About Thoothukudi and Other Custodial Police Violence During Lockdown: Part 5

  • July 21, 2020

A documentation of the custodial deaths during lockdown that also looks for the answer to some such questions around the class nature, caste nature and religious nature of such deaths. This is the fifth and last part of the Groundxero report.


The Thoothukudi murders have once again drawn our attention to custodial and other forms of violence perpetrated by the police. Although India is currently facing a public health crisis, the police have been used during this period for playing the roles of admonisher, abuser, torturer, and murderer instead of a guide that helps coordinate medical aid and other forms of relief. Although few expected otherwise, perhaps some of us have been waking up to the fact that the naked violence and apathy of the Indian administration for its citizens is not necessarily reserved for the military zones of Kashmir and the forests of Chhattisgarh and Manipur, or even the minority ghettos, that is, for the others. The deceased in Thoothukudi are after all not so different from us – the middle class Hindu. Although they are Christians, the identity of Jayaraj’s family was strongly rooted in a powerful land-owning caste. Also, unlike the migrant workers – a wide range of socio-economic-cultural-religious groups that have been artificially clubbed together into a large, faceless category during the lockdown – Jayaraj and Bennicks belonged to an established class of traders. Had it not been the case, would their deaths have prompted widespread media coverage and social media outrage? This article is a documentation of the custodial deaths during lockdown that also looks for the answer to some such questions. For the purpose we also reread some works by K. Balagopal, the late civil rights activist, who has written extensively on the subject of police and torture.


Part 1 : A trail of habitual and systematic atrocities by the Thoothukudi cops

Part 2 : Thoothukudi murders in the light of the general lockdown scenario

Part 3 : How do we react? What do we react to?

Part 4 : What can the police do?



5. What can we do? 


Looking for alternatives to police: Since the Indian State is not going to magically engage in any kind of self-reform or start taking care of its people overnight, alternatives must be found within people’s movements. But what kind of movements might have the answers? It has been argued for good reasons that the NGO-ization of socio-cultural-legal movements (including the idea of isolated police reforms) as well as the constant need for State approval among the trade union movements have weakened the forces of resistance. The best they can offer are short-lived solutions – temporary reliefs. It is as the American social reformer Frederick Douglass wrote about the Christmas holidays granted to the plantation slaves:


From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.


Talking about ‘rebellious spirit’, and also since we were on the subject of PW, an example of an alternative system can be sought among the Janatana Sarkars – ‘liberated State/police-free zones’ in Chhattisgarh – established by the PW step-by-step since the 1980s. Without the intervention of the State-appointed police, how did these zones function in terms of local crime management? By local crime, one does not mean the decades-long anti-Constitutional crimes committed by the State or the police or the ruthless State-sponsored local militia Salwa Judum, or its later BJP versionsGautam Navlakha’s article (2010) gave a first-hand glimpse of how the PW revolutionary people’s committees undertook this task at that point, while also developing farming, education and cultural activities, and very importantly carrying out struggles for raising wages.


Had the State not been killing the activists and selling the lands of the Adivasis (thus essentially killing them as well, in addition to making them vulnerable to malnutrition and disease), the kinds of crime that the Janatana Sarkars (JS) would have dealt with in the form of collective discussions with the villagers, are land disputes, alcohol issues, atrocity on women etc. On rare occasions, there would be murder cases over land or some other possession or even money. But “JS Constitution does not follow death for death, as matter of principle”, Navlakha informed us, the punishment could be monetary, payable to the victim, “in inverse proportion to the class of the peasant”, or a sentence to labour camps, where the accused was “taught revolutionary politics” and was reformed.


Community participation: Without going into the debates around armed struggles and definitions of nationalism (though Navalakha did, often critically at the PW as well), Navalakha’s description simply indicated that the Janatana Sarkars in Chhattisgarh took care of the people and in turn were cared for by the people. Let us forget for the moment that Navalakha has been jailed (under precarious conditions) and hence the State may define any question raised by him as illegitimate. Let us rather ask in the perspective of his article, if a small group of activists with limited resources could achieve a pro-people social system despite constant State repression, can the State not replicate such a model on a mass scale?


This is of course a rhetorical question. However, one is inclined to note how the concept of police is replaced in Navalakha’s description of Janatana judiciary by that of community participation – a concept essentially absent in the very philosophy behind the formation of Indian police. Indian police was never meant to mingle with the ‘native’, which is why, as we indicated earlier and as Balagopal too has mentioned in his articles on the police, if a police personnel was seen being close to the locals, he was immediately transferred, replaced by an ‘outsider’, who is unfamiliar, unconcerned, and unsympathetic about the losses that he was going to cause the locals. This does not account for the Salwa Judum-like militia, which is essentially formed by the locals. Under usual circumstances, despite remaining at the forefront of the brutal attacks, they are not really included within the fold of police. Their status is that of hired goons that the police work hand in hand with, until they become dispensable.


In contrast to the police, the Panchayati Raj was indeed proposed as a means for grassroots citizen participation. However, in the absence of any real pro-people agenda, the Panchayat system created more layers of classist, casteist, communal, hypermasculine, and politically corrupt bodies of governance, in collaboration with the police and the goons, encouraging coercion, nepotism, bribery, and moral policing. Moreover, like the police, the Panchayats are legally directly under the jurisdiction of the government in terms of transfers, discharges etc. of the officials. Police reform cannot be imagined without resolving the very basic Constitutional issues that these so-called community projects are facing 73 years after independence. Similar issues have surfaced for the Adivasis due to the hierarchical nature of the chieftains, who resorted to the police to dominate their ‘subjects’ whenever required and also contributed to local militia like Salwa Judum. Moreover, the token gratifications granted by the government to the Gram Sabhas have repeatedly been proved as useless whenever real threats came in the way.


Parallels can be drawn with trade unions and NGOs working in the urban setup. However, now and then, certain progressive legislative steps have been implemented towards increasing citizen participation (and reducing police intervention) even in recent times. The 2014 amendment of the Street Vendor Act that ensured 40% participation of the vendors in the Town Vending Community, was one such step. But such laws are not of much significance, as has been proved many times during the lockdown at the cost of financial loss and harassment of many vendors.


One may ask how any of these are related to the custodial death of Jayaraj and Bennicks since the class and caste they belonged to were not among those facing the harshest police atrocity. The relevant point here is the interrelation of socio-political-economic-cultural aspects that play explicit and implicit roles behind such crimes. The nature of such atrocities is to trickle down deeper and deeper and eventually catch up with even the safest of us.


Looking for examples in the international scenario: In the US, we have recently been exposed to the idea of defunding the police (in Seattle and Minneapolis) – the first time in a democratic country. The organic demand from the community is to invest heavily on community projects and implement ‘development’ from the bottom in order to create an environment less and less conducive for crime. The immediate demands at this point are centered around the US police system, and not so much about questioning the role of the ‘global police’ that the United State likes to assume.


Hawzhin Azeez pointed out the possible shortcomings of such movements while writing about the system of democratic autonomy in Rojava. Though politically distinct, the Kurdish liberation movement is comparable to the Janatana Sarkar in that they too have founded alternative social systems completely barring the entry of the State and the police in their grassroot organization of resistance, in their attempts to empower women, invest in education etc. As Azeez said, the injuries caused to the Black Americans, the Kurds, and the Indian Dalits and Muslims are not so different in nature. It may seem impossible to connect these isolated anti-State movements, given their geographical positions and varied political beliefs and motives. Nevertheless, it is perhaps becoming more and more vital, in the face of increasing brutality from States, that a larger number of channels of acknowledgement and support begin to open up between these. Murray Bookchin – the social theorist highly revered by the activists in the Rojava movement – rightly said: “If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.


While African Americans fight for their rights in the US, a paper on police reform in some of the heavily policed African countries states the need of freeing the police from the politics in a democratic State mechanism. To have an efficient and transparent police system, it says, there must exist “an independently functioning, effective police force service commission”, comprising a carefully mixed group of representatives who have a vital stake in its functioning. The commission supervises the entire police force except the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), who is appointed by the President and in turn supervises over the police force service commission, but for a short fixed term in order to avoid unwarranted political influence over the position. An equivalent ‘reform’ might amount to dubious results in the Indian context. There is no dearth of independently functioning arms of the State informally supervising over the police. Although, the idea of a supervisory body comprising the affected people as a considerable majority can be explored in line with the essential community participation discussed above.


In short, gradually increasing community participation and gradually forcing the State (hence police) to reduce its interference are the paths that several differently motivated groups are looking at.s


What is crime: Before we take our ideological pick, let us take a look at ourselves. An entitlement to be protected by the State, even at the cost of being abused by the same State when the State feels the need, is a habit that we acquire as we grow up under a punitive social system. Therefore, it is difficult to deny the protector State the jurisdiction to eliminate the ‘threats’, or in other words, the jurisdiction to kill and mutilate as it sees fit. It is another matter that the ‘threat eliminator machine’ is bound to turn into a threat eventually, but a more urgent and difficult problem lies in how we ourselves look at crime, since crime is all that the Indian police is about:


Whereas it is expedient to reorganize the police and to make it a more efficient instrument for the prevention and detection of crime; – Preamble of the 1861 Police Act


There is no universal rule of Ethics that tells us what crime is. Funnily enough, just as the State creates the police under the pretext of fighting ‘crime’, it is the State that also begets ‘crime’ as well as defines it. Most crimes are defined by the ruling class, just how it was defined by the British in colonized India, how it is defined today by the upper caste Hindu Sarpanch in a village Panchayat, by the male head of the family in a household, the one in a higher position of power in a hierarchical relationship. However, to restrict the discussion within the legal premises, let us quickly revisit our fear around ‘crime’, ‘criminal’ and the police.


Firstly, as it is almost the end of the article, let us for the last time go back to Jayaraj and Bennicks. A lot of the police violence that happened during the lockdown was essentially defined as prevention of unpermitted access to public space. Often, such actions are termed as ‘loitering’ that the police across the world have been historically designed to prevent. There are two broad reasons behind it. The police served the upper middle class, which possessed a paranoia against the ‘loitering lumpen class’. It is as Sidney Harring wrote: “The criminologist’s definition of ‘public order crimes’ comes perilously close to the historian’s description of ‘working-class leisure-time activity.[4] But the more important reason was that it was the ‘loitering lumpen class’ that provided the State (read, the Corporate) with free labour. Therefore they had to be arrested and put in camps where they were forced to labour as punishment. The ploy sounds uncannily familiar in today’s India in its treatment of Adivasi, Dalit and Muslim.


Secondly, crimes, though committed (or defined as having been committed) by the poor, are ‘owned’ by the corporates. Not only owning the enforcement gangs and political goons, poaching, alcohol, drugs, prostitution and pornography businesses, not only refusing to pay wage, price, compensation etc. and thus creating an abysmally disbalanced economic system that forces people to resort to petty crimes, but even ‘harmless’ actions fabricated as crime by the State such as ‘begging’ or the ‘beef business’ are essentially funded by corporate houses on a mass scale.


Thirdly, we must find ways to de-stigmatize petty crime and jail, and struggle to find consistently empathetic ways to deal with them. We must constantly ask ourselves when and why we ourselves resort to the police while belonging to a collective space as well as a personal space. The question is easier asked than it is answered. But the ‘defunding’, if necessary, must be as socio-cultural as it must be economic. It is also related to how we look at our own property and way of living.


Lastly, while we question the State, the police and ourselves, we must learn to deal with our fear of retaliation from all these entities. After all, it is the fear that strengthens the beast.


Since we have been reading Balagopal, let’s end with him as a temporary conclusion to this ongoing discussion cum documentation. Whether or not we agree with the need of complete abolition of violence as a means to suppress or resist the suppression, let us listen to what Balagopal (in favour of the abolition, though not without dilemma[5]) has to say on this matter:


For every crime that is committed, society carries some responsibility, as well as the individual who has committed it. Society has created the conditions that impel or motivate the person to commit the crime. It is therefore partly responsible for it, along with the individual who has intentionally taken the decision to commit the offence. Punishment, therefore, should not hold the individual fully responsible for the crime. This is precisely what Death Penalty does. It holds the murderer 100 per cent responsible for the murder. Of Capital and Other Punishments, K. Balagopal



[4] Policing a Class Society, Sidney Harring, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

[5] Paper presented at a workshop on ‘The State, Policing, and the Law: Understanding the Genealogies and Nature of Police Violence in India’, V. Geetha, July 19-20, 2019, JNU, Delhi.

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