The killing of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded he could not breathe as a police officer pinned his neck down to the ground, has brought the United States to a moment of reckoning. It has focused years of anger about a racially distorted law enforcement machinery that is too quick to kill, arrest and jail black men and women. It has shone light on how the country’s grim, racist past is still threaded into its systems of justice, even its social attitudes. The protests triggered by Floyd’s death have now spread beyond United States borders into other countries of the West, forcing a new conversation on race and on discriminatory policing.
Indians cannot hold themselves exempt from this conversation. The faultlines of religion and caste are so deeply entrenched in this country’s police system, they usually go unnoticed. Discrimination starts with the way laws are interpreted and used. As these researchers point out, provisions to define “habitual offenders” and preventive action for “public order maintenance” are disproportionately applied against denotified tribal communities. Colonial laws, long gone, once defined these communities as “criminal tribes”. But the colonial attitude of attributing criminality to these groups persists in police forces. Dalits, Adivasis and minority communities are other marginalised groups targeted by such laws. According to a 2019 survey, 50% of the police force thought Muslims were naturally more prone to crime.
The bias courses through the various stages of police action, with such communities subjected to “over-arresting”, illegal detention, torture and extra-judicial killing, denied access to bail. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s prison data from 2015, 55% of undertrials are Muslims, Dalits or people from tribal communities. They account for just 39% of the population, which means the only place in the country where they are overrepresented is prison.
In case after high-profile case, these biases have become painfully clear. Most recently in the Delhi violence cases, when the police were observed raining down blows on Muslims, killing at least one, and standing by as Hindu mobs went on a rampage. More than three months later, the police say equal numbers of both communities have been arrested – this for violence that was largely directed at the minority. Investigations and chargesheets have painted the minority as conspirators in a grand plot to instigate violence and the majority as compelled to “raise their voices”. Old systemic injustices have been bolstered, in recent years, by the political patronage of Hindu nationalism.
Too many people from marginalised communities have died in police custody, too many have been shot down in staged encounters, too many have lost years of their lives doing time in jail for crimes they did not commit. Floyd’s death has prompted many countries to confront the reality of police discrimination. India, too, should look within.