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The Futility of Fighting the Police

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte ( teaches political science at CI College, Bishnupur, Manipur.

When the police violently crush protesters to shield those in power, the right to dissent stands defeated.

The over-the-top police violence inflicted on the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who were peacefully conducting a protest march to Parliament on 23 March 2018, had elicited shocked reactions. I was equally shocked, but hardly surprised. In fact, I am surprised that so many people were so surprised about the police action.

I think the police’s response to agitations of this sort has been quite uniform and predictable over time and space. By this, I don’t mean to justify their mindlessly brutal, even sadistic, methods of quelling protests. But, once the whistles are blown and the order given to disperse the crowd, you can only expect brutality from the police personnel towards protesters, be they students, members of North East tribal organisations, ex-servicemen, Maruti Suzuki workers, or Aam Aadmi Party activists. The differences, if any, are of degree and not of kind.

In some ways, I am speaking from experience. In 2007, there was a protest rally by the tribal people of Manipur at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. The aim was to draw the attention of the centre to the abduction of some of their own people—allegedly by the Manipur underground group, United National Liberation Front—to Myanmar. They tried to march to Parliament, when an altercation ensued with the police and the protest was violently broken up. More than 50 protesters were injured. About 150 ended up in Tihar Jail, from where they were released only after three days. In the aftermath, the police would pick up from the area any person who “looked like” they were from the North East on suspicion and detain them, eliciting allegations of racial prejudice by the police. I was saved by sympathetic Narmada Bachao Andolan protesters, who sheltered me inside their tent. From there, I could see policemen throwing live tear-gas shells inside buses filled with women and systematically beating men and women who were already down on the ground.

Nine years later, on 7 June 2016, another protest meeting was held in Delhi under the aegis of the Manipur Tribals’ Forum Delhi (MTFD) in front of Manipur Bhavan at Sardar Patel Marg. The protesters were demanding to meet Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, who was holed up inside. After some protesters tried to break through the barricades, the police were let loose with water cannons, lathis, and tear-gas shells. Scores of protesters were beaten so severely that they required medical attention and even surgeries. Around 60 protesters were captured and detained overnight at Chanakyapuri police station. I was amongst those detained, having been simply picked up as I went to collect my car parked in front of Manipur Bhavan an hour or so after the protests were broken up.

It is ironic that the law, and the rights that come with it, seem to dissolve once you have stepped inside the law-keeper’s turf. Once the police have you in their custody, they no longer seem to regard you as a full, rights-bearing person. A sense of utter helplessness sweeps over you. After we were herded inside a cramped room in Chanakyapuri police station, we were called in pairs for recording our details. The police officer gestured to us to sit down. He was pointing not to the chairs, but to the floor. If they behaved with protesters like this, it is not hard to imagine the plight of those arrested on individual criminal charges. In the event, after having severely beaten and molested the protesters, many of them women, they detained us, and held us inside dusty, fan-less rooms with no food or water, leaving us and our sympathisers to beg them to release us without charges. They have us entirely at their mercy. The overriding concern then shifts to getting our detained friends out without charges, with our original grievances because of which we were marching forgotten in the process.

What about the rights, freedoms, and due process promised in the Constitution? Those lofty ideals seem to apply only as long as we keep our voices low, remain docile, and not disturb public order. Or, have a powerful lawyer. Public order, as defined by the police and not us, is one among the ultimate constitutional values that trump our fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, association, etc. The police are simply agnostic instruments of preserving the status quo. It was so under colonial rule as it is now under democratic rule.

Fighting the police is not like fighting with anyone else. They embody the state. At the immediate level, they carry the law in their person, interpret it, and execute it. You dare not punch back as that will become an assault on law-enforcing personnel, which can mean a long prison sentence. To complain against them, you have to go to them to file an FIR (first information report). They themselves will be the ones investigating your charges against them. If the matter ever reaches the courts, it will be you versus the state. Court hearings will be routine official work for them, while you have to hire a lawyer and take time off for the same. The many cases of people incarcerated for years on trumped-up charges and later found innocent, with no concomitant accountability for those who abuse the law and police power, are a testament to just how much the odds are stacked against ordinary folk.

In both the cases I have related here, the quarrel was never with the Delhi police. We have nothing against them and they have nothing against us. The grievances were political. Yet, we end up fighting with them because they are the buffer that tries to insulate our rulers from us.

In the introduction to his book, Aarushi (2015), journalist Avirook Sen recalls astronaut Rakesh Sharma’s description of India as seen from space as “Saare jahan se achcha.” Sen, then, pithily offers that his book—in which he has described the casual cruelty and heartlessness with which the justice delivery system grinds—is about how India “looks like from the ground.” The students of JNU, and the tribal students of Manipur before them, will agree.


Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018


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