The idea of law enforcement bodies has been imbibed into the minds of the people as a positive force that works towards assuring the safety and security of the citizens that they had pledged to assure as a part of their duty. However, the reality is far from benign as law enforcement forces, at times, have not only failed to protect the public as they were meant to but also transgressed their authority to afflict pain. To what extent do the police, and social institutions of ‘security’ in general, work for citizens, and to what extent do they exercise control and domination over the subjects of the state, is indeed something to ponder over. The question remains, whose ‘security’ do they work towards?
Ranjita Sinha, a well-known senior transgender activist in Kolkata was sexually harassed by a drunk cop on the street leaving her shocked and traumatised. In an exchange laced with lewd sexual remarks against Sinha and her companions, the offender physically assaulted the driver, fracturing his wrist when he tried to ward him off. The ordeal they had to suffer while registering the FIR stands testimony to the fact how difficult it is for trans people to let their grievances be heard, let alone adequately addressed. They are helpless in the face of an authority who are neither compassionate nor adept to sensitively deal with their problems. Ranjita was even forced to withdraw her complaint to that effect but she/they stood their ground to assure that the gross harassment they had to face was subject to legal retribution. Though the accused has been booked under the Transgender Act, 2019, justice is yet to be meted out.
Theorising the narrative:
Carpenter & Marshall (2017) discuss how transgender women’s experiences of living and occupying space in the public sphere is met with hurdles in acquiring basic safety and security. The scholars note that security forces and law enforcement officials expose transgender women to unfair profiling and harassment, thereby making it difficult for them to access the freedom of movement in public spaces available to cisgender persons. As seen in Ranjita’s case, she suffered public sexual violence in the hands of the police officer, who is entrusted with duties of protecting her as a citizen deserving of rights equal to her cisgender counterparts.
As a matter of fact, numerous rulebooks which officially guide State-controlled police departments consider that “a police officer is always on duty”. But what does this “duty” entail? The authority which flows from the power held by police officers and security personnel, translates into dominion and ultimately hegemony of these institutions over the very people who they pledge to serve. The duty to protect and ensure the safety of citizens becomes the duty of exercising control over those perceived to be powerless.
Quinan (2017) in her paper titled ‘Gender (in)securities: Surveillance and Transgender Bodies in a post 9/11 era of neoliberalism’, discussed the limitations of mobility and citizenship faced by identities which cannot conform to state documented existence. She described how bodily norms encoded within surveillance tools open up transgender and gender non-conforming bodies to increased governance and policing. Persons, and indeed bodies which inhabit the hetero-patriarchal society as gender outlaws, become a source of confusion and curiosity. Transphobia originates from an attempt to bring these deviant bodies under control and to discipline them into conformity with the binary air-tight categories laid down by social institutions.
When we talk of disciplining bodies rendered docile under the power structures of society, one must not forget French postmodernist Michel Foucault. He conceived of power as embodied and enacted by agents. It is a “regime of truth” constructed and shaped by accepted forms of knowledge, that transcends all individuals and governs social functions. He understood power as disciplinary, and applied this theory to the social institutions such as state, school, hospitals and the police. He talks of “docile bodies” in his Discipline and Punish, where he argues that bodies in a regime of truth cannot exercise agency. They are shaped, controlled, and disciplined by the power which pervades social organization at large. This means that individuals in a society live under apparatuses of surveillance legitimized by governments as necessary to maintain moral order and to be free from chaos. But these systems of ‘freedom’ or emancipation, such as security personnel and the police, become systems of domination and subordination.
Serpe & Nadal (2017) studied the perceptions of police by transgender people. Here, transgender respondents reported lower levels of comfort in interacting with the police. This kind of negative perception of police and security forces stem from the fear of becoming victimized by unfair and biased police practices, such as profiling and unwarranted detainments.
Picture Credit: The New York Time
Differential policing of transgender and gender-queer persons by the police has remained a significant area of queer disempowering, not only in India but around the world. Miles-Johnson (2015) in an analysis of an Australian police policy document aimed at removing barriers with transgender groups, argued that the document itself lacked procedural guidelines regarding interaction with transgender people, which will result in negative and mistaken perceptions of transgender persons, thereby refuting its entire purpose. Arrangement of words greatly shapes human behavior. From a sociological point of view, the kind of language used in this policy document clearly segregates transgender persons as an out-group to the police in-group. By increasing intergroup difference and negatively influencing the perception of transgender people by the police, the policy document and guidelines solidify the very barriers which it sought to remove in the first place.
One must then ask, what makes transgender persons vulnerable to unwarranted abuse at the hands of security forces? As seen from the study cited above, the increasing polarization between cisgender and gender variant groups results from a lack of candid interaction and communication between them. Gender variant groups, ranking lowest in the social hierarchy of gender, exist within boundaries of queer and transgender communities, since that where they are able to exercise maximum freedom of expression. The ‘outside’ world seems too cruel to inhabit, too unwelcome to experience a sense of belonging. Active efforts towards transgender representation within security services could be a solution to this distance. Intermixing as friends, colleagues and coworkers could bridge the gap which dismisses transgender and gender variant individuals as outlaws.
However, ensuring equitable representation is not easy. These hetero-patriarchal social institutions hold immense power over individuals under their purview. They are organized in ways which reproduce and reinstate the binaries which queer theorists have sought to challenge. To answer the initial question, police departments and security systems function to maintain the safety and ‘security’ of these dichotomies such as good/bad, normal/deviant, straight/queer, etc. Indeed, for transgender people whose claims to citizenship itself is in question, ensuring their safety as citizens and protection from police becomes a complex task.
Still, the story need not end in tragedy. Change may be slow, but progress is happening. Gender sensitization workshops for organizations are gradually including queer and transgender perspectives into their teaching modules, and transgender persons are moving into the formal sector, albeit with baby steps. It can be hoped that one day the community and its continued struggle for dignity would be able to subvert the institutions which exercise power over us by resting on binaries, into more queer-inclusive spaces founded on the values of equity, respect and compassion.
Written by: Piuli and Tanistha Bhagawati