Young men and women in a public park in the North Indian city of Meerut were slapped, and punched by the police on the 19th of December on the grounds that they were having “illicit affairs” though it’s not clear how different things would have been had they been licit. In any case, in Uttar Pradesh state (UP), where Meerut is located, students burned effigies of the policemen and even Parliament blustered through enough of a condemnation for the Meerut police chief to order the suspension of two officers. Ironically, they were female. Lynndie England, in jail for something similar, would have been envious.
Meerut Masala and Domestic Repression:
Meerut police first claimed it was only a part of “Operation Majnu (Romeo),” a drive to “cleanse” public spaces of lewd behavior, often undertaken at the instigation of parents of young women. On paper, it’s to reduce sexual harassment. But TV pictures of police beating the couples blew that pretext apart. (1)
Prowling after amorous couples in a park turns out to be less about protecting women from “eve-teasing” (the Indian euphemism for sexual harassment) as it is about policing the boundaries of India’s still deep-rooted caste-system, boundaries threatened by “love-marriages” between upper and lower caste partners and the pre-marital canoodling which presumably wets the slippery slope to the déclassé unions.
India has consistently refused to see caste as racial discrimination, with some sophistry, since in India caste operates much in the way race does elsewhere. Lower caste is classed with black and black is seen as inferior and/or forbidden. If it were not, the 1991 film Mississippi Masala, a portrait of the love affair between an African-American man and an Indian woman, would not have had the purchase it did.
The Meerut case is actually only a pallid sample of the violence, usually far more blood-soaked, in which sexuality and caste have become inseparably entangled in many parts of India. And UP trounces the rest of India in such violence. It accounts for more than half the rapes of dalit women in the country, dalit being the self-description of so-called “untouchables”, the lowest social group defined by the caste system. In 2000 alone there were more than 400 dalit rapes. (2)
But many more rapes are not even filed as cases because the government itself cuts a prominent and malevolent figure in the whole sordid business.
And that’s what the Meerut row is really about. The state either closes its eyes to “social crimes” or uses them as a pretext to dole out “frontier justice” to selected targets, using morality and culture to repress the weakest groups at home.
Which is why lawless policing, already endemic in UP, took a sharp turn for the worse when the fundamentalist BJP government came to power there in 2001 and whipped up popular hysteria over cultural contamination. A Lucknow-based human rights activist estimates that more than six extrajudicial executions occur every day in UP, while in 2000-2001, the state topped the list of false “encounter” deaths with 68 out of the 109 reported nationwide. (3)
“Encounter” is the gauzy term used by police to soften the reality of violent confrontations with citizens and suggest provocation or resistance by the victims. But the truth is that many “encounters” are simply fabricated by the police to conceal their crimes. One justice calls the UP police the “biggest organized gang of criminals.” (4)
But such abuses as Operation Romeo or the surge in extrajudicial “encounters” in UP are not simply the outcome of rogue cops running amok or of rampant government corruption or of grossly inadequate numbers of judges. There’s a far more potent cause.
And that is India’s terror legislation. In theory, terror laws are meant to defend against secessionists and jihadists; in practice, they’re brandished like a bludgeon against the civilian population.
The warning to America could not be clearer. UP police abuse, and yes, torture, appear to stem directly from laws that have massively strengthened the hands of state police and administrative officials, laws like the National Security Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). POTA, India’s Patriot Act, was hustled through by the BJP government during the hubbub over an attempt to bomb India’s parliament. And though repealed in name, its provisions still operate under cover of a revamped old law.
Americans inclined to swallow government propaganda that the Patriot Act is either effective in fighting foreign terrorism or unlikely to cause widespread domestic repression need to look hard at India’s experience with POTA and its copycats and consider whether they like what they see.
Frontier Justice in India
As in America, the rhetoric that led to India’s terror laws was the rhetoric of the untamed frontier. The population was warned of rebels springing up from the soil like dragon’s teeth, of the state splintering on the reefs of secession, of civil war tearing apart the glittering fabric of the republic.
In America, neo-conservative practitioners of this rhetoric are apparently quite prepared to find the untamed frontier whole oceans and continents away from the American border; in fact, anywhere they say it is. According to Robert Kaplan, the swathe of Islam stretching from Africa through the Middle East to South East Asia is all “Injun Country” wide open for America’s cowboys to tame and settle. (5)
In India, on the other hand, frontier rhetoric actually does have a firm footing in reality-based geography. In India, every corner of the peninsula has literally been ravaged by terrorism -- in the north, Muslim terrorists and Kashmiri secessionists; in the south, the Tamil Tigers; in the west, Punjabi secessionists; in the northeast, Naga rebels; in parts of the center, Maoist insurgents. More than 60,000 people have been killed in Kashmir alone in the last ten years or so, several times the numbers killed in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. And of course that accounts for only one decade out of the five since independence and ignores the other areas of conflict.
So at first glance it seems as though if any country had a reason to invoke the frontier justice of terror laws it would be India.
But in fact, the case is precisely the opposite. India’s experience overwhelmingly confirms the failure of special legislation that violates the constitution to tackle problems that are inherently political and economic. Long before POTA, security laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) were in place in a large part of the Northeast for decades and far from having quenched terrorism, have fanned it into a raging fire.
Furthermore, even though POTA was repealed, the revamped 1967 act which replaced it has several provisions that remain just as they were under POTA. The government can still designate organizations as “unlawful” with only a nominal judicial review. It can still make speaking in support of a terrorist organization the equivalent of supporting terrorism. And the revamped law does not even allow for POTA’s limited safeguards on the interception of telephone calls and electronic communication. Shades of the Bush spy machine.
Any wonder that the UP police believe that they have carte blanche to rough up the populace on the slightest pretext? The wonder is that they don’t do worse.
What the Indian experience demonstrates with Greek symmetry is that frontier justice crafted against bad guys unfailingly ends by targeting fall guys.
“It is usually after midnight that there is violent knocking on your door. Before you realize it, 20-30 policemen storm into your house, hurling abuses, kicking and beating even women and children, smashing furniture, ransacking papers.” (6)
Iraq under American occupation? No. Gujarat under POTA in 2002.
In Gujarat, after the massacre of about 2,000 Muslims and the gang rapes of scores of Muslim women in retaliation for the burning of a train carrying Hindu activists in which a few dozen people died, POTA was used to arrest 287 people. 286 were Muslim.
Even a South Indian politician, Vaiko, who voted for POTA recanted after he ended up jailed under it for 19 months. “I deserve the [sic] jail for voting for POTA,” he admitted. (7)
Under the AFSPA, created in 1958, the army can shoot to kill for offenses, or suspected offenses, against laws prohibiting five or more people from gathering in an assembly and the carrying of weapons.
Neither “assembly” nor “weapon” is specifically defined, so the army could technically be within its rights shooting to kill a family or someone armed with no more than a stick. And that’s exactly the history of AFSPA.
In just one of scores of incidents, in 1995 in Kohima, capital of the northeastern state of Nagaland, army forces mistook a tire bursting in their own convoy for a bomb attack and began firing indiscriminately. After more than an hour of random gunfire, seven civilians, including two girls 3½ and 8 years old, were dead and 22 were seriously injured. (8)
And only last year in July, Thangjam Manorama, a young woman from Manipur, was raped and killed by members of a paramilitary force. Only after her killing provoked an unparalleled civil disobedience movement that extended to self-immolation, fasting and nude protests did the Manipur state government withdrew AFSPA from parts of the state capital. (9)
In June this year, Amnesty International began a campaign to repeal the AFSPA completely, something human rights activists have been demanding for years.
But with the government board reviewing AFSPA packed with army officials, a genuine repeal is not a sure thing.
The UP Goondas Act
Last week’s Meerut affair is birthed from the same roughneck tactics, only in UP the extra-constitutional laws are directed not at foreign terrorists but at local criminals. One such law is the Control of Goondas (thugs) Act.
And how are goondas controlled?
In Meerut again this past year, police dragged Rajeev Sharma out of bed without a warrant on suspicion of burglarizing a merchant. It was for routine questioning but Sharma’s brother claims the questioning left the 28-year-old electrician unable to walk and bleeding from the mouth. Later, he was reported to have committed suicide. The death provoked two days of rioting so severe that arrest warrants were issued for the merchant and the six officers involved but though the merchant is now in jail, the officers are no where to be found.
And what sort of questioning might Rajeev Sharma have faced? A senior police officer in Meerut points to a two-foot-long rubber belt with a wooden handle. “We call this thing samaj sudharak (social reformer). When we hit with this, there are no fractures, no blood, no major peeling of the skin. It is safe for us, as nothing shows up in the postmortem report.” (10)
The Sharma story is typical. UP terror laws only end up terrorizing the poor, lower castes, tribals, and political or personal enemies.
Or young people in a park doing what young people have always done.
And for all of that, what have any of these states to show?
UP remains a by-word in India for criminality of all kinds.
The Naga problem has not been solved despite 45 years of the AFSPA.
In Manipur where there were only four armed opposition groups when the AFSPA was introduced in 1980, there are over two-dozen today.
Says Chandramani Singh, the former deputy chief minister of Manipur, a man who ought to know, “The solution to the problem lies in holding unconditional talks with the insurgent outfits instead of trying to find a military solution and allowing the armed forces to let loose a reign of terror in the name of counter-insurgency operations.” (11)
American cowboys might listen up to this Indian.
Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Baltimore, and the author of the must-read book The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005) She can be reached at: email@example.com. Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva
1) “Policewomen slap
dating couples,” BBC, December 21, 2005.
Other Articles by Lila Rajiva