Saturday, September 20, 2008

Strange Tales from the Indian Republic: The Police and the Innocent

A strange Kafkaesque scenario grips the Indian republic. In the course of the pogrom in Gujarat, victims testified that the police either didn’t land up on time, stood silently by while the mob did their job, or fired upon the victims rather than the aggressors. In Fontainhas when a right-wing mob attacked road signs, the police stood by and looked on. Subsequently this has happened again, a few weeks ago, when a Hindu nationalist group sought to violently take over the open space of a housing colony in Porvorim. The police reportedly stood by and watched as the Hindutva brigade attacked the members of the Housing colony. In Mangalore, as saffron groups go on rampage, attacking one Christian institution after another, reports are coming in that the terrified Christians are obtaining practically no support from the police. On the contrary, angry Christian youth who gather to protect churches and prayer halls are being rounded up and sent to the lock up. In Quepem recently, the local Hindutva brigade threatened to create trouble if the local Muslims were allowed to offer namaz in a space rented for that purpose. As a result the police suggested that it was the prayers of the Muslims that should not be allowed since it would create a law and order situation. More recently the Taleigao Bachao Abhiyan was not given permission to announce its public meeting via a loudspeaker attached to a vehicle, because it could possibly pose a problem for the maintenance of law and order.

In every one of these cases we see the innocent being punished by the police as a result of the acts of an aggressor. The police in many of these cases pleads its inability to deal with any breakdown of law and order and thus muffles the voices of the protesting innocent. How does one make sense of these repeated occurrences; of police silence in the face of aggression against minorities of various sorts in our country?

The most common response from civil society is to label such actions as a failure of the police to follow the law. In this event, the police are seen as aberrant in the moment and needing disciplinary action to bring them back to the straight and true path of the law. This perspective I believe misses the point. The police are the arm of the State established precisely to ensure the operation of the law of the State. If it fails in this primary action, there would be serious talk about its dissolution and reconstitution. As we would know, there is no such talk about the police system in the country. On the contrary there seems to be a trend toward increasing the arbitrary and detentive powers of the police in the country. As such it appears that to think about these actions of the police as being random mistakes by compromised officials does not in fact hold good and we need to look for another way to understand this situation.

As an integral arm of the State in maintaining law and order, the police should necessarily be seen as the perfect weather-vane to fathom the State’s current understanding of the law. Through this logic, the police should be seen as necessarily embodying the practice of the law, as sanctioned by the State.

It is possible that the initial response to this argument would be derision. However, think again; and you will realize that in fact, it is merely our expectation that the law of the land will be just. This expectation from the law is derived in part from the assurance of the state that it will provide justice. This assurance and consequent expectation from the law is a necessary requisite for the existence of a liberal state. As history will show us however, there have been umpteen times when people have been forced to violently overthrow the law in operation in a state, precisely because it is not just.

The justice of the law is not to be presumed, it must be evidenced from its actual operation. In large part, the State defines the law and all too often, if it serves its interest, the law as actually defined by the State need not be just and fair to the segments of the population. Fact is the State holds an ambiguous relationship to the law, where it claims to be bound by law as much as the people are, but very often slips outside of the control of the law. A wonderful example really of this escaping from the law, as the amendments to sections 16 and 16 A of the Town and Country Planning Act, where the State is effectively excused from following a Regional Plan. It can make amendments to this plan and not be bound by democratic norms of transparency and accountability. This is a classic case of the law being used to excuse the State from being bound by law

Clearly then, in a situation where the reality of the law is often not what it is claimed to be, we need instruments that will decipher to us what exactly the contents of the law really are. In such a situation, the operation of the police becomes a perfect indicator to understand these contents of the law.

If this way of understanding the actions of the police holds good, then their actions which could be systematically documented would indicate to us that the content of law in the republic is by and large no longer justice to all. The law has been perverted to such an extent that the right of people to riot and hold the democratic practice to ransom is being considered the norm, and those who suffer are held to be violative of public order for protesting against this violence.

To be fair, the Indian state has been founded on violence. Ever since the days of its founding, the Indian state has employed force, particularly against those on the margins of our society – dalits, tribals and the poor, as it force-led the nation toward ‘development’. As local business interests have flourished and India emerged supremely self-confident into the global market, this violence has however increased. The violence we see today, being directed toward religious and caste groups is but a logical progression of this perversion of the Indian state.

This comment on the police and law should not be read as a call to boycott or stop reliance on the police of the State and country. On the contrary, our calls on the police must continue if only to persist in demonstrating the manner in which they flout norms of justice, fairness and equality. Our continued calls will also hopefully serve the purpose of exposing the contradiction to such an extent that reform in the entire system will become a necessary option. And at the end of the day, we must not forget to salute those within the police and the State who continue to uphold a notion of justice that is sensitive to those on the margins and in vulnerable positions.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 19th Sept 2008)

No comments: