The Indian police force is built on a macho culture that promotes those who commit violence. Only the victims know the truth, and no one ever dares challenge the system.
Most Indians are familiar with heavy-handed police behavior in the form of the cops slapping people or, if they are pretending to manage law and order, beating them mercilessly with their sticks (lathis). However, the real face of police brutality often remains hidden, their notions about police torture derived largely from what they have seen in films. Only the victims know the truth.
My first exposure to "real" police torture came as a trainee officer on an attachment with police in the northern Indian state of Punjab during militancy. That small, bare room in one of the police stations in Tarn Taran was dimly lit and reeked of human excrement, urine and vomit. On the floor was seated a screaming, half-naked man as two men were stretching his legs apart, while one man twisted his arms backwards and immobilized his back with his knees. We, the beginners, were gleefully "enlightened" that this technique of unnatural joint movement would not leave any visible injury marks on his body even if he managed a medical examination later.
Baptism in a dingy torture room
Beating on the soles with sticks and suspending a man from a bar like an animal carcass being spit-roasted were derided as crude methods that left tell-tale marks that could lead to trouble with the courts. Cops loved the "roller treatment," in which a smooth wooden roller was placed on the thighs of a prostrate victim. Then two cops stood on the roller as it was rolled forward and backwards, which was excruciatingly painful but left no marks.
no one wants to be labelled a "sissy"
A popular, filth-free technique involved giving low-voltage (approximately 80 volts direct current, produced by a hand-cranked generator) shocks to the testicles of a man. Kashmiri author Basharat Peer has narrated horrifying stories of this form of torture in his book Curfewed Night. Many victims suffered permanent damage; most of them could not muster the courage to approach doctors out of shame and spent their lives in mental agony.
One old-timer proudly told me he had invented a technique of masking powder marks on the dead body if they had to kill someone in a fake encounter. A wet towel placed on the body of the victim blocked the muzzle flame as well as trapping the unburnt powder particles!
Peer pressure to be a "macho" cop
Many people find it paradoxical that police brutality continues be an integral part of policing in India, in spite of the fact that the Indian police has been officered by highly educated people, selected through one of the toughest exams in the world.
The reason is that torture has been accepted as a "macho" or the expedient way of dealing with things, which cannot be dealt with by the legal and "effeminate" way of policing. This sub-culture consumes everybody, from constables to Indian Police Service (IPS) officers. Torture is treated as a necessary rite of passage to initiate new officers into "real and practical" policing. This is a very clever strategy of imposing immense peer pressure. Privately, a race begins to prove who is the "toughest" guy around. As Bhajan Singh Bhinder and Patrick J. Nevers note in their work, Demons Within: The Systematic Practice of Torture by Indian Police, this sub-culture incentivizes the most brutal to rise to the top.
The peer pressure ensures that they try hard not to get disgusted by what they do in the course of their duty or even feel "brutalized" by it – no one wants to be labelled a "sissy." Senior and junior officers alike had laughed at my batchmate who could not withstand the screams and stink of that torture room in Tarn Taran. Yet another officer who was taken to the site of an encounter and had puked at the sight of a dead body with its brains blown out by bullets found the constables giving him sneering looks.
Indian Youth Congress activist detained by police during the protest against the central
Loving at home, but brutal at work
It is difficult to find a cop who is ashamed of what he does in his job or feels conflicted. Those who survive in the job manage to get effectively desensitized or de-humanized unless, in rare instances, they choose to chart their own path at their own peril.
It is not that they become totally bereft and incapable of any feelings. Quite often they are "troubled" – but they are too proud to admit it. What do they do, then? One of the ways out is to drown themselves in alcohol in an attempt to banish all their troubles from their minds. That is how hard drinking has come to be recognized as macho in their fraternity. Another is partying too often, which is actually an attempt to avoid remaining alone when their consciences trouble them.
In his book On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia, former editor of the Washington Post Steve Coll narrates a revealing conversation he had with IPS officer K.P.S. Gill sometime before 1993. He was taken aback that Gill downed at least seven tall glasses of whiskey within an hour.
The restraining effects of good education, decency and values nurtured by upbringing are effectively neutralized in the workspace. Those are overruled by the combined effect of the desires of belonging to the brotherhood and to be respected within it, as well as the incentive to rise to the top with the badge of a "go-getter." For their families and loved ones, they continue to be the ideal men expected by their position.
Even if they are not split personalities, the fact remains that they acquire the ability of morally disengaging from the sins they commit in their job. A phone tapping operation by the Croatian Secret Service had revealed that Slobodan Milošević, accused of crimes that affected hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the former Yugoslavia, was a loving father and husband. So are many of our illustrious police officers.
Acts of torture in "the national interest"
The other way of banishing guilt comes by invoking a "loftier" cause. The advent of terrorism in India brought a narrative that a large number of Indian Sikhs, Muslims, people of the north-east and left-extremists were part of an international conspiracy to destabilize India. And since our complicated legal system did not permit the "anti-nationals" to be convicted easily, the simplest way to rid society of them was to extract information through torture and, as their "utility" ended after that, kill them extra-judicially. Thus, torture and fake encounters came to be regarded as acts in "national interest" that are rewarded with medals.
The Indian state plays an important role in perpetuating police image and behavior that threatens, oppresses and brutalizes people. First, hardly anyone is ever punished. Second, even in day-to-day policing, the state makes it very clear that its coercive arm, that is the police, can kill you anytime, anywhere. That is not even counting atrocities committed by abusing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, which grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces to maintain public order in "disturbed areas." That is the reason that, in spite of all the pretense of modernization, Indian street cops still habitually carry lathis (ranging from 3 feet to 6 feet long bamboo poles) and military rifles, even if there is no threat of a terrorist attack.
One of the ways out is to drown themselves in alcohol
The British, who gave us the Indian police in form and feature, do not allow their own street cops to carry firearms in public. Jon Kelly had reported for the BBC that 82% of the police officers said in a survey that they did not want to carry weapons because the very principle of the British police was "policing by consent" and they don't need to be seen as constantly threatening.
In complete contrast, the mantra of policing in India has become “Know thy master, protect thy master’s interests, harass or kill his enemies, and prey on the poor and the powerless with brutality to keep them perpetually suppressed.” There is nothing intrinsic to the job of policing that makes them brutal or highhanded. It is their identification with the rulers and their obsessive desire to hang on to the power, money and the lure of all the sleaze that flows from this intimate association that brings the perversity lurking in their subconscious to the fore. As long as these factors continue, torture and brutality will continue to be an intrinsic part of police practices.
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