The “long march” by some students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi on March 23 has once again brought to the fore questions regarding the space for public protest in India. The march was held to protest against sexual harassment on the campus, the recently-introduced compulsory attendance requirement and the Union government’s plan to grant autonomy to educational institutions it funds. As the march commenced from the university campus in South Delhi and reached INA market on its way to Parliament, there was a face-off with the Delhi police. The police sought to disperse the crowd using water cannon, and also lathi charged and manhandled many people. However, it was not just protestors who were at the receiving end of the police’s wrath, but also journalists. A journalist was allegedly groped and manhandled by the police, who are also alleged to have thrashed another journalist and snatched a camera from a photojournalist.
A group of journalists subsequently staged a dharna in front of the Delhi police headquarters to oppose the police’s treatment of members of their fraternity. The Delhi police tendered their “deepest apologies” and sought to justify their actions by stating that they had mistaken the journalists for protestors. The basis of the apology was hence not the rightness or wrongness of the alleged acts of thrashing, manhandling or groping citizens, but rather only the fact that the journalists who were at the receiving end of such acts were not the intended targets. The key point here is that apart from the journalists who were victims of police brutality, a large number of protesting students and teachers were also subjected to a brutal attack with water cannon, lathis, fists and shoes by police personnel in India’s national capital. Yet, these acts of violence, engineered and controlled by the police, are not something that the state and the police feel they should apologise for, or even address at length.
What happened on March 23 in New Delhi implicates many pressing issues going to the heart of freedom of speech and democratic participation, spatial justice, police reform, decolonisation of the mind, and the nature of violence in post-colonial India. The police violence was not unusual for India either. In the past, farmers, striking workers and trade unionists, protesting nurses and doctors, environmental activists, right to information activists, anti-corruption crusaders, anti-globalisation activists, retired Army personnel, disabled people, and others have also seen their protests being brutally smashed by the police in cities and villages across India.
Official state communication, leave alone deliberation, on such matters is seldom forthcoming. Such a situation is a result of how the state’s primary responsibility for maintaining public order has traditionally been understood in modern India.
The idea of public order
Why does the police not feel the need to apologise or even examine its own actions more carefully here? Why does reckless police brutality against protestors not raise many eyebrows from members of the public? Why are the state responses to what happened in Delhi so unacceptable? The action and the official response to the incident suggest that attacking and manhandling protestors is something that the police in India have got habituated to such an extent that they do not even feel the need to examine if their actions were right and appropriate to the situation. To provide a comparative example, the violent attacks by American police forces on largely peaceful protestors against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999 provoked massive outrage, analysis, and soul-searching in the United States. More recently, violence against anti-Trump protestors in the US has once again stoked the moral outrage of the American public and the world at large. In India, by contrast, it seems that a large section of the public has internalised and justified a particular idea of what the police could do and ought to do when dealing with a group of protestors and with public protest. However, in normalising such action, we unquestioningly legitimise police practices that are morally questionable, discriminatory, anti-democratic, imperialistic, and unjust.
While there might be some continuing ambivalence about how much force may or should be used, the need to contain protests to maintain “public order” is something that seems to be widely accepted in official and common Indian sensibilities. The origin for both our present understanding of the term “public order” and the means permissible to establish or maintain it, trace back largely to colonial ideas and imperialistic practices. As is well known, the colonial state’s two primary tasks were the maintenance of public order and the collection of revenue. This structuralist legacy has lived on, and even today, the primary vehicles through which the post-colonial state in India exercises its power are the police department, which maintains law and order, and the revenue department, which is responsible for general administration.
Scholars such as Uday Singh Mehta and Mahmood Mamdani have once again brought attention to the discriminatory and violent colonial practices against the people of the Caribbean, South Asia and Africa, persuasively arguing for recognising the spurious origins and false authority of European liberalism. Others like Mithi Mukherjee and Elizabeth Kolsky have further highlighted the presence of a perverse utilitarian logic of imperium or supreme power and violence at the heart of India’s constitutional justice and its primary legal codes. The role of the police in quelling public protests that potentially destabilise public order in contemporary India raises once again some long suppressed questions about the law, about the state, about public order, and about democracy and citizenship, in post-colonial independent India.
Lathi: The totem of police power
The maintenance of public order by the police continues to manifest itself in independent India through means like the “lathi charge”, the method used by the colonial state in British India to “control the natives”. This basically involves the police forces launching a coordinated charge at protestors while wielding heavy wooden sticks – sometimes fortified with iron or metal – which for long have been a favoured weapon of the police in India. Tracing back to ancient South Asian stick-fighting martial arts, the lathi, when wielded effectively, can break bones and crack skulls.
The lathi has today become a totem of police power and brutality across the Indian subcontinent. Webb Miller, the American correspondent and war journalist, in a particularly evocative description of the brutality of the lathi charge by police forces against unarmed, peaceful satyagrahi protestors at Dharasana Salt Works near Dandi in 1930, noted:
“Police officials ordered the marchers to disperse under a recently imposed regulation which prohibited gatherings of more than five persons in any one place. The column silently ignored the warning and slowly walked forward. I stayed with the main body about a hundred yards from the stockade.
Suddenly, at a word of command, score of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like tenpins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow.
Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down…”
With Gandhi arrested and in jail, Sarojini Naidu had assumed leadership for rallying the protestors at Dharasana Salt Works, and she too was arrested soon after the police violence against the protestors. Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s words on surveying the violence, as recorded by Webb Miller, are particularly noteworthy:
“All hope of reconciling India with the British Empire is lost forever. I can understand any government’s taking people into custody and punishing them for breaches of the law, but I cannot understand how any government that calls itself civilized could deal as savagely and brutally with nonviolent, unresisting men as the British have this morning.”
Despite this bloody history, the phenomenon of the lathi charge is something that has become quintessential to the police in India exercising its duty while dealing with public protests. A careful investigation will, of course, reveal that very many of the devices, practices, and technologies used by the colonial state to surveil, control, and discipline the Indian population have seamlessly reproduced themselves in independent India. The French thinker Michel Foucault, in a delightful commentary “Lemon and Milk”, originally published in Le Monde in October 1978, notes: “[J]ust as people say milk or lemon, we should say law or order. It is up to us to draw lessons for the future from that incompatibility.” Pointing out that it is “for the sake of order that the decision is made to prosecute or not to prosecute; for the sake of order that the police are given free rein; for the sake of order that those who aren’t perfectly ‘desirable’ are expelled”, Foucault indicates just what is as stake by pointing out that the primacy of order in a legal system has consequences where “the judicial system increasingly substitutes concern for the norm for respect for the law; and it tends less to punish offences than to penalise behaviours”.
Are these disciplinary and security practices so entrenched in our state institutions that it is impossible to unlearn these worldviews, imaginaries and knowledge? Are there alternative systems of policing that can work in India? How can we move from our present policing practices to a situation where human lives matter – where rights matter, where laws matter, where justice matters – and there is no more ambiguity about this recognition in the organisation of our social lives together? What kinds of emancipatory politics will end police impunity and usher in accountability, dignity and justice? What does the right to public protest and the right to the city mean in specific spatial and social contexts in India? These are the questions that we must consider afresh and reflect on as we deliberate the unjustness of police violence in a post-colonial democracy such as India.
Mathew Idiculla is a research consultant at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru. Abhayraj Naik is an independent legal researcher and consultant based in Bengaluru.