Home / Opinion / Columns /  Does the Indian police have it in for the poor?

Whether it is capitalism or socialism, it is the poor who are invariably the worst victims, argued Harvard sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr, in his widely read classic, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: and Lord Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.

In the pervasive chaos of India’s lockdown, one fact is becoming increasingly clear—that India’s poor are going to face a mortal threat, despite all the governmental measures announced by New Delhi and other state capitals.

The most distressing fact that is emerging from various reports of how poor migrant workers were brutally thrashed or harassed by the police in various parts of the country, such as Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, raises the question whether this police behaviour is an aberration or represents a deep-seated anti-poor mindset.

When these images of police violence are seen in the context of what was witnessed earlier this year at various university campuses—such as Jamia Millia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Aligarh Muslim University—suspicions seem to get confirmed that something is seriously wrong with India’s police force.

The role of the Delhi Police in the recent riots in the capital did little to allay fears that law enforcement has got instrumentalized in a manner that demands serious examination. Top police officers answer to their political masters, and the divisive politics of the day appears to have a bearing on what these men in uniform do (or not do).

In many instances of street violence in the past, too, sections of the police were seen to have failed in defending India’s secular values. Indeed, their lack of neutrality during riots has been an accusation for decades. However, during the probe of the infamous Nithari killings case in 2006, it emerged that the poor parents of the victims could not even muster the courage to lodge “missing person" complaints for their children, because they feared police harassment.

Reports of how victims of sexual violence from poor families often fail to lodge FIRs at police stations in various parts of India are routine, which is why the Verma Commission of 2013 has made some clear recommendations for the process of filing reports with the police.

Over the past week, the post-lockdown behaviour of the police in many parts of India has revealed not only a communal mindset among many men in uniform, but also contempt for the country’s poor, those rendered most vulnerable by the shutdown.

Why do Indian police forces display such anti-poor tendencies? For the most part, their lower cadre are from lower middle-class families that interact more closely with India’s poor than India’s upper middle-class and rich. This should make for empathy, but seems not to. Why so? It cannot be purely an outcome of inadequate training. Part of the explanation could be broader social attitudes towards the poor. The police are a part of Indian society in any case. Another explanation could be that the country’s political class in general has a similar disposition, though it adopts political rhetoric to the contrary for the sake of votes.

The police are rarely held accountable for their excesses. Some of the worst brutality in recent memory was seen in Hashimpura, Uttar Pradesh, in 1987. This year, there have been reports of gross violations of the dignity of anti-CAA protestors in the same state. In almost all such cases, victims have little hope for justice. In the case of Hashimpura, it took the determination of an upright senior police officer, Vibhuti Narain Rai, for the matter to be pursued, and took dozens of years for some justice to be done.

The issue of police reform often crops up, but is forgotten as soon as it is raised for public debate.

Various committees have submitted recommendations of what needs to be done, but these end up brushed aside again and again, under various governments.

Apathy towards those who suffer the harsh end of the State’s stick achieves nothing for a country aspiring to join the world’s club of top powers. Recent images of a mass exodus from cities of the poor—some were desperate for access to drinking water above all else— for their villages only seems to confirm how underdeveloped the country remains.

While the rich spoke of coronavirus contagion, all they wanted was to quench their thirst—a far more pressing survival need on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. No country can abandon its responsibility to have these needs met, not even for a brief period.

(Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University. He is the author of upcoming book, ‘Explaining the Muslim Mind’)

Expressed above are the author's personal views, and do not reflect Mint's own.

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