The distressing news of the deaths of P. Jayaraj and J. Bennix, father and son, allegedly at the hands of the Santhankulam police in southern Tamil Nadu, has now been condemned on the streets, on social media, and in news outlets across the country. Responding to the popular furore, the state government has urged swift action against the concerned policemen – capturing absconders, transferring the station personnel to other districts, and entrusting the torture investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Over the past fortnight, journalists and political leaders have drawn attention to a history of custodial violence at the same police station, indicating a pattern of abuse rather than an isolated incident. More damningly, human rights reports show that far from being limited to one station in one part of the country, custodial violence is a routine occurrence across India. In short, police violence is systemic.

A long history

One factor that has especially angered many is the triviality of the offence for which Jayaraj and Bennix were arrested – they had kept their shop open for a little longer than permitted under the current pandemic guidelines. Based on ten years of studying archival records of police torture in this region, I would argue that this too is quite normal.

Historically, victims of custodial violence have been among the most marginalized members of community, often hauled to the station for petty crimes. Way back in 1826, Madurai police peon Cuppi Nayakan kept two men in confinement for several hours, their arms tied behind their backs, on suspicion that they had traded in counterfeit coin. One died, the other lost his arms.

Cuppi Nayakan himself was sentenced to receive 20 whips and five years’ rigorous imprisonment. Police torture continued through the next century of colonial rule.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end in 1947. In 1956, the Melur town police brought a small lad, Mani, into custody because he was found gambling for 12 annas at the town bus stop. The inspector gave the boy a few admonitory kicks before releasing him on bail; already unwell, Mani succumbed to his injuries and died four days later.

As late as 1995, Parvathy Thevar, a 24-year old wage labourer was brought into the all-women police station in Thoothukudi, on the charge of having an affair with a married man. She died in custody late that night, allegedly having been beaten by police personnel.

J Bennix and his father P Jayaraj. Credit: PTI

The invention of the police

Trading in small amounts of counterfeit, gambling for 75 paise, having an affair – none of these is a major offence, some are not even offences. But they all threaten notions of private property, public order and gender norms that we, as a society, broadly countenance.

Historically, the role of the police has been to enforce these norms. Established from around the eighteenth century onwards in Europe and its colonies, the police came into being at a time when individual conduct needed to be routinely monitored and routinely disciplined. The global economy was transforming, agriculture was being revolutionised, industrialization was in process, colonies across Asia and Africa were being annexed to extract agrarian and mineral wealth.

Alongside, gender and spatial norms were being rewritten: the wealthier classes privatised commons, middle-class women were expected to keep home rather than go out to work, and labourers were expected to use their time efficiently.

To police large populations in such calibrated ways, the police categorised populations and behaviours – they targeted gypsies, prostitutes, gamblers, beggars, and labourers, while largely ignoring the activities of the wealthier classes who conducted their lives behind closed doors.

In colonial India, the police additionally classified people based on their caste; landholding and mercantile communities were given protection, while labouring communities were harshly monitored. In so doing, colonialism built on pre-existing traditions of caste hierarchies, but also often exacerbated its inequalities.

Targetting the marginalised

This is the historical context that has allowed the present-day police to assault, with impunity, those of the lowest classes and castes. Certainly, the public anger against the policemen of the Sathankulam police station and the call for punishments is justified. Certainly, there is public anger against the entire institution, which can well do with reform.

But to blame the violence entirely on a few bad actors is to ignore that policing is part of the same society that we all inhabit. To blame it on their lack of education or poor pay is to reinforce the same stereotypes that the poor and illiterate are somehow more prone to criminality and violence (and therefore more suitable targets of policing), than are the rich and the educated.

To avoid this trap, we need only to remember that once upon a time the British blamed police torture – committed by Indian policemen on Indian subjects – on the latter’s race and consequent cultural proclivity to violence, rather than to the specific conditions of colonial rule which tolerated violence on the brown body.

Instead of recycling elitist stereotypes that successfully distance us from the violence of our police, we need to look at how far we, as a society, tolerate injustices to the poor, to Dalits, to women.

So long as we can live in a society where labourers have to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes while trains idle by, where rape victims are shamed for their clothing choices, where Dalits are punished for making a little money – we cannot be shocked that the police also target the same citizens, albeit with brute force.

The strange and difficult conditions of the present, when the world is battling a pandemic, have lent an edge to the protests against police violence – in India and in the US. The exceptional nature of the moment has also enhanced the authoritarian strain within state and police authority, partially explaining the fact that the Sathankulam police targeted members of a somewhat prosperous trading community.

In some senses, Covid-19 has exposed the violence inherent in our society by rendering normally secure social groups vulnerable to police force. Even as we react with justified anger to the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix, it would do well for us to remember that police violence is the norm, not the exception, for those most marginalised in our society. So long as we live in a society marked by stark inequalities between classes, castes, and genders, we are not far from the police, and violence is not far from us.

Radha Kumar is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Syracuse University.