It was a regular day. I was headed to work in a rickshaw, waiting for the signal to turn green near Dindoshi police station. There was a blue police van just across: halted, yet moving. Someone was being beaten up. It was so vehement that it set the van into a rocking motion. I thought someone must have done something wrong hence the beating, maybe they deserve it? I was curious. Was it just one person or a group? Was this person being hounded by one police officer or a group of them? There was no way of knowing. When the van appeared at the next signal this time actually in motion, the beating persisted. I remember the discomfort I felt along with the delayed realization: no matter guilty or innocent, a human being was being violently thrashed!
So why is it that we let it go? In this country, police atrocity is brushed off as an everyday occurrence. Nothing extraordinary to make our heads turn. Jayaram and Bennix lost their lives to heinous assault for allegedly keeping their shop open for longer than allowed, Mohammed Rizwan died after being beaten up for stepping out to buy biscuits, five men in Delhi were tortured and forced to sing the national anthem. We are invested in these stories but our heads don’t turn to question. It’s easier to just look away. For if we no longer see, it no longer happens. Despite this denial, the question still stands: Why is there no large-scale outrage over police brutality in India?
The answer lies in the construction of the above sentences. In their cloying passivity. Seen equally in media and local parlance, we say the men died. Not killed, not murdered but died. Jinee Lokaneeta in her article “Defining an Absence: Torture ‘Debate’ in India” (2014) talks about the way torture is repressed within the common consciousness. She notes that the most striking fact is the absence of torture in the listed reasons for custodial deaths. We have denied, contained, bypassed and normalised the violence and torture at the hands of state officials. It features as a public secret; “the information about the act is shared yet repressed such that ‘it is generally known, but cannot be articulated” (Lokaneeta 70). And we as citizens being privy to the secret, continue to guard it.
But perhaps there is a bigger picture at play here. Is our complicity originating just from our passivity or are we desensitized to the violence? Even further, do we approve of it? It may seem unimaginable at first but Indians enjoy violence: we gloat over it, we thrive on it. For instance, during this lockdown, I have heard people say those who step out should be shot. We want rule-breakers to be beaten, killed and shown their place by the police. Surprisingly though, the ones who call for such punishment are not people divorced from our world. They are almost always, common, everyday folk who toe the line. Yet, they are willing to watch atrocities committed on their kin, like a bloodthirsty species that craves and celebrates violence. Like the masses who paid to watch gladiators fight in the colossal amphitheaters. Only now, we get our fix in cushioned air-conditioned theatres.
The quintessential Bollywood police dramas aka Hindi masala films brew the perfect tadka for this appetite. They make power palatable, desirable even. And it is from these heroic police films that we derive our notions of deserved violence and torture. Both seem to inform each other. The first thought that arises in our mind is “Maybe he deserved it”! Kiran Shaheen writes on this interpellation “The use of third degree methods by police being prevalent in the society, these scenes of torture by police in a film reinforce two notions in the minds of the audience, especially the younger ones. Firstly, torture is a natural act, especially, if bad guys are beaten and secondly, flowing from the first, the legitimization of the act of torture. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why such acts of torture in police lock ups are never questioned in real life. Hindi cinema thus reinforces all kinds of stereotype relations and acts of violence in the society.” (Shaheen, 17-18)
To see how we internalize this glorification of violence, let’s consider the two most popular police films that captured the Indian imagination in the last decade- Dabangg (2010) and Singham (2011). It all starts with the curated perception of policemen. That sets the ball rolling. With the protagonist playing the policeman, there is a convergence of the policeman and the hero. Since the protagonist usually doesn’t die or get defeated, we have an invincible power in place. So Chulbul Pandey and Bajirao Singham take over 10 goons, thieves or criminals all at once and reduce them to pulp without suffering a single scratch themselves. For us, this is not just a strong man taking over the bad guys. This is a police officer aware of the extent of his power, using it at his own discretion and looking real slick while doing it.
Moreover, when the hero cop figure is played by beloved superstars like Salman Khan and Ajay Devgn with their sculpted bodies exuding immense strength, there’s another layer of celebrity status awarded to the policeman. This is Connell’s hegemonic masculinity at play. We see the culturally idealized masculinity of the macho man being realized in a man of authority, a depiction that this intrinsically patriarchal society happily laps up. In fact, there is no effort to hide that this is a man’s role. Singham after taking out the nasty villain Jaykant Shikre, wants to hold his head high before his father and say “Mardo wala kaam karke aya hu mai. Woh bhi akele” (I have done a man’s work, all by myself.)
These colorful characters also have a prominent patriotic fervor and work as true public servants in the movie. They are the savior of the meek. Chulbul Pandey identifies himself as the benefactor of the poor- “Hum yaha ke Robin Hood hai” (I am the Robin Hood of this area). Regrettably though, our modern day Robin Hood has a different moral compass with no qualms about keeping a part of the bounty seized from some thieves. But that is taken over by the fact that he comes to the aid of a poor factory worker who is beaten up for a trivial mistake. Singham has a similar side to him: he gives money with an extended payback time to Sada, a poor man who is beaten up all night long for defaulting on a debt.
Predictably, it is not just the poor they look after but also the women. Chulbul keeps an eye on Rajjo whenever he perceives her being troubled by a local pervert. Singham openly challenges and fights the goons who assault Kavya at the cinema; wraps the dupatta around her, thus reinstating her honor. Such benevolence awards them an aura of the one who rights the wrongs. The conveniently placed token humanity washes over all other human rights violations. Which is what police brutality and murder at the hands of a policeman actually is. An internationally recognized human rights violation. In India, any killing at the hands of a policeman that is not in self-defense or exercised under the ambit of Section 46 of the 1973 Criminal Procedure Code is a culpable homicide which may amount to murder depending on facts and circumstances of the case. Under Section 46, a police personnel can cause death while arresting a person accused of a crime, only when that crime itself is punishable with death or life imprisonment.
Further, contrary to popular belief, confessions made to a policeman or during the time the accused is in police custody are not admissible as evidence under Section 24 and 26 of the Evidence Act, 1872 respectively. A multitude of judgements from various High Courts in India as well as the Supreme Court have also chastised the use of police force/“third-degree” methods to elicit information from a detenu. We have come a long way in terms of time from D.K Basu v State of West Bengal, 1997 wherein the Supreme Court laid down guidelines to prevent violence in custody but in terms of its implementation, we are nowhere near fulfillment. The 2006 landmark judgement in Prakash Singh v Union of India spoke of the Government’s indifference to the 1977 National Police Commission’s recommendations. It clearly highlighted the practical nature of those recommendations, thereby pointing out the feasibility of implementation. In dealing with the petition at hand, the Apex Court acknowledged that the principal argument of the 1861 Police Act being outmoded and inadequate to resolve present conditions held water. It recognized that many of the anomalies faced today, created and sustained by the police force, find their roots in this Act. The police are ruled mainly by the Executive body, thereby distancing them from their duty to the principle of rule of law. Combined with greed, lack of accountability and political protection, it makes them invincible; a real life manifestation of the Bollywood strongman. Against this backdrop, the police lose sight of the real goal. For if police brutality teaches us anything, it is that the side they should be batting on is that of the common man and not the politician in power. Thus, reading Article 32 along with Article 142 of the Indian Constitution, the Court issued seven important guidelines to the Central Government, State Governments and Union Territories combined. These guidelines focused mainly on creating greater and more independent supervision on police activities through State and National-level security commissions, separation of investigating police from law and order police, etc. By and large, these guidelines have not resulted in any substantial change and the situation leaves much to be desired in terms of protection of our Fundamental Rights.
India has also failed to ratify the United Nation’s 1984 Convention against torture despite being a signatory to it. The Law Commission’s efforts in 2017 to table a Prevention of Torture Bill have still not yielded fruit. Internationally speaking, we continue to face extradition issues as States refuse to send any accused to our country in fear of their wellbeing. Fake ‘encounters’ or ‘shoot-outs’ also continue to happen here and it is just like in the movies. A pile of dead bodies and no injured police. These acts are in part a result of the judicial process that takes too long and does not always grant justice. Yet, they also mirror the fact that police brutality in India happens with impunity. Its blatant propagation through films is both an unwanted byproduct and an unexpected sales pitch.
Between 2010 and 2015, no policeman was convicted of brutality or assault or murder despite 591 deaths in custody, most of which are tainted with families accusing the police of foul play. A Human Rights Watch report ‘Bound by Brotherhood’ highlights the internal cover ups, the failure of due process in judicial and independent investigations against police officers, a long list of pending cases and scattered hints of tampered evidence. Such systemic protection creates and nurtures impunity for police brutality, an accused person’s one-way ticket to a violent engagement with the police. The year 2019 alone accounted for 1,731 custodial deaths. This roughly comes down to 5 deaths a day. Rape, assault, grievous hurt are other serious complaints of Indian detenus.
The Supreme Court’s direction in Prakash Singh v Union of India calling for a Police Complaints Authority in every State has been taken up only in a handful of States, the others remaining indifferent. Additional Sessions Judge Sanjeev Kumar Malhotra has been quoted in an article in The Hindu, saying, “The police play a major role in the administration of criminal justice. One of the reasons for custodial death is that the police feel…they have a power to manipulate evidence as the investigation is their prerogative…they can bury the truth”. In any case, prosecution of police officers is to be done with prior Government sanction under Section 132 of the CrPC, thereby sowing seeds of political favors, corruption and bribery. Section 197 also significantly reduces a public servant’s accountability by limiting the power of a Court to take cognizance of an act committed in discharge of official duties. Needless to say, a wide interpretation of this provision could afford ample room for impunity and based on India’s track record, it clearly works.
Thus, although no law in India explicitly allows use of excessive and unreasonable force by a police officer, their social standing, public respect, legal anomalies and flagrant corruption continue to cause thousands of deaths every year. Thousands of murders at the hands of the Indian police. Singham makes a case for this cycle of violence. Through the film and its eponymous character, we perceive growth and perpetration of violence as a frustrated reaction to deep-set corruption and the helplessness felt against it. Additionally, the infallible nexus of politicians and goons, the 15 hour shifts, the infrequent holidays and punitive transfers don’t help. So, created by the British to turn Indians against Indians, it appears that we succeeded in taking over the institution and making it our own but not in transforming its essential divide. The game is still, Indians against Indians.
And that is why glorification of the same is problematic. Glib storylines of police v/s reigning evil make the police the right team to root for. The celebratory songs add a certain chutzpah to the whole affair. We see perfectly synchronized dance crowds part like the Red Sea to make way for these larger than life men. Interestingly, the trope of life as an unjust race appears in both these songs. In Dabangg, a boy trips another to win a race but is then stopped and slapped by Chulbul. In Singham, a small boy with a fractured leg is carried by Singham on his shoulders to finish off a race. These police officers don’t tolerate any unfair dealings and continually fight for justice, even if it is lopsided and unidimensional. Even if justice involves beating, belting, shooting and killing people. They are like a mortal incarnation of God’s invisible hand. So when we see the slimy politician/criminal Chedi Singh being choked on a tractor’s fumes after a violent tussle, it seems justified. “In other words, the supposed viciousness of the deviants provides the necessary justification for all kinds of authoritarian measures and state repression.” (Shaheen 23) We don’t question revenge. Rather, there is a kind of euphoria to see the bad lot getting beaten up or killed. A sense of speedy poetic and divine justice is restored. Gangster Vikas Dubey’s ‘encounter’ and the public’s non-reaction is a good example. A cheaper, messier Bollywood thriller. “Vikas Dubey’s encounter shows that the UP government does not believe in the criminal justice system laid down in our democratic constitution; they neither need courts nor lawyers; their police decides who is a criminal and they award the punishment”, senior advocate I.B.Singh told The Wire. “In my long judicial career I have come across several fake encounters, but never before have I experienced any carried out as shoddily as this one , which simply reflects the contempt that the UP police has for the law of the land of which they are supposed to be the guardians.”
Ironically, these officers are aware of the illegality of extra-judicial violence and torture. An angry Singham says to the creditors who beat Sada “Tum logo ne kanun apne haath mein liya? Jo kanun todega mein uski haddiyan todunga… Sunwai jhali, ata faisla majhyaghari.” (Did you take the law into your own hands? I will break the bones of those who break the law…The hearing is done, judgement will be served at my place). Chulbul when confronting a thief with a gun states “Kamal karte ho yaar. Police wale ko thokne ka anjaam pata hai kya hai? Ekkis saal jail aur thukayi alag se. Aur iss policewalene tumhe thok diya toh promotion alag se aur bahaduri ka medal bhi.” (Oh come on. Do you know the repercussions of killing a policeman? 21 years of imprisonment and a lot of thrashing. If I kill you, I’ll get a promotion and medal for bravery). These verbalized threats work self-reflexively to affirm the presence and use of torture at a whim. A police officer who is asked to ‘fix’ the band players at Chulbul’s questionable wedding says, “Aur dabangg admi se dabanggayi karoge toh tum sabko thane lejake, between two legs, itna danda marenge ki bajane layak rahoge na bajane layak.” (If you mess with a fearless man, he will take you to the police station. He will beat you so hard that you won’t be able to play any instrument). Given that ‘bajana’ is slang for having sex, it is clearly a threat of assault that will render the genitals useless. A perfect case depicting the brazen flaunting and flouting of power.
What is interesting and important to note is that in all this tamjham and hullabaloo, the repercussions are erased. When Chulbul pushes a thief over some iron spikes, shoots a gang mid chase, threatens to create holes in Chedi Singh’s body or when Singham finally shoots Jaykant in the head covering it up as suicide, the gore and murderous violence is overwhelmed by our sense of justice. We only hear the sounds that imply the deed is done. We never confront the mess; the outcome of this illegal exercise of power. Instead, we wait for the sequel.
The torture is once again pushed into darkness; absolving it of any confrontation. We know what happens but we don’t know what really happens. As Lokaneeta notes “the trick to the public secret is in knowing what not to know. This is the most powerful form of social knowledge.” (Lokaneeta 70). We know that torture exists in police dealings, but most of us know not to venture into the details.
The only way to bring police brutality and torture into question is by exposing it for what it is. Instead of veiling it as death under mysterious circumstances, we need to articulate what happened. Call it murder, release their names and demand due process. Sub-inspectors Balakrishnan and Raghu Ganesh with Head Constable Murugan and Inspector Sridhar inserted a baton into Bennix’s anus (read rape) after brutally assaulting him and smashed Jayaram, kicking him in the chest multiple times, killing both. Suketu Mehta in his book Maximum City (2004) enables an explicit visualization of custodial torture through victims’ stories. He writes about cuts being made into the groin, chilli powder being rubbed into them, pouring acid into the butthole, being suspended with one hand tied up, serving food mixed with shit, forced to perform oral sex on in-laws, eating fecal matter and more. By raking up the real details, there is a possibility of dissociation from the glorified image of police violence both in reel and real life. It’s time for us to look straight in the eye of this public secret and confront it. We have to acknowledge the need for better service conditions for the police- adequate compensation, work-life balance, proper equipment and training to follow legal protocol. For violence is never the answer. It’s time to come to terms with the extreme individual trauma and societal damage violence causes and to realize that it is not okay.
Shalmali Sankpal has a MA in English Literature and is currently working as a teacher in Mumbai.
Picture Credits: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times
Khan, Arbaaz, et al., directors. Dabangg.
Lokaneeta, Jinee. “Defining an Absence: Torture ‘Debate’ in India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 49, no. 26/27, 2014, pp. 69–76. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24480533. Accessed 1 July 2020.
Mehta, S., 2009. Maximum City. Westminster: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Shaheen, Kiran. “Portrayal of Police Torture In Hindi Films and Television Serials And Its Impact on Children .” CEHAT & CVICT , 1999, doi:http://www.cehat.org/uploads/files/Vhft.pdf.
Shetty, Rohit, director. Singham. 2011.