police, they did not investigate what had happened nor even drive Ansari to the hospital. He later died from his injuries.
Modi has nudged the police forces alongside the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a Hindu fascist cadre party connected to the BJP – to take matters in their own hands when it comes to dealing with Muslims, (lower caste) Dalits and protesting students. Modi and BJP ministers have made it clear that they won't be punished.
In February 2020, there were peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA), a bill to effectively make Muslims second-class citizens in India. RSS members and BJP supporters violently attacked protesters across New Delhi. Student unions and groups who have protested the bill found their colleges ambushed and ransacked, libraries tear-gassed and hostel rooms invaded by police. Female students were beaten on their genitals. Pro-CAA thugs chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ also sexually assaulted a group in a women's college, an incident that the police refused to investigate. This mirrors the events in January, when BJP members and its right-wing student union raided the Jawaharlal Nehru University in the middle of the night, dragging students out of their rooms and beating them.
The Delhi police are under the direct control of the ruling BJP government. In particular they answer to the home minister and former party president Amit Shah, who is known as a fervent advocate of the BJP Hindu nationalist agenda and henchman of Modi. The already overwhelmingly Hindu Delhi police force are entrenched with the political wishes and bribes of Modi and the BJP ministers. As quoted in the Guardian on 16 March:
“The catalyst for the riots is widely acknowledged to have been a comment by Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, who on 23 February issued a public ultimatum declaring that if the police did not clear the streets of a protest against new citizenship law seen as anti Muslim, his supporters would be ‘forced to hit the streets’.”
A young Hindu boy explained to the Guardian that the message from the BJP MP “was a clear instruction of catch-kill action against any Muslim we could spot”. After beating and kiling a 40-year-old Muslim man, the young boy stated the police stood a few meters away and instructured him and others to take down any CCTV cameras around the area.
Soon after the February protests, communal violence engulfed North East Delhi, leaving 53 dead, of which 38 were Muslim, and around 200 were injured. Countless homes and businesses were burned down and now hundreds are homeless. After the riots, police around the country have rounded up local student leaders and have either gotten them expelled from universities and or had them charged and imprionsed with sedition and terrorism.
The Delhi police denied that this was communal violence, and scandalously claimed that atrocities were committed on both Muslim and Hindu sides. It’s well known that, for days, Muslim communities begged the police for help against mob violence. They ran to police stations only to find them locked up as officers at best watched in silence as the violent events unfolded.
In fact, the Delhi police not only watched, but actively instigated and carried out vicious violence against Muslims. A widely shared video shows a group of police officers mercilessly beating a group of young Muslim boys while shouting at them to sing the Indian national anthem. None of the police officers involved have been convicted, and the police still refuse to accept or investigate any complaints made by Muslim victims.
In India’s largest and most populous state of 222 million, Uttar Pradesh, Hindu nationalist chief minister Yogi Adityanath has encouraged thugs and police forces with his violent anti-Mulism rhetoric. The anti-CAA protests were brutally crushed throughout Uttar Pradesh. During the Delhi riots, Yogi Adityanath stated publicly that anyone protesting the CAA citizenship bill is a terrorist, and terrorists “should be fed bullets not [the rice dish] biryani”.
The Special Police Officers (SPO) is a network of civilians set up to work alongside the police to spy on minority communities, ostensibly to “prevent crime”. One estimate suggests that there could be one SPO for every eight people living in the state. In reality, it largely consists of criminal elements or desperately poor people looking to earn some money, and has been actively used during the recent protests to terrorise Muslims. This gives us a clear idea about what the demand for “community control” of the police, raised by some on the left-wing, would mean in practice.
Here's another CCTV video from Uttar Pradesh's Meerut, near to where the violence that killed the five men on Dec. 20 took place, showing police hitting a CCTV camera at a shop on that street. #CAA2019 #India #protests pic.twitter.com/gArE5OdvaR— Zeba Siddiqui (@zebatweets) December 27, 2019
To ramp up its repressive apparatus, Uttar Pradesh hired a record 50,000 new police officers in March 2020, of which 18,208 will be new Provincial Armed Constabulary hires (PAC). The special branch of the police Provincial Armed Constabulary was created to crush workers strikes, student protests and communal riots. With barely 2 percent of Muslims in its ranks, the PAC is particularly known for its open hatred against Muslims.
The PAC has a very bloody history. In a particularly disgusting event in May 1987, in the dead of the night, PAC forces surrounded Hashimpura, a predominantly Muslim residental colony in Uttar Pradesh, made up of factory workers, daily wage earners and weavers in Meerut city. They forced all residents out and smashed their homes. 41 Muslim men and boys were rounded up by the police and PAC in a truck and executed, and their bodies were dumped in a ravine. All of the police officers were acquitted of the crime.
Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi instigated the 1987 Hashimpura massacre by opening up a medieval mosque to Hindu prayers in Ayodhya. This inflamed the anger between the two communities. When the rioting first began in Meerut, a town outside of Delhi, 350 people were killed.
Police brutality happens in non-BJP states as well. The police are armed bodies of the capitalist state and the ruling class will always use them against the working class and poor. On 19 May 2020 a video on social media exposed a female cop from Odisha thrashing a youngster in police custody with an iron baton over a land dispute. On 2 July 2020, an Odisha police inspector lured in a lost 13-year-old girl and raped her. The young girl was from a poor tribal community. For three months the inspector took the girl back to the police station to rape her. When the girl became pregnant, the police officer forced her to get an abortion. Odisha is under the rule of the secular liberal party BJD (Biju Janata Dal).
Women police officers are no different from their male counterparts and are also involved in heinous crimes and barbaric torture against the working masses while obeying the rich involved in ruthless crimes. On 4 July, a female police sub-inspector Shweta Jadeja in Ahmedabad, Gujarat was arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe of 3.5 million Rs. from an accused rapist for dropping serious charges against him. This is just one of the many incidents of corruption and torture by women police officers in all parts of the country, which shows the real character of this institution, which needs to be abolished rather than face meagre reforms or cosmetic changes.
The colonial origins of the Indian police
If you scratch the surface of India's so-called democracy and secular constitution, you will still find the edifice of colonial rule. The brutality of the Indian police today can be traced to the Police Act of 1861, which remains in force to this day. The act empowered police officers and the policing structure to crush riots and dissent, instead of protecting the population and preventing crimes.
When the British finally took over India from the East Indian Company, they implemented a more structured form of policing to suppress the native population. This was all the more urgent after the 1857 Indian rebellion, where Indian soldiers first rose up against British officers.
The colonial police forces drew their examples from two British models: the London Metropolitan Police and the Irish Constabulary. The police forces in Britain had a proven reputation of beating back workers and suppressing strikes and the Irish Colonial Paramilitary Police set an example of controlling and suppressing the Irish people. From the outset, the Irish colonial police was militaristic in nature and focused on crushing political protest and strikes.
The British enforced a hierarchy in the police forces by using race and caste. White soldiers were at the top and higher-caste-groups were given lower-rank positions. The institution was used to patrol lower castes and Muslims. The British regarded various indigenous groups as potential criminals and rebels and so colonial policing reflected this caste and religious bias.
The British ensured that isolation and privileges would put a distance between the native population and the police. The police officers were never questioned when they abused their power, and were given separate housing facilities away from villages and communities they patrolled. This kind of segregation among the police forces is what helped the imperialists rule the British Raj. The Indian colonial police force became a template for many other colonies under the British Empire.
From the 1900s, the police forces were increased as industrial production was underway in India. The focus of police brutality would be on the growing working class and poor.
“For the purposes of industrial policing and urban riot or mob control, the colonial state was a first heavily dependent upon the army or temporary additions to the available strength of the armed police. After about 1918, however, beginning with Madras city and the railways, more permanent police measures were introduced. By the late 1920’s the army played little part and the policing of the proletariat and of urban demonstrations and riots had become one of the principal duties of the police, through both its enlarged paramilitary and armed police corps and its specialized intelligence agencies. By the late 1920’s and 1930’s few sections of the colonial population were as heavily and as consistently policed as the industrial working class.”(Police Power and Colonial Rule, Madras 1859-1947, David Arnold)
The Indian penal code and criminal laws haven't changed since the colonial era. This clearly shows the real brutal character of the Indian state which always hides behind “democracy” and a liberal constitution. This bourgeois democracy and constitution is there to give a cover to this brutality, which expresses itself nakedly in a police station. Where the poor even can be beaten to death even without a charge against them, a rich person guilty of murder can walk free with bribes and connections to higher authorities.
The police forces have been trained to view minority groups and the working class as criminals and rebels. In 2019, a survey showed every second India police officer thinks Muslims are “naturally prone towards committing crimes”, while a third think the same of Dalits and tribal people. Furthermore, 53 percent of police surveyed believed that cases filed under the Prevention of Atrocities (against lower castes and tribes) act were “false”.
Another report in 2019 found many arrests due to false charges: 35 percent of Dalits on false charges of petty crimes, 27 percent Adivasi respondents on false charges of being part of the Maoist rebellion and 47 percent of Muslim respondents on false terrorism charges.
The multi-billion dollar Bollywood movie industry routinely idolises the figure of the strongman police officer serving justice by beating and torturing criminals. In reality, most confessions are extracted from workers and poor using all kinds of torture methods, whether they are guilty or not. Humans rights groups have reported that the police are known to hammer iron nails in a body, urinate in the mouth of victim, insert hard blunt objects in their rectums, sexually abuse and rape both male and female prisoners and worse.
End police violence – end capitalism!
Without a bold challenge from the labour movement and trade unions to end this violence, things will only get worse. Modi will continue to use Hindu nationalism, the police and the legal system in general to divide the rising working-class struggle across India.
The reactionary Modi government often boasts about its efforts to fight crime. However, it is clear that the extension of the repressive apparatus is doing nothing to prevent it, and in fact is making the lives of ordinary Indian workers even more insufferable and insecure.
Under pressure from previous mass movements against police brutality, India has tried to implement some reforms. But this has led to cosmetic changes at best. Officers are fired, only to be replaced by more ruthless individuals, politicians continue buying off police officers and judges, and community participation in police activities has turned into a spy network.
Most crimes are petty in nature (small theft, robbery, etc.) and a product of capitalism’s inability to provide humanity with the basic necessities. To fight against crime, one has to fight against the rampant poverty and want that constitutes its material base. This cannot be done on the basis of capitalism.
It's not just a few police officers that are rotten, but the entire system. Beyond the police; there are courts, laws, constitutions and judges, all of whom are unelected, and will protect private property against workers and the poor. The Indian ruling class want us to believe justice is blind, yet today, charges of sedition and terrorism are being handed down to students and workers who participated in the anti-CAA protests, while police officers implicated in murder and riot crimes walk free. The bankruptcy of the judiciary has also been clearly exposed in recent judgements, when it has clearly sided with the whims of the Modi government, bypassing all legal procedures.
The role of the state throughout history is nothing more than the rule of one class over another, as explained by Lenin in State and Revolution. The state has never been neutral in maintaining law and order, but through the use of force like the police, the army, the prisons and the courts, maintains the power of the ruling class. There is no difference between the so-called liberal democracies, which are just capitalist rule with a human face, and more authoritarian governments today. All rest on the capitalist mode of production and thus use armed bodies of force to maintain capitalist rule. The degree to which they hide behind the illusion of bourgeois democracy is the main difference.
For that reason the police system cannot be reformed or abolished while the rest of capitalism stays intact. The demand to end police brutality must be linked to the struggle to end capitalism.
The murder of George Floyd in the US sparked off the biggest protest movement against racism in decades, which in some cases had insurrectionary features (such as the burning of the police station in Minneapolis). This shows the way forward also for India. India’s strong labour movement and its powerful unions have organised several massive general strikes in recent years. But clearly, one or two days of general strike is not enough. Advocating street-level protests or strikes is not enough: we need a revolutionary alternative.
A revolutionary program would naturally include toppling the police forces that continue to terrorise the working class and especially Muslims and minority groups. It would also include nationalising the biggest monopolies under workers’ control, a state monopoly on foreign trade, and a planned economy. The vast resources of the Indian subcontinent could be mobilised not for the profits of the few, but for the needs of the many. We could thereby lift humanity out of poverty and want.
A socialist society would ensure everyone is entitled to good jobs, quality housing, daycare for children, free schooling and free healthcare. It would ensure all people in India, regardless of religion, caste, language or nationality, can live in dignity and peace. In time, socialism would develop into a classless, communist society where resources are distributed “each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
In a communist society, you won't need the police and the armed forces. If all are freed from poverty and want, who would they need to patrol? The revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state which gives priority to private ownership rather than the lives of the working masses will open up an era of freedom never seen in history before. As famous Indian poet Sahir Ludhianvi once said:
When cruelty won’t be nurtured in ill-omened social norms;
When hands won’t be cut and heads won’t be tossed about;
When world government is run without jails,
That dawn will come through us.
All the world’s toilers will come out from fields and mills;
Homeless, helpless people will come out from their dark hovels;
The world will be adorned with the flowers of peace and prosperity,
That dawn will come through us.