A video recording of members of the Delhi Police, their faces screwed up with hate, brutally thrashing students demonstrating in support of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula on Saturday has caused a stir, at least in the media. This is probably because it occurred in Delhi, was captured on video and played out on the social networks. But in the life our nation, a lathi-charge is a daily event.
Police thrashing people with bamboo sticks, has long been a practice in our region. The colonial police devised this method as a means of keeping native subjects under control, disrupting their protests against the colonial state and crushing dissent. The British journalist H N Brailsford, author of Rebel India and numerous articles on India, including “India under the lathi”, writing in the 1930s about the British state’s brutality against satyagrahis at nationalist rallies said: “In official circles the dispersal by lathi-charges of such a gathering was described as ‘maintaining order’.”
And so it is now, nearly 70 years after Independence. This form of police violence is so normal that newspapers and television news channels unquestioningly report: “Police had to resort to mild lathi-charge to restore order.”
An Internet search for “mild lathi-charge” throws up countless hits giving you a sense of the wide spectrum of Indian citizens the police assaults with its regulation long iron-bound bamboo sticks and the astounding number of situations in which police violence is used to cover for the state’s own failures.
Political party members of all stripes, factory and other workers and university students appear to be beaten up with the greatest frequency. This is a carry over from the pre-Independence period when political protests(and even workers' demands for better pay and work conditions) were seen as an ideological challenge to the colonial regime. Police violence to suppress this challenge was justified as a matter of the political survival of the regime. History shows, popular protest proved more powerful than police violence.
A random selection of other Internet searches includes reports about police assaults on cricket fans queuing to buy tickets for a World Cup match, on boisterous New Years’ revellers, schoolgirls blocking roads to draw attention to the lack of teachers in their schools, job aspirants at air force recruitment events raising their voices against an unannounced change of rules, school teachers protesting because jobs they were promised have not materialised, nursing students whose exams were been declared invalid because the government has suddenly woken up to illegal nursing colleges, municipal workers who have not been paid, and even families and children of policemen protesting garbage burning in their police colony.
In a country where governments use military force against their own citizens, a lathi-charge may seem very low down on the scale of violence. But every act of violence against citizens is a repudiation of a government’s claim to being representative of the people and of a state’s claim to being democratic. Using the police to attack citizens making a legitimate claim on the state or voicing political dissent is a violation of basic democratic principles. A democratic state has space for dissent, and its police force is usually led by people who see protestors as fellow citizens exercising legitimate rights, rather than as political subversives whom they have to put down. In India, this has never been the case.
During the struggle for Independence, nationalists passively accepted the blows that the colonial police rained down on them, as a form of satyagraha. Their cause – the overthrow of the colonial state – was just, and this made the injustice of the assault on them more unjust. Today, the reason that many, especially the young, challenge the policemen who attack them with lathis is because they are free citizens, not subjects challenging colonial rule. They are not questioning the legitimacy of the state to exist, they are merely asserting their constitutional right to dissent.
The hostility between protestor and police is in large measure because the police, and the state they represent, seem to remain confused on this count. The only way to set them right is for Indians to continue to exercise their constitutional right to dissent, to use public spaces to voice dissent, and force the state to prove its claim to being democratic rather than a vestige of a colonial state.