Police terror

Source: By Rajeev Bhargava: The Hindu

The murder of Jayaraj and Benicks at the hands of the local police in Sattankulam, Tamil Nadu has provoked national outrage. The bare bones of the incident are widely known. A small shopkeeper is picked up for a trivial offence, taken to the local police station. His son too is detained. Both are mercilessly thrashed. The hospital to which they are taken, admit that they have blood clots all over their body but gives false certificates of fitness. The magistrate remands them to judicial custody without examining their abused bodies, merely waving consent from far away. Within a couple of days, the two succumb to their grievous injuries.

State and the law

What does this reveal about the nature of our state and the link between law and violence? The modern state emerged by gathering power dispersed among rivalrous, local strongmen and depositing it in a single set of inter-related institutions, now endowed with a monopoly of force and violence. These institutions were meant to function independently of the ruler — they do not belong to him, are not part of his personal estate. Instead, they work for the entire public.

The Jayaraj-Benicks case makes us doubt if such a modern, impersonal state exists in India. It shows first that our political institutions, including the judicial machinery, are far from independent of the will of the rulers; rather, they work at their personal command. Second, local policemen think of themselves as sovereigns in their own little territory, executors of ‘laws’ they invent on the go. At the very least, they believe that they partake in sovereign power, protected by lawmakers sitting higher up. Indian society continues to consist of rival power groups, each with a ‘private’ police force at their mercy, coercing local populations to behave according to rules crafted at will.

It is as if the entire country is splintered into little fiefdoms, each believing to have a monopoly of violence. Third, police brutality is a routine, banal feature of everyday life of the poor. The wanton actions of the police are woven into the fabric of daily social interactions. The police uniform plays a symbolic role expressing that anyone who dons it has power, prestige and the backing of the entire official apparatus. This social superiority sanctions extra-legal behaviour that often has the stamp of rampaging criminality. After all, nothing done by the Sattankulam police was by the rule book; everything from the first to the last violent moment was extra-legal. Far from safeguarding the legal from the illegal, the police embraced criminality. Jayaraj and Benicks appeared to be living not in a post-independent constitutional state but under a local police state wrought in the colonial or pre-colonial era.

Law as performance

Our society is meant to be governed by the rule of law implemented by a state above it, impartially arbitrating social disputes. In reality, it is an arena where everyone fights with all their might over material resources, power, status, ideas, and crucially, the control of the legal machinery. To get the law on your side brings enormous advantage, for once under control, it functions at your pleasure, largely to benefit you. But since democracy requires that the law work for everyone, a performance must be staged to sustain this myth, a make-believe world created for ordinary people that ‘all is well’.

The performance of law courts is like theatre or a film that seduces spectators into a reality of its own making. On most occasions, the lower courts are seen to be doing something when in fact they get nothing legally substantive done. They operate but do not really function. The discourse of the rule of law too is often a handy rhetorical ploy. The action of remanding Jayaraj and Benicks to judicial custody exemplified an infirm, callous, judicial system designed to keep up the façade of the rule of law. The magistrate did not even care to properly perform the law.

It is of course true that some committed police officers, such as the woman head constable, Revathy, work overtime to maintain the integrity of the force. And whenever people begin to seriously doubt its efficacy, it is, thanks to them, that the law is temporarily allowed to work as it should, impartially, for everyone. But, alas, this happens only until its image as a credible agency is restored. After that, it is once again business as usual.

The proper functioning of the legal system then is the exception, the absence of rule of law and the lawlessness of local powers, the norm. Winners at the ballot box appear to earn the right to rule by arbitrary power. They control and regulate whole populations at their pleasure, exactly as the maharajas of yesteryears. Our democracy allows us to elect those to whom we haplessly submit for five years. Not true? Pure hyperbole; the jury on this question is still out.

Excessive force

Undeniably, any system of law depends on the deployment of force. But its use must be consistent with the dignity of a person. Rule of law requires the presence of constraints on excesses. Excessive violence, for instance torture in pursuit of information and confession, is illegal in most decent societies. Yet Jayaraj and Benicks were victims of a surfeit of unwarranted violence. How does one explain this excessive use of force? Sadly, when a body is broken to bits, and the face disfigured, there is not much left to respect. To mutilate a body is to demean and humiliate it. Excessive violence is meant to convey that the life of the victim is truly worthless.

Such humiliation is complete when the dismembered body is made public. The European thinker, Michel Foucault, has argued that torturous spectacles, common in Medieval ages, have given way to punishment in disciplinary institutions isolated from society. Yet, as we know, public lynchings have not disappeared in our own times. Indeed, residual elements of the public display of violence are evident even in the Jayaraj-Benicks case. Flogged in an enclosed public space, their bloodied bodies must have been brought to the hospital in full public glare, then taken to be shown to the public magistrate, and when declared dead, publicly handed over to the family.

So, what began as an alleged minor offence turned into a grave crime as the body was slowly ripped apart. With each strike on the bodies by the iron rod, the enormity of their crime rose, the impunity of police action deepened and the warning to others grew louder. Most of all, these mutilated bodies demonstrated the heavy price of dissent.