Police Brutality: The Slow Death of Democracy
Sasha Maria Paul - Senior Advisor, Rights and Partnership Program
Photo Credit: Voice of America
“Policemen so cherish their status as keepers of the peace and protectors of the public that they have occasionally been known to beat to death those citizens or groups who question that status.” – David Mamet
During the last six months or so, The United States of America as well as India, has seen a number of cases wherein police brutality has affected innocent lives and has sometimes even led to the death of citizens. The word ‘democracy’ stands for an idea that has several facets but most importantly stands for a vision of a country whose government is ‘of the people, for the people and by the people.’ If that be the idea behind a democratic nation wherein there are enough and more laws to protect citizens against such brutality, as well as guaranteeing them certain fundamental rights, then a pertinent question that arises is why then has there been an increase in such aggressive actions by state machinery and more importantly why the same does not entail strong consequences for those meting out such brutality?
The 25th of May 2020 seemed like a dark day for humanity, as a young 46 year old black man, George Floyd, suspected of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, was killed by a police officer, Derek Chauvin. The internet, taken by storm, was trending with the hashtags “#blackouttuesday” and “blacklivesmatter”. The uproar by society at large stemmed from the fact that the black community in the US has once again been targeted and fallen prey to the oppression and racism of the White American Supremacists for years on end. What is intriguing about this incident is that it is not the first time in a modern day democracy that due process has been blatantly disregarded and people from a discriminated class, race, sex or creed have been disproportionately targeted. The truth is, the human race has experienced many such dark days from time immemorial, but, it has caught significant attention owing to the advancement in technology and social media that has brought a considerable change in bridging the gap between people separated by borders. Thus, today the voices of justice and unity seem to echo much louder than ever before.
The killing of George Floyd by this particular police officer saw widespread protests not only in the US, but also in various parts of the world. Regrettably, the protests in the US fueled a further increase in the acts of violence and brutality by police officers. Examples of such acts were seen making the rounds on the internet via videos that went viral. Officers who were caught shoving an elderly white man to the ground did not go unnoticed. Similarly, the beating and firing of pepper rounds at a black woman also caught much media attention. This is just a minute spectacle in the larger scheme of other reported breakouts of violence by police officers during the protests.
A journalist is seen bleeding after police started firing tear gas and rubber bullets near the 5th police precinct following a demonstration to call for justice for George Floyd. Picture Credit, Deccan Chronicle
Drawing parallel to police brutality and systemic violence in the US, the police force in India has been known infamously to carry out such brutalities in the recent past. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India recorded a shocking total of 1,723 cases of deaths of persons in judicial custody and police custody across the country from January to December 2019. These included 1,606 deaths in judicial custody and 117 deaths in police custody i.e. an average of five deaths daily. It is noteworthy that most of these deaths were of people belonging to poorer backgrounds and people from the marginalized sections of society in India.
In particular, the events that took place on the 15th of December 2019 painted a rather horrid picture. The students of the Jamia Millia University at New Delhi were protesting the recently implemented Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) when hundreds of police officers barged into the campus and relentlessly fired tear gas shells and allegedly even live bullets, ransacked libraries, washrooms and indiscriminately beat up students causing panic and commotion. The said events were also captured on several videos by students. Denying these allegations at first, Special Commissioner of Police, P. Rajan later said that a Special Investigation Team was set up to investigate the matter. However, the investigation never gained momentum and fizzled out as soon as it began.
Similar systemic violence followed in Uttar Pradesh a few hours later. The police barged into the Aligarh Muslim University which in turn sparked a nationwide protest against the government’s silence on the matter. This was followed by a mass sit in peaceful, non-violent protest at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi and inspired similar neighborhood demonstrations across India which was unfortunately called off later due to the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic.
One would think that a global pandemic of this magnitude would put an end to police brutality with most people staying indoors and other curfews in place. However, this assumption was put to rest when the acts of police brutality took a monstrous turn with the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix on the 19th of June, 2020. This sent shockwaves across the globe. The only ‘crime’ committed by the father and son was keeping their shop open for a mere 15 minutes past the curfew time of 8:00 PM. Following a verbal altercation, Jayaraj was arrested and beaten in custody. Bennix met with the same fate when he tried to intervene. Reports indicate that they were severely injured and brutally hurt. This created an outrage on social media with hashtag #JusticeforJayarajandBennix trending. As a result, to the public outcry, two sub - inspectors and two police constables were suspended, and the rest transferred.
One of the many famous posts for #JusticeforJayarajandBennix circulating around different social media platforms. Credit: Twitter @rabirajni
The law under Section 46 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, categorically states that the police may use all means necessary to effect the arrest only while exercising the right to private defence or otherwise when it is necessary to arrest a person accused of an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life.
This view has also been supported by notable jurist A.V. Dicey, in his book, the Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, wherein categorically stated that:-
“With us every official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justifications as any other citizen”.
It is important to note that cases of police brutality in India have been on a general rise and in extreme situations leading to custodial deaths as is evident from the above mentioned circumstances. There are several safeguards in place to protect the rights of people even when they are arrested in terms of an alleged crime committed by them. There is a procedure for arrest in place and several precedents to protect the rights of an arrested person. The answer to why such brutalities and violations take place in the first place lies in the fact that more often than not there is a gap in the laws that exist in theory and the actual execution of such laws to protect rights.
In 1996, a Writ Petition 310 of 1996 was filed by a retired police officer, requesting the Supreme Court to direct the Union Government to frame a new Police Act ensuring higher accountability of police to the law of land and people. The Court in its judgment (2006) referred to the Sorabjee Committee Report and Ribeiro Committee Report, which had recommended that:
“…there should be a Public Complaints Authority (PCA) at district and state level to examine the complaints from the public on police excesses, arbitrary arrests, and detentions, false implications in criminal cases, custodial violence, etc. and for making necessary recommendations.”
The Apex Court was of the view that every State Government was to have a PCA in place in order to ensure higher accountability of police officials. However, very few states have taken steps to implement the Court’s order. In Delhi, a PCA was established in 2018 pursuant to a petition filed by the CommonWealth Human Rights Initiative in the Delhi High Court, even the Commission of India’s 262nd Report noted the need for implementation of directions issued by the Supreme Court, yet States have had a very lackadaisical approach towards the same.
In a country like India, there are appropriate laws in place to protect peoples’ rights including that of free speech and expressing dissent. While the right to free speech is not an absolute right, there is a considerable amount of scope for a person to express opinions, dissent towards government policies and criticize the same. An unfortunate fact that remains though is that as the right to freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right, it is often misused by government agencies to curb and limit the criticism and dissatisfaction expressed by the people towards such policies and laws as seen in the case of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
These pictures were clicked by the Author
From the above mentioned instances, there is a discernible increase in the number of protests and dissent being expressed by people against Government action (or lack thereof) which has been on the rise in parts of the world. In both the cases, as people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the respective governments, their dissent has been curbed by oppressive measures.
Abraham Lincoln, former President of the United States of America, famously propagated the idea that a democracy was essentially a “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” If one were to go by this definition, then in essence, a government elected by the people exists to in fact protect the fundamental rights of the people belonging to these democracies and such rights are inclusive of and not limited to the right to free speech. Why then is free speech and dissent voiced by the people being met with such harsh shutdown and violence by the state machinery?
Taking into consideration the events and unfortunate occurrences in the recent past as well as in the present, it would not be an overreaching assumption to state that the Governments of modern democracies have if not sanctioned, not done much to prevent such police brutality against any opposition or dissent voiced by the people of these countries. It is more common now than ever before. Democracies today are seeing an increase in dissent towards policies and laws. This is due to the increasing awareness caused by the advancement of technology, thereby giving the people more opportunities to come out in strong numbers against oppressive, outdated laws. It is safe to assume that governments of such democracies are increasingly growing intolerant and are using state machinery as a puppet in a repressive, tyrannical manner, thus, eroding the rule of law. Having said that, law enforcement being a part of the executive, and in light of the inculcated idea of strict separation of powers, needs to act responsibly, now more than ever. The rise in police brutality without following the due process and affording constitutional safeguard paints an appalling picture of the current state of affairs, leading to a slow death of democracy.
Sasha completed her Bachelor of Arts in Literature from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai and consequently went onto do her LLB from Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She is now an Advocate in New Delhi and practices at various Courts including district Courts, the High Court and the Supreme Court. Her interest lies in studying Human Rights, Gender Equality. Sasha actively advocates for mental health awareness through various platforms. At C.R.R.S.S she consults on various projects and is also a core member of the advisory board. When not working, she is a voracious reader.