In the late 80s, I got to know a lawyer in London. A British Gujarati born in East Africa, R, in his early 30s then, was quietly making a name for himself in the United Kingdom’s legal and civil rights circles. Although extremely low-profile and self-effacing, he had already fought some groundbreaking cases challenging various police forces around Britain, especially the Metropolitan Police which serves London. When I first met him in 1989, R was already the leading legal expert in the matter of deaths in police custody. Coming from India, I was somewhat inured to the idea of the police illegally killing people they had arrested; it was tragic, it was cruel, unjust and appalling, but we were used to the business. Whether described as an ‘encounter’ (or ‘counter’ here in Bengal) on the road or as suicide or heart attack in the jail cell, or some other quite brazen mislabelling of extra-judicial murder-execution, as a society we were used to the police dispatching a person through foul means every now and then. R, on the other hand, was fighting to dismantle the impunity enjoyed by the police of late-Thatcher-era Britain, especially when it came to ‘seeing off’ young, working-class black men or the occasional (genuine or assumed) member of the Irish Republican Army.
As R would recount to me, it was a steep cliff that he and his colleagues had to scale every day. The means they employed were unspectacular: detailed forensic examination of police records, notes and diaries; collecting and collating eyewitness accounts from victims’ relatives and friends, bystanders, other prisoners who might have been in the neighbouring cells, the doctors who were called in to try and revive someone who’d had ‘an accident’ or on whom ‘extra force had to be unfortunately used’ and so on. Since you could not sue the police for criminal behaviour, the route these lawyers would often take was to launch a civil suit under various clauses, forcing the police officers concerned to come and stand in the dock and be cross-examined. The seemingly implacable and unmoving opposition R and lawyers like him faced was from the Crown Prosecution Service. By law, the only agencies, which could investigate the police for criminal behaviour of any kind, including actions leading to grievous injury or death, were the CPS and the police themselves. It was — unsurprisingly — rare that the CPS and the police ever found one of their own guilty of criminal behaviour or gross negligence. However, when the civil cases started going against them, with judges ruling in favour of the victims murdered in police stations, the police and the CPS came under huge public pressure to re-investigate particularly awful cases of deaths in custody.
As Britain began to move out of the deep ‘conservative’ black hole of the Thatcher years, slowly, with great effort, policing in the country began to change. Due to the labours of R and his cohort of civil rights lawyers, succeeding British governments were forced to bring in laws and protocols which, while not exactly doing away with impunity, made it far more difficult for a police officer or a group of policemen to maim or kill a suspect or a prisoner.
During one of our conversations where R had just described in horrifying detail what a group of London policemen had done to an Afro-Caribbean prisoner, I suggested to him that the very institution of policing should perhaps be abolished. R laughed out loud. “No, that’s not what I’m saying at all, that’s never been the aim of all our work.” R then went on to explain why he felt no modern society would survive without effective policing. “The point is not to do away with the police. There are so many daily situations where I am glad the police are there. The point is to try to have a police force that is not corrupt, not racist, not gratuitously violent. A force that is fair, unbiased and sensitive to what people need.” Was that at all attainable, I asked. “We are a long way away, I’m afraid, but unless we keep trying we’ll never get there.”
I think about that conversation as news keeps coming in of the failures and the gross cruelties of various police forces across the world. The militarization of the police in the United States of America is terrifying; the hair-trigger responses and deliberate racist murders by American officers in uniform are a recent phenomena, at least in their utter brazenness. Fear and hatred are two of the worst kinds of fuel to be putting into the mental tanks of cops anywhere, and the US seems to have taken it to an unprecedented extreme for a society that’s supposed to be democratic. Similarly, whether it’s Turkey, Palestine-Israel or Hong Kong, the difference between a fully armed military force and a civil police force seems to be shrinking every day.
Here in India, we seem to be increasingly accepting of grotesque outrages by people in police uniform. However strong our aspirations may be to become a ‘world power’ and an advanced economy and society, as long as we don’t recognize that we need a radically different kind of policing than what we’ve become used to, there will be no realizing those dreams. We need to have an unambiguous understanding that the following are criminal actions: standing by as someone next to you instigates mass violence; participating in riots as perpetrators; framing evidence against political targets; encountering and murdering people, no matter how villainous they may be, with the flimsiest, most shameless excuses of ‘shot while escaping’; or killing people in jail. We need to recognize that arresting people on false, trumped-up charges, or keeping them indefinitely in jail without evidence or trial is also malicious, criminal action. We need to recognize and reject the taking for granted that a police force is bound to be used by the politicians in power as their private lethel army — the politicians so instructing the police and the investigative agencies are guilty of a crime; the policemen of investigative agencies following those instructions are equally criminal. No civilized society should allow this nexus to exist.
At the moment, it may feel as though we are moving further and further away from any ideal of policing, but we will have to keep those principles sharply in mind for the moment we next get a semblance of a democratically inclined government. Policing and police outrages have reached an abysmally low point under the current regime in Delhi and in states like Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, but let’s not forget that the people currently in power are only taking to obscene extremes the habits and policies put in place by several other parties and governments.