The recently released Tamil film, Jai Bhim, addresses custodial torture and death and traces the twists and turns of the judicial process as it unfolds in the courts.

As its title indicates, the film’s protagonist, a left-leaning lawyer, insists on the rule of law and constitutional rights and spares no effort to work either to secure justice for the brutal violence inflicted on a man from an Adivasi community, and which resulted in his death. Deeply traumatised by all that had transpired, his shocked yet resolute wife stays with the judicial system, till a modicum of justice appears a possibility.

The film has been inspired by a real-life incident in which justice was ultimately secured, but the incidents have been somewhat fictionalised. Ironically, it is for this reason that it has been criticised – for instance, it has been said that the filmmaker deliberately changed the name of the chief perpetrator of custodial violence.

While in the original case, the officer was from a minority community, he was shown to be a man from a locally dominant caste. This, critics insist, has been done with the intention of maligning the caste in question. This is an intriguing charge, and while one is tempted to assign local, political motives for this, I wish to do something else here – address the questions such a charge raises.


Understanding police brutality

Does torture have to do with the fact that the “torturers” are likely to be from dominant social groups, rather than otherwise? Is it the case that the police are brutal because they assume they are socially entitled to wield power over the poor and the socially marginal individuals they routinely view as “rowdy sheeters” and “habitual offenders”?

May we then assume that policemen from non-dominant social groups might be less inclined to inflict violent hurt? Even if they do, could it be said that they were acting on orders, rather than otherwise? How might we even know how dissent works in the force, given there are no mechanisms, such as unions or associations, where one might bravely insist on one’s right to conscionable action?

K Balagopal in an important essay, Whom and Why do Police Kill? has noted that in any local instance, the police, no doubt, answer to the realities of social power and authority, and are almost always prevailed upon by locally powerful political persons or parties to act in ways that they do. But, equally, they act, in keeping with the power that is vested in their uniform and persons. Set “apart”, in that they are seldom held accountable for their acts, in an everyday sense, they remain “distant” from those they police.

Distrusted and feared, the system, Balagopal makes clear, is sustained by its ability to exercise calibrated violence and arbitrary terror simultaneously. Whether by labelling people as deviant, or attending to their gender, caste and community identities, the police work to a social template, even as they exult in their authority to spread menace and fear. They do this as a matter of course, habituated, as they are, to ways of being and acting in impunity. In turn, this “habitude” defines their social presence and role.

In order to understand police brutality, and why it implicates all those that join the force, we need to understand how habitude works its effects. And for this, we need to attend to the workaday character of policing, and take note of the social power and menace symbolised by khaki and lathi, and note how routine police procedure and action naturalise brutality, as such. And here I wish to draw upon the work undertaken by a state agency, the Tamil Nadu Women’s Commission, which, at one time, called attention to routine acts of police cruelty as it did to acts of monumental hurt.

Caste and gender

In the years 2002-2005, the Tamil Nadu Women’s Commission, headed at that time by V Vasanthi Devi, identified and acted on a range of matters that afflicted women’s lives. From sexual harassment to custodial torture of women detenus, the plight of women undertrials to the problems faced by sex workers, Dalit women’s struggle over land to female infanticide, the commission addressed a range of issues and through diverse means: the holding of public tribunals, locally organised sittings and hearings that brought the commission home to mofussil and rural citizens and by seeking out and working closely with a range of civil institutions including women’s groups, civil rights advocates, Dalit organisations. Given that it had as yet not been granted statutory powers, the commission sought to build ethical credibility for its acts through these means.

In and through this work, the commission realised the centrality of policing in the lives of ordinary citizens, rather the ways in which the police station had emerged as a given site for the arbitration and resolution of disputes and afflictions that were wide-ranging: marital discord, property-related issues, indebtedness, caste tensions, discrimination at work sites, petty cheating, embezzlement, thievery.

Representational image. Photo credit: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India

Women, who sought legal succour and justice in any of these instances, first approached the local police. Sometimes they were forced to do so because the other parties to the dispute at hand had gone to the police with their grievance. In almost all instances, whether they were complainants, or had been called to the station for questioning, women were made to feel humiliated for having brought “family” and “personal” matters out into the open, and subjected to belittling misogynistic verbal taunting.

Further, working-class, lower caste and Dalit women were subject to casteist abuse should they dare protest police high-handedness, in however respectful a manner. Caste worked in other ways as well: a Dalit woman’s self-confidence was as likely to irk a policeman as anything that she actually said or did. One of the complaints that the Women’s Commission received had precisely to do with a “casual” crime of this sort. A working Dalit woman had been taunted by a local policeman. She took the matter to the station and protested his casteist slurs, only to be further demeaned and physically assaulted.

If the complaints had to do with caste discrimination or with sexual violence, complainants were threatened and sometimes had cases filed against them. Taking the part of the dominant castes and of male perpetrators, and actively aided by a culture of nepotism and corruption, local police, the commission found out, sought to break a female complainant’s resolve in any number of ways.

Custodial violence

The commission’s meticulously maintained records (made available to this author by Vasanthi Devi) make it clear that for women, especially if they are poor or Dalit, or both, and if they have fallen out with their husbands or families, everyday policing is one sustained horror.

While in some instances it resulted in bone-chilling acts of torture and death, the more pervasive form of menace had to do with the routine and casual degradation of women’s persons and an instrumental and brutal approach to their justice concerns. Unsurprisingly, the commission listed “police atrocities” as an area of its core concern – and the term came to refer to acts that routinely compromised a disenfranchised woman’s struggle for justice and dignity as well as to specific acts of custodial violence against women.

In one instance where a Dalit woman, Karuppi, from the arundathiyar community was found hanging from a transmission tower close to a police station, the commission sought a public enquiry which revealed a horrific sequence of events set in motion by the local police: her arrest, an attempt to foist (false) theft charges on her, physical intimidation of her family members, deploying her kin to beat her and violate her dignity and finally her death.

Eventually, following the commission’s intervention, the matter went to court and the policemen concerned were convicted and sentenced, but since then, they have gone on appeal to the Supreme Court. It is 18 years since Karuppi died her tragic death and her memory awaits an elusive justice.

The commission marked the violence done unto Karuppi and her family not only the atrocity that it was but as a violent expression of the everyday indignity inflicted on the poor and the marginal citizenry. In the public hearing where the crime was addressed initially, it was pointed out that custodial brutality remained unnoticed and unaccounted for because, for the poor who were its victims, this was but an extension of their social defencelessness.

On the one hand, the criminal justice system actively sought to criminalise them – in Karuppi’s case, the police attempted to foist a false charge of thievery on her, and when she refused to “accept” she was “guilty” of the crime, they tortured her.

On the other hand, the system made it clear that the poor cannot claim innocence. Karuppi’s family was threatened with dire consequences, should they seek to speak the truth, of what happened to her and them. Only when the commission secured them safe and enabling conditions and active protection of their persons, could they stay with the case and prosecute for justice.

That our most marginal citizens are ready to fight the legal and constitutional fight, should they be assured of the minimal conditions to wage such a struggle, is grimly ironic. In effect, they wagered their good faith on a system, geared to retain them in their social and economic marginality. The Tamil Nadu Women’s Commission was sensitive to both the specific as well as structural issues that women sought to battle.

This is why it marked police brutality, as such, as an issue for women and went on to mark their everyday experience of policing as an unlikely yet powerful object lesson – as if to say that it is not only the atrocity that tells us the truth about a brutal system but equally its everyday workings as experienced by its most marginal sections.

V Geetha is a writer, translator and publisher from Chennai.