Two events put the spotlight on police excesses in two different parts of the world last month. In the US, a former policeman, Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Flyod, whose death last year had led to worldwide protests against racism and police excesses in the US.
Closer home, a newspaper investigation found that in an overwhelming majority of habeas corpus petitions challenging preventive detentions under the National Security Act (NSA) in Uttar Pradesh, the Allahabad High Court quashed the detention orders of the district magistrates. In 94 of 120 such cases that came up for review in India’s most populous state between January 2018 and December 2020, the High Court ruled that the detentions were unlawful, and ordered the release of the victims. Many such cases related to ‘cow slaughter’, where Muslim men had been implicated on flimsy grounds.
While police excesses against Black Americans have ignited protests and debate in the US, such debate is lacking in India, despite evidence of rampant discrimination against marginalized and underprivileged communities such as Muslims and Dalits. Unsurprisingly, a 2018 nationally representative survey on the state of policing in the country conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Common Cause found significant mistrust about police investigations. Across states, a significant share of respondents felt that police personnel implicate people on false charges.
Many people feel that police personnel often discriminate on the basis of caste and religion, the survey of 15,563 respondents across 22 states showed. Just as the brunt of police atrocities are borne by racial minorities in the West, the brunt of false cases are borne by weaker castes and communities in India since they lack adequate socio-economic clout to challenge such discrimination. More than a third of respondents in the CSDS-Common Cause survey felt that Dalits were falsely implicated in petty crimes. More than a quarter felt that Adivasis are falsely implicated as Maoists, and Muslims falsely implicated as terrorists.
A significant share of respondents were not sure about police discrimination when asked about these issues but only a minority were ready to give a clean chit to the police force when it came to such discrimination. The data suggests that a majority of people seem to view the police with either suspicion or outright mistrust.
It would have been easy to dismiss such data as mere ‘perceptions’ were it not for the fact that police personnel surveyed themselves shared a dim view of the marginalized communities. The CSDS-Common Cause survey asked police personnel about their views on various communities and their responses suggest deep prejudices against underprivileged groups.
Nearly half of the police personnel surveyed agreed in varying degrees with the view that Muslims are naturally prone to committing crime. 35% of police personnel had a similar view of Dalits. 31% shared a similar view of Adivasis.
Most worryingly, the higher echelons of police forces, who lead and drive police investigations, are most likely to harbour such prejudices, the data show. Across states, the highest ranked officers in districts such as the assistant superintendent of police (ASP) or the deputy superintendent of police (DSP) shared the darkest view about Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis. Those in the ranks of inspectors and sub-inspectors came next while those in lower ranks expressed relatively lower bias against these communities.
The biases of senior police personnel help explain why so often arrests are made without evidence, or on trumped up charges. Since there is very little accountability for such actions, there is no significant deterrent, especially when such actions target weaker voiceless social groups.
The CSDS-Common Cause survey data suggests considerable frustration among ordinary citizens about such immunity. 67% respondents felt that police personnel responsible for false arrests should pay for their crimes once the arrested persons are absolved of all charges by courts.
As the former Mumbai police commissioner, Julio Riberio argued recently, operational independence to police does not imply carte blanche to do as they wish. They need to be held accountable for their sins of omissions and commissions. Without serious reforms in policing, India will get to see many more abuses of police powers in the months and years to come.
Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.